As a disabled dancer, the 31-year-old Arakelyan can't do everything other dancers do, but she doesn't let them set the rules. "I'm going to decide what's appropriate for me or not," she says. In 2007, she became the first disabled graduate of the University of Washington's dance program. The year before, she and husband Erik Ferguson, also a wheelchair user, founded Portland dance company Wobbly. She and Ferguson perform this weekend, both in chairs and out, as a part of Arakelyan's New Expressive Works residency at Studio 2.
"Associating disability and dance creates a seeming contradiction," says the 38-year-old Ferguson, who was born disabled. "By not arguing with the contradiction, we force people to think differently about what disability is.â
Arakelyan was also born disabled. Her family, Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, moved to Seattle when she was 10. At 19, she first saw a performance by Seattle's Light Motion Dance Company, a duo with one able-bodied dancer and one, Charlene Curtiss, in a wheelchair. The classic fluidity of Curtiss' movement and the athleticism of her wheelies and spins awoke something in Arakelyan.
"It opened up my world," she says. "I discovered my body. I realized before that I kind of ignored it, like it was not my own. All these medical things were done to me—surgeries and therapy, and I hated all of it. I remember the very first dance class, I was like, 'Wow.' I have these cells and muscles, and they all just started moving. Life made sense."
In her ballet classes, while other students extended their legs in tendus, Arakelyan stuck out her arm. Instead of pirouettes, she'd roll her head. Constant adaptation made her a good improviser. Same goes for Ferguson, a farm boy from rural Michigan who dove into contact improvisation in college. The two met in 2005, when Ferguson asked Arakelyan to perform with him. Arakelyan, painted white, threw scoured lemons around the stage as a woman on crutches squashed them. Ferguson, wearing a skirt weighed down with 30 pounds of lemons, was held up on his feet by two able-bodied women.
This weekend, in a piece called You Too Are Made of Stars, the two cover themselves in white paint and medical tubing. It's a common theme for them, as Arakelyan's ventilator tube is part of her daily life. They focus on presence and intention with their gazes, leaving their movement slow and simple. At one point, the two hold a long medical tube between their mouths. The moment begins romantically, almost sexually, but then turns dark: Arakelyan wraps the tube around Ferguson's neck and leaves him, dragging him a little on the floor.
They had several arguments in creating the piece—it's only the second duet the two have created and performed. Yulia likes to go over details with a level of repetition that bothers Ferguson, who thinks in big ideas. In the end, though, they say that tension adds a palpable energy to the piece. "It's very much about all that happens between the gaze of two people," Ferguson says, "all the ways you express anger, passion, love and truth in very few movements."
SEE IT: Wobbly Dance is at Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont St., studiotwozoomtopia.com. 7:30 pm Friday-Sunday, March 28-30. $12.