¿Y Tú Qué? at San Diego International Fringe Festival
  • ¿Y Tú Qué? at San Diego International Fringe Festival
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¿Y Tú Qué? When the prima ballerina couldn’t use her legs, she created a “dance on wheels.”

Rossana Penaloza performed in Peru (her home country), Havana, Cuba, and Mexico City, always to robust applause. For a different approach to her art, she wondered what it would be like to live confined to a wheelchair, day and night, and not dance at all. She did it for six months in Mexico City, trying to navigate streets and sidewalks in a society that shunts the disabled away.

Y Tu Que? is Penaloza’s beautifully expressive response.

She sits at a café, sipping from a can of soda, occasionally waving to a passerby. Looks like a “normal” day in the woman’s life, probably waiting for a friend or lover. But what arrives isn’t a person; it’s a wheelchair rolled across the bare stage.

Suddenly she’s alone, then slowly achingly, Penaloza lifts herself into the wheelchair, one heavy leg at a time, and begins a journey that moves from intense frustration to acceptance and to the question the title asks: “What about you?” — Will you be my friend? Could you cope with my situation? Or will you just look away?

A smart choice: early in the piece, she invites people from the audience to “come play with me”: ride the wheelchair. They fumble, stick fingers in the spokes, and don’t know how to use their arms or back.

“Amateurs!” Penaloza says with her eyes, at once kind and warlike.

As she grows accustomed to her “handicap,” the wheelchair becomes an instrument, like a violin, she plays with freedom and grace. She flows across the stage upside down, or almost touching the floor in a balletic reach while Osvaldo Farres’ “Quizas, Quizas” — “Perhaps, Perhaps” — booms in the background.

Her hands gather spirit from the semi-circled audience, seated on the Spreckels Theatre stage, and release it into the wheelchair, as if instilling it with life.

The transformation’s astonishing. Who knew a symbol of limitation could become so artistic? And who knew a ballerina could dance without using her legs? Or that she is a sexual being?

Penaloza says few words. But one by one, she shreds labels about the “handicapped.” Every now and then she pauses. The moments of silence give the audience time to take in what they are seeing. If any need guidance, Penaloza’s eloquent eyes point the way.

When she performed ¿Y Tú Qué? in Mexico, it became a crusade to change the attitude of a culture where illness makes people “Other,” objects of pity, and even ostracized. Penaloza raised eyebrows and changed minds.

She continues her crusade here, on the stage of the Spreckels Theatre, through Sunday, August 2.

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