Petra Kuppers (she/her) is a disability culture activist, a writer, a wheelchair dancer, and a community performance artist. Petra grounds herself in disability culture methods. She uses somatics, performance, and speculative writing to engage audiences toward more socially just and enjoyable futures.
She teaches at the University of Michigan as the Anita Gonzalez Collegiate Professor of Performance Studies and Disability Culture. She is also an adviser on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College.
She has been engaged in community dance and disability culture production since the late 80s (first in her native Germany, then in Wales, UK; Aotearoa/New Zealand; and then in the US). She continues to lead workshops internationally, in these forms as well as in disability-culture adapted social somatics.
When her chronic pain does not allow outer movement, she writes. Her third performance poetry collection, Gut Botany, was named one of the top ten US poetry books of 2020 by the New York Public Library, and it won the 2022 Creative Book Award by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. Her fourth collection, Diver Beneath the Street - true crime meets ecopoetry at the level of the soil - will appear in February 2024.
Petra also writes speculative fiction (short story collection Ice Bar 2018), and academic books (latest, 2022, open access: Eco Soma: Joy and Pain in Speculative Performance Encounters).
She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective, and co-creates Turtle Disco, a somatic writing studio, with her wife, poet and dancer Stephanie Heit, from their home in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on Three Fires Confederacy Territory, colonially known as Ypsilanti, Michigan.
She was a 2021 Dance Research Fellow at the New York Public Library's dance division. In 2022, she was awarded a Dance/USA Artist Fellowship, and she was a national nominee for the Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities. She is a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow.
Check out this July 2023 interview about Petra's community dance practice and history, in Stance on Dance.
Petra's Movement Practice: Artist Statement
Petra’s work takes diversity as its starting point and its luscious frame. Her choreography is not about set steps. Instead, it might be a score where ten disabled people work together to move from a carpark edge to a nearby tree, all supporting one another, wheelchair users among us, until we lay our hands on bark, breathe, and rest.
For over 30 years, Petra has worked with people to create delicious movement and to celebrate those of us who are not seen as beautiful in our mainstream world.
Petra’s artistry is grounded in the twin experiences of pain and joy. She has lived with chronic pain all her life, but her love of movement expresses itself in multiple ways: pushing against established definitions of what dance can be, embracing and extending various lineages of movement improvisation, and realigning connections between movement and writing. Her explorations into creative somatics involve community projects of embodied dreaming, and ritual practices that manifest social critique and healing. Petra’s creative and critical work has been influential in the development of international disability culture aesthetics.
In her work with community groups or students, Petra foregrounds a capacious sense of access and creative collaboration: how can we experience comfort while holding on to historical and contemporary experiences of exclusion – who is in the room with us, who isn’t, and how can we work toward change? How can we use our energies to manifest a different world, and how can we support one another in this one? How can collaborative and meditative movement and writing support this visioning, this speculation, these desires? Petra values and welcomes participants’ and students’ own life experiences and technique backgrounds, creating environments that allow everybody to bring their own expertise into the room, allowing us to see our cultural roots and ways of working in new lights.
Olimpias Artist Statement
The Olimpias is an artists’ collective, founded in 1996 when Artistic Director Petra Kuppers worked with fellow mental health system survivors in a Welsh self-help center. Associates come from across the world, with a current US center. We create collaborative, research-focused environments open to people with physical, emotional, sensory and cognitive differences and their co-conspirators. In these environments, we can explore pride and pain, attention and the transformatory power of touch. The Olimpias are disability-led, and non-disabled allies are always welcome. We use presence, slowness, pedestrian movements, a poetics of words and bodymindspirits, and the deep affective register of (energetic) touch to share our beauty and our critique. In most Olimpias sharings, we invite audience members to physically (or energetically) engage, shaping participatory performances together.
The Olimpias call for disability culture(s) even while we are aware of the limits of this term, of the disconnects between individual experiences, historical and ongoing oppressions of multiple kinds, and the cultural formations we speak into being.
Performance work, pedagogical labor, activism and critical writing are all part of a continuum. We believe that writing about our art/life practices extends the circle of art’s reach and political vibrancy. Many Olimpias actions result in montaged, multi-voiced essays - part of our audiencing approach (see, for instance, this open-access multi-vocal essay on artful methods, caretaking, and water actions in Canada).
Turtle Disco Mission Statement
Turtle Disco is a somatic writing studio in our repurposed living room on Three Fires Confederacy territory in the College Heights neighborhood of Ypsilanti, Michigan. We, Petra Kuppers and Stephanie Heit, started Turtle Disco in 2017 as part of our art/life practices, to cultivate disability culture experimentation, creative self-care, communal inquiry, connection, and awareness. We aim to provide a welcoming and supportive environment, grounded in a crip/mad/queer led ethos. Every week, we offer one to three different movement or writing sessions for local folx, as part of a small experiment in art friendship, community building, and ecological sustainability. The space is wheelchair accessible.
Turtle Disco Zoomshell (2020-ongoing) – due to the pandemic, we are experimenting with zoom offerings to continue to connect with our regular turtles and new friends. Turtle Disco Zoomshell offers a medium to reach out to be with each other in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, to create a space for the complex range of feelings and experiences within our predominantly disabled and queer community, and to offer vehicles for creative expression and play.
Weird Factoid: "10 Craziest Professors" honor on Fox News
In 2019, Petra was publicly named as one of the "10 Craziest Professors' by the Young America's Foundation, and the syllabus of her undergraduate Eco/Queer/Feminist Art Practices course (Women and Gender Studies) was read out and commented on (lesbian dance!) on Fox News by conservative media host Tucker Carlson. It feels weird to post the link to a conservative youtube video here, but so many people have taken great pleasure and delight from this weird counter 'honor;' I happily imagine some Fox-viewing young person thinking 'oh wow, maybe university is for me, after all;' and I am glad to be in the company of the professors who are named here with me, so here it is.
Here be Dragons (Petra's poetry/fiction site)
Detroit Performs: a short video about Petra's community dance practice
Goddard College: Petra's Teaching Artist Statement
Older Olimpias Website (static) International Disability Culture Practices: An Archive of 20+ years of community dance and performance
Petra's Academia.edu site: free (with registration) depository of 100+ papers and books chapters, most downloadable as PDFs.
What is Disability Culture?
Disability culture is a trajectory, a movement, a path, rather than a destination: Disability culture is the difference between being alone, isolated, and individuated with a physical, cognitive, emotional or sensory difference that in our society invites discrimination and reinforces that isolation – the difference between all that and being in community. Naming oneself part of a larger group, a social movement or a subject position in modernity can help to focus energy, and to understand that solidarity can be found – precariously, in improvisation, always on the verge of collapse. (from Petra's book, Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave. 2011: 109.