'U' professor Petra Kuppers dances with her disability

Courtesy of Timothy Wells Householder
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BY CHRISTINA ANGER
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 15, 2010

It isn’t every day that a yoga mat is required for an English class. But then again, Petra Kuppers isn’t the everyday English professor.

Petra Kuppers is an Associate Professor of English, Women's Studies and Theatre & Drama at the University, who answers to many labels — professor, dancer and author, to name a few. However, she is also a wheelchair user and fully embraces the label of disabled, a label she has had all her life.

The “New Traditions” requirement for College of Literature, Science and the Arts English majors offers a wide range of topics off the heavily beaten path of the standard literature class. Usually, curricula focusing on a specific ethnicity satisfy the requirement, but some classes embrace the “new” and effectively break the stereotype.

In Kuppers’s lifestyle, her history, her classes and her work, she is the embodiment of the phrase “New Traditions.”

“Writing from my cultural perspective has always been really important,” she explained. “The (disability) cultural movement is changing our world.”

Kuppers’s classes not only embrace the ideals of the University and fulfill a requirement, but they aim to break down the walls of discrimination and open students' eyes to their own bodies.

Kuppers is an artist whose medium is available at any moment and in any form. She is a dancer, an author, a producer and a teacher who is amazed and moved by the beauty of the human body. In our culture, thin bodies are sought after, but able bodies are expected. The body’s limitations are constantly exposed and revealed, from diet crazes to medical imagery practices showing the terribly intricate spreading of cancer cells.

Kuppers was born disabled in Germany and has been a wheelchair user all her life. She has traveled the world and bridged gaps between disability culture and the body as an instrument for expression.

Before becoming a tenured professor, Kuppers began her career performing poetry and engaging in the alternative and community dance scene. Her performances are multimedial, fusing video, poetry and dance and encouraging audience participation. Aside from three academic books, Kuppers has co-authored a poetry book, “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story,” with her lover and fellow disabled performer, Neil Marcus. During a performance, they dance, touch and smile at each other while reading from the book.

These few lines from Kuppers’s and Marcus’s poetry represent much of the professor’s ideals. “Petra and I are rolling round on the floor / 
In front of a curtain. behind a / curtain. under a sheet of red silk / 
how does our touch in this dance inform you? / 
what information is communicated in this way?"

Written from the perspective of her lover recounting one of their shows, it details a shared, intimate moment: the melting and reshaping of two important worlds — bodies and passion.

“The majority of responses are warm and positive,” Kuppers said about her and Marcus’s intimate book of poems.

“Many people speak to us about how empowering it was to them, to see someone speak about love and sexuality in the context of disability, and from a position of being involved in it, rather than analyzing it.”

The book’s title verges on taboo. “Cripple” holds negative connotations; it’s a harsh word to the ears of many disabled people.

“We’ve had a few people that respond very negatively to the title 'Cripple Poetics' because of the word 'cripple' in it. (But) we use the term because of its poetic richness; there’s so much more heft, so much more richness,” Kuppers said. “There’s so much more weight, so much more metaphorical density in the word ‘cripple’ than there is in ‘disability.’

“We are very interested in the meanings of the word, how it sounds in the ear, how it ripples off my tongue,” she added. “I think disability culture depends on opening itself up to all connotations of disability.”

Disability Culture

“I am disabled, living with pain and fatigue, and I’ve been a dancer my whole life, too,” Kuppers said.

With an optimistic attitude, Kuppers often sought out the positive side of potentially negative situations. She mentioned how she prefers to “always focus on the more productive aspects.”

Because she is able to “see and track its progress,” she said, “(the disability movement) is a very exciting cultural movement to be part of: it changes the world we live in, and we can experience this diversification, this new richness.”

However, disability culture is more than the rectification of discrimination. While the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 affords similar protections as those in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “there (are) still plenty of places out there in the world that I can’t really access,” Kuppers said.

“Internationally, many dance departments and theater departments are still inaccessible to wheelchair users — I still can’t get into the spaces. So I could not do what I’m doing (elsewhere in the world), and I am very glad to be living in the U.S.”

In keeping with her positive personality, she acknowledged that while “discrimination and lack of access have been intimate features of my life, at the same time they’ve been the machines that always pushed me to create my art and shape a creative politics,” she said.

Disability culture is about accepting and transforming the challenges that come with living in a discriminatory world and celebrating the richness of human responses to hardship.

Kuppers received a Ph.D. at an arts college in the United Kingdom, a professionally challenging yet liberating experience “as a theorist, writer and performance artist in an arts-focused environment.”

As an undergraduate performance studies major, Kuppers explained, “I was able to take classes, but they usually had to be moved to other, more accessible buildings, and that was very awkward because it was always focused on me.”

Kuppers is disabled, moving about with her powerchair, but her calm demeanor doesn’t evoke sympathy. Instead, just watching one of her performances, talking with her about life or being in one of her classes challenges students to celebrate their bodies and their places within the community.

Through the University

In “English 346: Embodiment/Environment,” a performance studies class also taught by Kuppers, LSA junior Adam Gorring wrote in an e-mail interview that aside from its “New Traditions” fulfillment, the fact that yoga mats were required for an English class definitely stood out.

“I was so intrigued I had to sign up,” he wrote.

“I like my students to be present to themselves,” Kuppers explained, stressing the beauty within one’s body in the present moment, disregarding limitations.

Kuppers hopes her students will “learn something that will be of use to them for a really long time.”

In describing English 346, Kuppers said the class uses “experiential anatomy exercises, relaxation exercises and creative movement exercises as a way of validating our bodies as source of knowledge, validating who we are as producers.”

But where's the English part in all of this?

“Students are asked to make connections between the experiences they'd had in the classroom and their analysis of poetry and prose passages,” Kuppers said.

She said by doing this, she reveals to her students that there are, in fact, other ways to delve into literature.

“Instead of analyzing a text from existing interpretations, I’m trying to get students to understand that there’s another way to develop a critical understanding, and that is by really listening to your own physical, emotional, intellectual responses, and using those as the center from which to approach the outside world," she said. "What does it feel like to give space to a poem in your own body, in your mouth, with your breath?”

“New Traditions” may seem like a foggy title to students outside and even inside the English major, but that may be the best thing about it. Kuppers described her Disability Culture class as if reading from the syllabus — there’s no fluff.

According to her, it's a class “in which we talk about this emerging cultural form, the disability culture movement. We look at a wide range of causes and look at the responses that they have created, given the kind of world we live in. And we look at how the world has changed, the discrimination that people have faced, and the creative outpouring that is happening.”

Outside of the Classroom

Kuppers is the author of a number of books that bridge the gap between bodies, performance and disability, but she doesn't tend to toot her own horn.

“There’s something strange about putting your own work in the classroom,” she explained.

While all of her work is very personal and a narrative of her life as a witnessing critic, her most intimate book is undoubtedly “Cripple Poetics,” a book not assigned in her classroom.

“It’s the poems (Marcus and I) were writing to each other as we were getting to know one another,” she said, “(But) at the same time, it also is a meditation on embodiment and disability … A lot of this book is not really about a conventional, highly private, heteronormative love-relationship. This is a book of connections between many different people, a more expansive love.”

On top of her books, she has also helped produce several short films. The artistic film “water burns sun,” starring both Kuppers and Marcus, won first prize in both the International Disability Film Festival and the U.S.-based Focus Film Festival in 2009. “The Anarcha Project: Sims and the Medical Plantation” touches on discrimination from two angles as it tells the heartbreaking story of three African-American slave women and the ruthless crimes against them during “gynecological experiments.”

It's in projects like these that Kuppers’s intentions for cultural development are reflected. She is not bound by the limits of discrimination within disability; she merely uses that as a jumping-off point.

“My work is about the depth of (our) culture,” she said, “a wider and deeper experience that’s not just about celebration and pride, but celebration and pride with an acknowledgement of pain.”

When reflecting on her experiences, both academic and artistic, it’s clear both are exposed in the written word as well as in her performances. Kuppers’s and Marcus’s work reflects a lifestyle that's “dependent on interdependence … (they) are not two people alone (but) are constantly in connection with others,” Kuppers said.

Aside from personal work, Kuppers is also involved with research. “I’ve learned to balance between the two,” she said, regarding juggling traveling and teaching. “Next fall semester, I’ve received a fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra, where I’m going to investigate international disability culture in a post-colonial context.”

How We Live Our Lives

Talking with Kuppers is almost overwhelming. It doesn’t just spark a need for change or involvement within disability culture, it pushes, pulls and creates a desperate need for an awakening of a personal experience, in connection with others’ personal experiences.

“The focus of the class is to teach the students the differences in people and how those differences are revealed in community performances,” Gorring wrote, appreciative of Kuppers’s class atmosphere. “So whether people are different physically in one way or another, the idea is to respect both the people and what they are presenting.”

Understanding discrimination in all its facets is an important part of a liberal arts education. As students, we're often taught the important dates, the big movements, the strides in society. We learn to sympathize and empathize. But with educators like Petra Kuppers, that's just not enough.

Disability culture is this strong woman’s tool for learning and teaching others about self and about community.

“Disability culture, in a sense, stems from a need to overcome obstacles and find community,” she said. “That’s really quite how we all live our lives, right?”

And when learning to overcome obstacles means understanding ourselves as individuals in a collective environment, perhaps we, too, can embody the spirit and quiet force of Petra Kuppers.