I figure I must have started feeling guilty about 10 or 15 minutes in. Feeling tears sting my eyes at the sounds, the bends, the thoughts, I could only imagine that the effect of the spectacle on me, would be magnified and amplified for my mother, sitting next to me.
We sat second row centre at the world premiere of Twisted, Marta Carter’s contemporary dance performance (with her group mmHOP) exploring her experience of, as she called it, juvenile idiopathic scoliosis. (The show wrapped up its run here in Vancouver this past Saturday, April 4th.) From the moment I read an article about the show in The Georgia Straight, I knew it was both potentially painful and a performance that I really could not, and should not, miss.
Because I too am marked by juvenile idiopathic scoliosis, a deformity of the spine that disproportionately affects girls, and, for the 4% of us who require surgical intervention, often makes itself most apparent in those fragile adolescent years. Mine didn’t go down quite the same way as Marta Carter, but our stories share many of the same elements. In fact, in reading the description, I quickly identified her story as a hybrid of sorts — a part-mishmash of my story with scoliosis, with that of my mother’s.
An opportunity to see something so specific, central and core to my being, being portrayed on stage, is rare. There was anguish, and truth. Sounds and phrases plucked from some common collective imaginary of what scoliosis patients go through. Marta was accompanied by four dancers, each oddly mocking the deformities, each looking lithe and strong. Marta herself started the show with a 30 foot high projection of that most visible and tangible mark: the surgery scars, the shoulder hump, and the off-balance hips, as she counted down to the precise vertebrae that where her body twists.
Some of the most painful moments, of course, are the ones that seem benign. In probably the most tangible of the performance, Marta took her hooks and rod – ones that had been removed from her back during her second surgery – and passed them out to the front row to handle, making light of their sounds and the willingness of the audience to engage. My mother was very much not impressed. For me, there were small realizations shedding light on my own ignorance: how I didn’t now, for example, that the plaster casts taken of scoliosis patients are filled with plaster to become positive busts before being made into fibreglass braces; or realizing that my last memory of having interacted with a brace was some 6 months or a year after surgery, when my mom fished it out of the storage room under the stairs and said something about taking it out to donate or recycle. I would have been twelve at the time. When Marta cried out, in the middle of the performance, that we put the pain “as far back as [we] can,” that we put it behind us, there was a lot there for me to resonate with.
I’ve already reached the age where there has been more time since the surgery then there was before the brace and the scar, and as tragic as it often seems, there’s been plenty of life since 12, and I cannot value that which came before 7 as somehow better than that. I just have to own all those times as mine.
And then there is joy, because if it makes us real then it can make us laugh. Marta drags a plaster bust through the streets of Vancouver, a wide, white chalk marked in her wake on the sidewalk. She brings it to English Bay, chills out with it, before giving it to the tide. The experiences of humiliation are only ridiculous because there’s nothing left for her to do but laugh at it — because she’s come past the point where letting the pain stand between her dreams, her wholeness with her body, and her heart, is not an option anymore.
That’s the challenge: to laugh at it, grow from it, embrace it, make it ours, or bust. I did this for myself – first when a grade 7 teacher challenged me to do a science project on it not a year afterewards, then, years later, in a paper for a Communication class – a 10-page assignment on Foucault’s discipline and punishment, knowledge and control (I’d link to it, but it will require some forensic file digging; I’m almost certain I have a paper copy so not all will be lost from one too many OS moves). Not, perhaps, the sort of thing my instructor had in mind when she gave out the assignment. Presented with the opportunity to write what I know, I’m happy to say that I chose to run into it, did it purely by instinct. I poked as hard at the memories as much as my enlightened, reasoning mind could do, then cried and woke up different.