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The Corporeal World

Dancer/choreographer Meghan Flanigan brings all bodies into her work

Jeff Fusco

By Ruth Reader | Posted 8/26/2009

Dancer and choreographer Meghan Flanigan sits cross-legged in a blue-and-white-print armchair that accentuates her blueberry colored eyes. She's slim and at ease in her own body. "When I left Baltimore for college, I don't think I really knew there was anything beyond ballet," she says in her serene tone. The Baltimore native gestures with her hands often, in sweeping demonstrative strokes. Her choreography is more pedestrian in nature, a far cry from the traditional ballet she studied at the Peabody Institute as a girl. But Flanigan has taken the last 10 years to cultivate her style of movement, and this journey has taken Flanigan to study dance in the United Kingdom and to teach the disabled in Bogotá, Colombia. A yearning to return home brought her back to Baltimore in August 2008.

"I just felt like I wanted to be back in my culture and I wanted to see what could happen in Baltimore," she says. "And as much as Colombia was really amazing and exciting, it's also really hard."

That experience has shaped and honed Flanigan's dance ideas and work. She went to Bogotá in August 2004 at the behest of two friends she studied with at the Laban School in London. Initially, she planned to stay for six months, teaching modern dance at the University Academia Superior de Artes de Bogotá and Universidad Javeriana. But she became enrapt in Bogotá's culture, the product of a city ripe with creativity and hardship. She ended up leaving after her six months, only to return in June 2005.

Bogotá's neighborhoods captured her attention because of the unusual way in which the homes are built. "Parts of the house are traditionally solidly built," she says. "And then they'd run out of money and so the roof is sort of mismatch pieces of junk. They're really trying to make a solidly built house and they often end up creating that, which is what's amazing. The materials are totally improvised."

Ultimately, Flanigan remained in Bogota for three years working not only with its established and blossoming dance community, but also with larger social issues. Her projects, all self-started, often came from a need she saw in some community. "For example, I noticed that the dance world there had a tendency to think that dancers had to have very, very perfect bodies," she says. "And they only wanted very perfect-looking people on stage--a lot of people. And that frustrated me."

In the streets of Bogotá, though, Flanigan saw the invisibility and raw hunger of impoverished beggars. In many ways Flanigan's performances read like an anthropologist notebook: She carefully analyzes everyday movements and presents them to her audience with clarity and new meaning. As only an outsider can, Flanigan adeptly picked up on Bogotá's six-tier stratified social system that regards its poorest citizens as "untouchables"--as if poverty were somehow contagious.

And where the people of Bogotá saw ugliness, Flanigan saw beauty. "I started looking and realizing that they have horrible conditions and they have this sort of an amazing and fascinating performative way of behaving with the world," she says. "They sort of appropriate this public space and are very often either introverted or extroverted or very extreme in their physicality. And I became really fascinated by that, and I saw something really beautiful in their drive to survive and be individuals. However crazy they end up being, there's a real courage and survival that I thought was really amazing."

Many of the people that Flanigan worked with were badly disabled from land mines that still dot rural Colombia as a result of a long civil conflict. According to UNICEF, Colombia has the highest rate of land-mine victims in the world. Flanigan not only wanted to bring awareness to the land-mine issue, but hoped to influence people's perceptions about its victims. "I wanted to change how people saw disabled people," she says. "I wanted to have them recognize them as people with information, with their own knowledge base, as every person has something to contribute that they do as well."

But it wasn't easy getting projects off the ground. Flanigan was browbeaten by bureaucratic paperwork required for a project like this by Bogotá's government as well as the instability of public funding. Ultimately, she and her cohorts worked around the problem by seeking funding from private companies.

What came about was Con Cuerpos, an influential dance project turned company that remains an impressive presence in Bogotá today. Through working with a number of foundations devoted to rehabilitating Bogotá's disabled and funding from British Petroleum, Flanigan organized professional dancers and disabled people to create integrated dance performances based on her belief that both dancers and the disabled are acutely aware of their bodies, how they occupy space, and how people perceive their bodies. "If you're missing a leg, you have to reinvent how to move," Flanigan says. "And they're incredibly graceful and proficient within their own body type. And dancers, I think, often are investigating their own reality in some way or another."

Flanigan says at first, people didn't know whether to view Con Cuerpos--Spanish for "With Bodies"--through the lens of a dance company or an organization working for social change. In fact, Con Cuerpos was both an opportunity for rehabilitation and artistic performance group. Flanigan cites one Con Cuerpos dancer named Jorge as an excellent example of the company's dual purpose. She says at the onset, he was very skeptical of the organization and its mission. He grew up in extreme poverty in the Colombian city Cali, which is known as a center for salsa dancing, and grew up thinking that dancing wasn't for him.

"After the first day, all of a sudden he just re-entered his body and was an artist," Flanigan says. "He was incredibly poetic physically--he was one of those people who can just fly through the air, he is just so expressive." Jorge went on to choreograph a number of Con Cuerpos' performances.

And he's not the only dancer to find success through Con Cuerpos. Many dancers have gone on to other projects and organizations, Flanigan says, such as Candoco, a London-based dance company that works with the disabled, and have pursued performance degrees at New York University. She only hopes that dancers who have broadened their experience will bring what they've learned back to Colombia.

Flanigan has moved on, too. While she keeps in touch and continues to work with Con Cuerpos from Baltimore, her focus has shifted. Last summer, a month after Flanigan returned to Baltimore, her father unexpectedly passed away. This left her in a city in which she was comfortable, but not entirely familiar with, attempting to take her next steps as a person and choreographer. Over the last 10 months, Flanigan has been reintroducing herself to Baltimore, both as a city and an artistic hub. Back in April, she explored the Transmodern Festival and caught Everyman Theatre's The Cherry Orchard. "I'm wondering if there is a polarized arts community [in Baltimore], one that's really alternative and kind of bizarre and healthily bizarre and wanting to be bizarre," she muses about the city. "And one that's the BMA, Center Stage, that is putting on very high quality work that is within the boundaries of an establish cannon."

But Flanigan's place in Baltimore is yet to be determined. At the moment, she is focusing on smaller projects, including a residency in Philadelphia this month. At the beginning of 2009, she sought out her former ballet teacher, Carol Bartlett, at the Peabody Institute for guidance. The result was a multi-media performance entitled Letters to Myself, a reflective piece of choreography directed by Flanigan and performed by a group of alumni dancers ranging in age from 19 to 33. "We created this project sort of reflecting on where we've all been, on our experience in life, and what brought us all to this point where we are dancers," Flanigan says.

Flanigan has also been teaching seniors technique and composition at UMBC's dance department. And her most recent endeavor led her to the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, where she hooked up with an unlikely pair: Quest Theater and community health organization Baltimore Medical Systems (BMS). In efforts to bring together a diverse community of Highlandtowners, the partnership organized about 10 BMS clients and worked them into a theatrical dance performance for the neighborhood festival Salsapolkalooza.

Like Con Cuerpos, the project leans toward social work, but Flanigan isn't yet sure how working in Baltimore might influence her art. "I don't know how Baltimore is going to affect me yet," she says. "I'm sure that it will and I'm sure the grittiness of it will come through. . . . I have tons and tons of affection for the city. It feels like a home town to me. What that's going to mean artistically, I don't know."

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