Toby MacNutt: “It’s Both And”
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO
Toby MacNutt is a queer, nonbinary-trans, disabled multidisciplinary artist, author, and teacher based in Vermont. Toby’s training and experience includes a wide breadth of contemporary, improvisational, and adaptive styles, with a childhood foundation in ballet, jazz, and modern dance. They have studied with integrated companies such as AXIS, Stopgap, and Candoco, as well as with individual teachers, choreographers, and experienced performance mentors. Their performance history ranges from yoga studios in small Vermont towns to Danspace at St. Mark’s in New York City to festivals in the UK and Germany.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!
Image description: Toby is depicted from the side leaning back and supported by their crutches. They grasp the crutch handles around their abdomen and then lean back so that their head is upside down. Red energy swirls around them along with the quote, “Don’t interpret before observing.” They are wearing loose gray pants and a gray shirt.
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?
I started dance when I was five. I did ballet, modern, and jazz until high school. My disability started to make itself known in my early teenage years when I hit puberty. No one knew what was going on, so it was assumed dance was injurious, and I had to stop when I was 13 or 14. I went from dancing a couple hours a day to nothing at all, and it was heartbreaking.
It took almost a decade for my diagnosis to get straightened out. I was also in a different place mentally, physically, and geographically. I started to come to terms with the idea that “disabled” was a label that applied to me and that it wasn’t all that bad. I saw AXIS Dance Company perform and met disabled dancer/choreographer Alice Sheppard. Around that time, my good friend Becca gave me a pep talk, saying, “Once a dancer, always a dancer. Of course you can still dance.”
So I started dancing again, which was wonderful. It had been such heartbreak for so many years. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to go see dance, and suddenly I was dancing. I got snatched up by Heidi Latsky, who was touring The GIMP Project at the time. It came through my town, I went and did the workshops, and Heidi asked if I wanted to go to New York and work with the project. I said, “Yes, sure, that sounds great!” That catapulted me back in.
I worked with Heidi for a while, as well as with some local choreographers in Vermont. When I could, I traveled to take classes and workshops with other companies. That was really valuable, particularly working with AXIS in their summer lab. I also spent a little time studying with Candoco and Stopgap in the UK.
However, being a choreographer wasn’t something I had the confidence to do. While working with Tiffany Rhynard, who put together a project in Vermont called Subverting Normal, I realized I had choreographed everything I was performing as well as some parts that other dancers were performing. Apparently I had become a choreographer.
I got my first grant shortly after and started making work. I presented my first evening length work, One, Two, on a mixed-ability cast of six in 2014.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
For many years, swimming has been my ongoing exercise. At this time, I have a puppy who is a year and a half old. Exercising him – he’s a German Shepherd – is a substantial part of my fitness regimen. I also started aerial silks about two years ago, which is a phenomenal workout. I’m just getting to the point where I have enough skill to start building choreography with it.
I don’t take conventional modern dance classes very often. Those classes are often frustrating because I have to spend a lot of time just adapting the material, rather than developing the underlying technique skills. I try to take classes from instructors who can help me with that process so I can develop technique, not just build my skill adapting.
I also make work, though not with the frequency I’d prefer. I just premiered a new installation piece. It was a bit experimental for Vermont, but most of the audience seemed to have a profound response. I also performed a solo at the Fresh Meat Festival this year in San Francisco.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
They’ve changed over the years. Initially, I experienced a paternalistic response: “That’s so nice for you.” People didn’t grasp that my dancing could have a professional quality. I don’t get that as much now. It’s hard to say whether that’s evidence of a cultural shift and people are more aware of the fact that dance is available to disabled people, or if it’s an effect of who I am and who I interact with. I’ve undergone a gender transition, and people often read me more seriously now that I am perceived as male. But it may also be that I have more confidence and sound more professional.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
All the inspiration shit; the blanket statement “you’re so inspirational” frustrates the heck out of me. I don’t mind being inspiring for my art, but I do mind being inspiring simply for existing. That’s not the bar I’m looking to clear. The other thing that irritates me is when someone says, “I stopped seeing your disability.” If you’re not seeing my disability, you have missed a serious component of my work and how it is supposed to be seen.
At least once per show, someone will come up to me and say, “You don’t really need those crutches; look at you, you’re so strong and graceful,” as if I’m supposed to fake being non-disabled. People don’t seem to be able to reconcile that I can be fast, strong, and graceful, and still genuinely need mobility assistance.
Learn what the stereotypes are. You can’t avoid them if you aren’t familiar with them. Learn about the community and the ways we talk about ourselves. Learn how varied those responses can be; what might offend one person will be the preferred term for someone else.
Once you have that knowledge under your belt, engage with the dance as dance, rather than as a cultural metaphor. Look at the movement and the lighting or staging choices before interpreting the work. Don’t interpret before observing.
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?
There are several levels to that problem that need to be addressed. There’s the basic problem that instructional staff aren’t prepared to teach us. It’s so rare to find a teacher who can actually help me with my technique. It’s a teachable skillset, but it’s not something non-disabled dance teachers learn. How do you teach someone whose body or brain works radically different than yours? It is do-able, but it’s a skill that is underdeveloped.
Then there are several problematic structural elements. For instance, when there are classes for disabled dancers, they tend to be clustered in big cities. For dancers like me who live outside big cities, how do we get people to understand dance can be an option for them?
We do have more models now in terms of the opportunity to see a performance and think, “Maybe I could do that.” The internet has helped there. But we still have ground to cover. Workshops and labs are really wonderful, but they are often expensive and far away. How do we make those opportunities more accessible?
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
I’m going to take my classic non-binary fluidly disabled approach and say, “It’s both and.” I definitely would like to see less of a gulf between disabled dance-making and non-disabled/mainstream dance-making. Integration is important, both socially and artistically. The field can only benefit in terms of getting more opportunities and getting theaters to upgrade their accessibility. However, it’s not entirely up to us if we integrate more.
At the same time, the affinity spaces and disability-focused dance spaces are so valuable in that we aren’t coming from the same aesthetic position or understanding of movement, beauty, or the body that mainstream non-disabled dance is. I don’t want to lose that context for our work. I don’t want to lose the chance to make work on bodies like ours, instead of having once again to adjust for non-disabled bodies and brains. I want to see that richness and dive in. I want to make work by us and for us, and then perhaps people who aren’t us will be able to connect, but without us reshaping ourselves into the mainstream mold.
You can have normalization without integration. That’s on the side of theaters and getting them to recognize that disabled dance is its own valid discipline, even though we don’t share one aesthetic or technique. Audiences can be excited by our work without it becoming in line with non-disabled dance traditions.
What is your preferred term for the field?
I most frequently use “disabled dance” and “adaptive dance.” “Inclusive” doesn’t feel like it connotes equal professional footing. “Adaptive” sort of has those implications, so I use it, for example, when I take a master class that isn’t designed for me. If a group of mixed disabled and non-disabled dancers are learning the same work from a non-disabled choreographer, I would describe that as “adaptive” because it’s a description of the adaption involved in the process. When talking about my own work, choreographed by a disabled person on disabled dancers, then I use “disabled dance” or “disability dance.” And personally, I prefer “disabled dancer.”
I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a perfect term because we’re not monolithic. We come from different cultural and dance backgrounds, and have different bodily and social experiences with disability. But we do need a term to describe where we sit in relation to mainstream non-disabled dance and, for me, that term is “disability dance.”
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
That’s another “both and.” It’s a big field with many components, from artistic quality to quantity of training opportunities to venue availability to funding. Some of these components get better and some get worse or stay the same. We’re definitely seeing more in terms of dance-making, interest, and people involved. That’s exciting and promising. The more we are, the more diverse we can become, the less we have to be individual silos or monoliths. We can have variety within the field if there are enough of us. None of us have to be the one true representative of the community. We can have room for our different artistic expressions.
Any other thoughts?
With regards to learning the skills required to be a choreographer, you start to develop those skills naturally when doing adaptation, but being able to have a vision of a work, translate it from your body to your dancers’ bodies, and then refine it, in addition to presentation and promotion, is challenging. It’s the sort of thing non-disabled dancers often learn in college. Those programs are inaccessible, both because they are often simply not open to students with disabilities, and because they are far away and expensive. Getting to practice and refine choreography is even harder. In Vermont, I don’t have access to disabled dancers. In my first piece, One, Two, part of my time was spent just growing movement and performance skills with my dancers with less experience. I’m happy to develop those skills as a way of enriching my community, but it means I don’t have as much time to experiment choreographically.
Toby MacNutt, Photo by Kegan Marling
Image Description: Toby is to the left of the frame wearing a red top and black pants. Their weight is distributed between their crutches. One leg is entwined around one crutch while the other leg reaches to the side. They are looking upward diagonally. The stage and background are black.
To learn more about Toby’s work, visit www.tobymacnutt.com.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!