Since the balcony was closed, the main floor of UNC’s Memorial Hall was packed last Friday night for an event that is now being termed the inaugural TRIANGLE DANCE FESTIVAL FOR AIDS. Final reports: 530 people–easily one of the largest dance audiences outside of the American Dance Festival that I have ever witnessed in this area–raised $5,500 to be split between the N.C. Alliance for AIDS Services and UNC-related AIDS clinics located in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangalore, India.

Just as intriguing: the substantial fraction of the audience who continued to hang out after double overtime, as this supersized show hit its second–and third, and fourth–hour of the evening. “We just want to make sure you get your money’s worth,” quipped host Baba Chuck Davisat one point, several hours before the unbilled marathon adjourned at 12:15 a.m.

Too much show for just one night? Clearly. But aside from that beginner’s error–a first-time, undergraduate producer’s response to Memorial Hall having no second evening to put this event on–this festival still left audiences with an awful lot to like.

A number of seemingly savvier dance minds have repeatedly tried to put together evenings this diverse over the last decade. (Goodness knows, I’ve been there for most of them.) But here sorority step actually met Indian dance, and modern experiments (enjoying varying degrees of success) gracefully shared the stage with Latin, hip hop and spoken word.

And perhaps this is the secret, the reason this night succeeded where so many previous ones fell short. None of the companies, and none of the dance forms, held noticeable supremacy. The producer–and the audience–had no easily distinguished allegiance or agenda, save the cause itself.

Repeatedly, each dance group and each dance form had to claim the space as their own, in a series of switchback segues over two extended acts. One result for all participants was something fairly valuable: an indication of how successfully their work did or didn’t “cross over” when presented to an audience not previously exposed–or persuaded, or prejudiced–by their work.

If they stayed the night (and many, though not all, did), the various dance artists might have even had a chance to sense the virtues in the other forms–and assess, just perhaps, the limitations of their own.

That frequently can be useful, too.

When it takes an artist a full hour of determined effort–and another person’s physical assistance–to type out the letters of a sentence simpler than this one, six years is not a lot of time.

That is how long poet, playwright and performer CHRIS MUELLER-MEDLICOTT had to communicate his insights on the world–and the sharpest realities of living in a body challenged by cerebral palsy. Six years after his family first learned that a childhood diagnosis of profound mental retardation was profoundly wrong–that he could comprehend language even though he couldn’t communicate through any conventional means–Mueller-Medlicott died on Sunday, April 2 at the age of 21.

His unexpected death came less than five months after his debut on the stage of Fletcher Opera Theater in The Song that Greens the Earth, a show he co-wrote with other members of the Community Inclusive Theater Group (see “Radical listening, radical touch,” Nov. 16, 2005,

It is not my intent to compliment the physical disability with which this young artist struggled his entire life. But it must be noted, particularly in an art form where the value of dialogue is so frequently neglected, that Chris’s extreme economy of expression, mandated by the sheer labor of each communication, effectively focused our attention on how precious each word was, and how tenuous all communication is. He hadn’t the time or strength for a lot of connectives, indefinite articles or figures of speech. His words had to speak immediately, to the core of his experience. The result: vivid, unexpected, crystallized turns of phrase that captured individual insights with the razor sharpness of haiku.

That’s why I described him last November as an outspoken–though non-speaking–young man with more than a touch of the poet. Because of his achievements, the world now has a bit more understanding in it.

But we forget, at our own peril and the peril of others, that he only achieved these things after a decade or more of “warehousing” by organizations who had mistakenly concluded that he couldn’t even be taught the concept of cause and effect.

That is not only a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. It is a profoundly cautionary tale for the entire human community, and particularly for the medical and educational systems that assist people with physical disabilities.

Chris and his mother made the point in their essay for Mouth, a magazine about helping disabled people find their voice: When doctors mistake a physical disability for a mental disability, only the direst consequences can result (see

In a line from The Song that Greens the Earth, Chris put us all on notice. He wrote, “You need a new kind of listening to learn from me.” That radical form of listening is needed more than ever–and not only in our classrooms and hospitals, but in our theaters and public places–now that his voice has been silenced, far too soon.

How do we know which voices we’re still missing? Why is this culture so ironically hard of hearing when it comes to those who embody difference? What social or possibly spiritual surgery is needed to effect a treatment for that disability–if not a cure?

As an artist, an intellect, and an independent human spirit, Mr. Mueller-Medlicott was not well served by this society, for the great majority of his life. Others like him still are not.

Can we find them? Are we even looking?

Donations in Chris’s memory may be made to the Community Inclusive Theater Group through NC TASH, a statewide grassroots organization working for equality, opportunity and inclusion for persons with disabilities. They can be reached care of Lynette Demperio, GRS, 905-A New Hope Road, Gastonia, N.C., 28054.

E-mail Byron at

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