When Ellice Patterson didn’t find dance company doors that opened to her, she created new ones that did. They were also wide enough to welcome a broad range of others—”like me and not like me,” she says—committed to sharing stories through movement.
Her innovative Abilities Dance Boston focuses on inclusion, equity and possibilities, rather than barriers and limitations. Its adult dancers, with and without disabilities, use the art form for both storytelling and stereotype-busting.
A Mississippi native, the founder/executive and artistic director of the Abilities Dance Boston now leads the nonprofit company’s most ambitious project to date—a unique rendition of “Firebird.” The production carries the stamp of Patterson’s original choreography and narrative to music newly composed by the company’s Director of Music Andrew Choe. Patterson has the role of Firebird, a magical creature rooted in folklore.
Patterson, who grew up in Booneville and still has family there, credits her Mississippi background with her sense of southern hospitality and community, which she says are essential to her work.
“I want to create a sense of belonging in our spaces, a sense of acceptance and welcoming. I’m really pulling on that tradition of creating family within the company,” she says. Her mother, Janis Patterson, and grandmother, Luzene Triplett, still live in Mississippi, and she plans to visit during a break this season.
“Mississippi is definitely where I grew up. It is tattooed on me,” she says. “It is a part of who I am that I’ve definitely taken with me in all of the different places I’ve been across the world. It’s great when I come home and feel connected in that way, as well as taking those connections wherever I go.”
Patterson, 26, attended Anderson Elementary and Booneville Middle School, then Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus for high school. There she was very involved with the community through volunteer work at a local nursing home, at the day care on campus and with church. She was also involved with Corinth Theater-Arts as well as a girls choir in Columbus, she says, but dance is what stuck.
Patterson went to New England for college, earning a bachelor’s in biology from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and her master’s in business management at Questrom School of Business at Boston University.
“Dance has always been an interest. I was involved off and on throughout my childhood and adulthood,” she says. That included various studio training and different intensives, including Urbanity Dance and Bates Dance Festival. Patterson spent time at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis as a teen, but doesn’t discuss specifics of her disability with the press, she says.
Her Abilities Dance Boston company is now four years old. “I wasn’t able to find opportunities to perform in professional dance companies locally, because they weren’t interested in working with disabled bodies, or did not know how to,” she says. “And so, I decided to create that fit for myself, and for others like me and not like me.”
In that time, the company has performed self-produced shows in the Boston area, as well as collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and performed in festivals and showcases across the country.
Patterson is also the executive director of BalletRox, a youth creative development program that provides young people in Boston a chance to dance in school and after school. Managing and creating programming for the nonprofit BalletRox is her full-time job, dismantling the inequities that can come with accessing dance education for youth.
“Dance has always played a part in my life because I’ve always found joy in movement. And, I have loved using bodies to tell stories,” she says. “But I also have found that I don’t have the privilege in just being able to create a story, so I really use dance as a tool to promote equity in our community and advocate for a variety of suppressed identities and hopefully work to see change.”
In Patterson’s reimagined “Firebird,” audiences will see diverse identities within and outside the disabled community. They will experience a reimagined story incorporating different cultural influences (disability culture, Black culture, different aspects of dancers’ identities), and exceptional work by talented artists, she says. Her description wraps in those behind the music and costumes as well as the performers.
“There’s a whole team of people who are behind the scenes or onstage who have worked to really create elegant aspects of the performance,” Patterson says.
About 20 people overall are engaged in the performance, which unfolds in a blend of ballet and modern elements, led by an all-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artistic team. Guest artists include Antoine Hunter and Zahna Simon from Urban Jazz Dance Company, a Black Deaf-led professional dance company in California. Audio descriptions will be provided for blind and low vision audiences, and captions and ASL for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, in a narrative form that complements the music.
Patterson has been drawn to the story since seeing the ballet, either on TV or online, as a child. “I’ve always thought that the performance was very exciting and magnificent,” she says.
“But, I’ve always wanted to create a ballet where I could see myself and a variety of diverse
identities. That drew me into it, in addition to Laura Brody’s wonderfully designed ‘The Firebird’ chair.” Brody’s wheelchair seat cushion, with flame shapes and fiery colors, was inspired by Marc Chagall’s designs for “The Firebird” ballet, and created back in 2014. Patterson loved it, and collaborated with costume designer Brody to share it.
“It really jumpstarted our idea on the rest of the costumes, and what those could be in their splendor,” she says.
The performance at Calderwood Pavilion Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts will be livestreamed for any to attend, at 7 p.m. central time May 14 and 15. Visit https://ticketstripe.com/adbfirebird2021 for ticket information.