Interlochen dancers form ‘empathy,’ explore experience of kids with autism

Mar 6, 2015

Credit David Cassleman

Children with autism often have trouble speaking – and some never learn to talk. So that means other ways of communication are key for many with an autism spectrum disorder.

“Body language, gestures, pictures” – they are all options according to Christian Denice. He’s a dance choreographer from California debuting a completely original piece at the Interlochen Center for the Arts this weekend.

It’s a piece inspired by the work his mother does with autistic children in California, and he's dedicating the performances to one young woman in particular.


A different style of movement

About a week out from the show, Christian Denice counts out steps with his dancers.

They roll on the floor before exiting the stage.

Some dance duets – one partner leading the other and manipulating her body – all done without making eye contact.

It’s a style of movement that Christian Denice says imitates how teachers and students work at his mother’s school. She is a special education teacher who works with autistic children. He did research at the school recently.

“I watched the kids,” Denice says. “I watched how they move around and I used a lot of their movement to simulate the movement that I’m using in the piece.”

Much of Denice’s mother’s work is helping students with autism learn to communicate through non-verbal means.  

He says the connection to dance was obvious to him.

“We’re a non-verbal art form,” Denice says. “We don’t use our words. We use our bodies and the music and other means to communicate, to connect to people.”

Denice says his mother has had one student who stands out in particular – Lauren.

Denice is dedicating the piece to Lauren, who is 22 now. He’s seen up close the special connection that his mother has with her.  

“She’s kind of become part of our family,” Denice says. “I’ve kind of grown up with her.”

Translating feeling into movement

Credit David Cassleman

The performance is arranged following some of the emotional ups and downs that children with autism feel while learning to communicate, Denice says.

In a middle part of the performance, Denice says, the main emotion is agitation.

“I try to get the dancers to get agitated and feel what that must feel like to want to say something and just not be able to,” Denice says.

The piece is 16 minutes long, soft and slow at times – and loud and quick at others.

“[It’s] personally challenging for me in terms of stamina,” Alivia Schaffer says. She’s a dancer with DanceWorks Chicago, a professional troupe that’s dancing in the show with students from the Interlochen Arts Academy.

“It feels like I’ve been pushed past my pre-existing breaking point in terms of stamina,” Schaffer says.

Dance as ‘communication’

There are other challenges beyond the physical, like trying to translate feeling into movement.

“It’s a discovery for all of us to sort of feel what it feels like in those movements,” Schaffer says. “So in a way we’re kind of forming empathy about what it would be like to be someone who is autistic.”

The subject of the dance goes beyond autism. It’s really about communication, according to Schaffer.

Credit David Cassleman

She says she hopes the audience takes away one thing in particular:

“There is more than one way to communicate,” Schaffer says. “For people with autism, they have to get creative and think of other ways to communicate that works in their circumstance.”

“Dance is another form of communication.”

The performance is Friday and Saturday at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, far away from Christian Denice’s mom’s school in California. But Denice hopes that one day his friend Lauren – his mother’s student – might be able to experience the piece.

“I would love to be able to sit down with her when I go home and watch it with her,” Denice says. “And I think just watching the movement and the music will move her.”

For now, Denice must focus his dancers on presenting some of Lauren’s experience on stage.