It was Brooke Leifso's experience of growing up and living with mild cerebral palsy that gave rise to her latest performance art.
She is the current artist-inresidence at The Haven on Gabriola Island. This year the organization, which exists to assist people with personal development, cast its net in search of artists under the age of 30 in celebration of its 30th anniversary.
At 27, Leifso said it was five years ago that she began to fully explore and understand the nuances of her disability and her relationship to it.
It is this deeper understanding that has in turn informed her residency work at The Haven in developing workshops and performances. As a founding member of the Mindhive collective, Leifso has been at the helm of a variety of theatre projects that were met with critical acclaim at the Edmonton Fringe Festival.
The topics explored in the collective ran from testing the boundaries within relationships in the performance s/kin and the intimacy of birth and death in site-specific productions A Wake and Held - both shown in a memorial chapel.
Though Leifso said there has always been a non-fictional perspective in her art, it is in her latest work that she has fully explored what it means to live in her own body.
"Something I've learned is that aspects of my identity - certainly not all of it - relate to the fact that I do have a body that's disabled. In ways I have tried to hide from that because I have had a lot of shame, and one of the ways was to become very much in my head and very intellectual," said Leifso, who describes her childhood as "bookish." She emphasizes that as someone whose cerebral palsy is mild, she doesn't see herself as a spokesperson for the disability.
For much of her youth, her body was simply seen as "a vehicle to move my brain around," said Leifso. "Not a very good vehicle. A broken vehicle."
It was learning more about cerebral palsy from a pediatrician who also had the illness that Leifso began to connect with how her body informs who she is.
Born premature to young parents in Hanover, Ont., Leifso spent the first three months of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital.
"I'm still learning about what exactly is 'wrong with my body.' As a kid I just knew my body didn't do certain things, even things like, I can be super emotional. I learned, not even a month ago. .. that it's actually my body," she said.
"Nowadays they know that in NICU units, they keep it really dark, because they're trying to mimic the womb. But they've only done that for the last five years.
"Before that, a preemie baby is put into a place where the lights are on all the time, it's constantly beeping, there's constantly emergency happening around them. So your body never really learns how to shut off from emergency mode."
It is all of this emotional and physical mapping that is given a place in Leifso's newest performance, Unraveling the Dis/abled.
It is perhaps the most personal piece she has done, though August's performance, Held, utilized inspiration derived from her "unconventional" grandmother.
"I'm in a place where I question the use of fiction, and putting fiction on stage to observe," said Leifso.
"I don't think people are even aware of how much fiction they consume, how much pretend life and pretend world they eat up every day."
In addition to the performance, which rounds out her three-week residency, Leifso has been conducting drop-in performance workshops that explore the body through a variety of theatre techniques.
Theatre can be subtle - so simple it is deceptive, she argues, and she finds ways to emphasize that in the workshop exercises.
Sometimes it can be as simple as having the group walk into a room, choose a place to sit, and leave again, observing what takes place along the way and "creating theatre with really simple actions," she said.
Improvisation also plays a strong part in her professional pieces, and her local performance will employ it to a degree, with what she calls a "movement score" overlaid with spoken word poetry.
"It's me allowing my body to be a performance, which in itself is a political act, but its also an artistic act," she said.
Unraveling the Dis/abled takes place Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Surf Lodge in the Heritage Hall on Gabriola Island. Admission is by donation.
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