Gabriel Rodreick is a little nervous about the sexy part.
His hair pulled back into a ponytail, Rodreick bows meditatively in his wheelchair and closes his eyes as an electronic beat fills a rehearsal room overlooking downtown Minneapolis. A blue ribbon extends from his torso to his partner in this duet, Angelique Lele, also in a wheelchair, who pulls Rodreick toward her in a trance-like movement, slowly, until they embrace. Soon they are entangled and moving intimately in unison.
"It got hot in here!" shouts another dancer, Emma Marlar, as the music stops. Rodreick laughs, looking relieved as he and Lele move apart and untangle the ribbon.
Rodreick, a 26-year-old who performs under the stage name "Freaque," is getting ready to bring his first-ever dance performance to a live audience at the Cedar Cultural Center this Sunday.
It's an electronic rock opera telling the story of his life over the past decade, since a spinal cord injury robbed him of movement in 85 percent of his body. It's about all the things he's no longer supposed to do — dance being high on the list.
"You're supposed to accept your injury and move on with your life as someone with a spinal cord injury," he explains. "And this project is challenging that narrative and saying: 'Yes, accept your injury and move on. But want more.' "
He calls it "A Cripple's Dance."
Reclaiming his life
Back in high school, Rodreick relied heavily on the dexterity of his body.
He ran track, pole-vaulted and played soccer for Minneapolis South High School. He began playing piano at age 5 and got accepted into the Perpich Center for Arts Education his junior year.
Months before he was to start at Perpich, in summer 2008, he recorded some original piano songs and sold an album to raise money for a monthlong community service trip to Costa Rica.
He and a few friends went body surfing one day on the beaches of the Pacific coast. As the others returned to shore, Rodreick decided to catch one more wave. He dove straight into a sandbar. The impact severed his spinal cord in two places. He couldn't move. He might have drifted off to sea if not for a trip member who found him.
Rodreick has spent the past 10 years reclaiming his life since the moment that changed every part of it. He started writing music and performed as the lead singer of Minneapolis-based bands Treading North, Hungry Like the Worm and Undoers.
Determined to live independently, Rodreick and a few friends now rent a house in south Minneapolis, where he lives much like any other 20-something musician, with Tom Waits' autobiography on the bookshelf, a makeshift recording studio in his room and a sign on the wall that reads, "Artists are here to disturb the peace."
The difference is he rides an elevator from floor to floor instead of taking the stairs. On a recent afternoon, someone has written "Tart Fart" on the window of the elevator with an arrow that points to his head as he descends.
"A Cripple's Dance" began forming in his brain two or three years ago. The name, Rodreick explains, is a way to reclaim a term used to degrade people like him. To that same end, he adopted the stage name Freaque. Rodreick received a $10,000 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to develop the rock opera. He wrote all the music for the performance.
To bring it to the stage, he contacted Lele, a dancer and aerialist who has been in a wheelchair since a trapeze-training accident.
"He said he wanted to do a piece to his music and he wanted to be in it — and he wanted to move," says Lele. "He wanted to dance."
Lele, who was named Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota in 2015, grew up performing for live audiences and works with children at "Young Dance," an inclusive dance company based in Minneapolis. She agreed to be part of the project before even hearing the music.
Rodreick hired musicians from the Kremblems collective to play his music live, and he teamed up with a dance trio called Kelvin Wailey to help choreograph the movements. They rented a rehearsal space in the Cowles Center and the five dancers — Rodreick, Lele, Marlar, Leila Awadallah and Laura Osterhaus — began meeting weekly in February, collaboratively working to bring Rodreick's vision to life.
It wasn't easy.
Rodreick had no experience in choreography. And even for the professional dancers, this project came with entirely new challenges of how to interact as a group on stage.
"We were very determined to not think of them as unabled bodies, but as just differently abled in comparison to what we do," said Osterhaus, who also performs with Zenon Dance Company. "They're giving so much to the work, which is incredible."
In rehearsals just two weeks before the show, Rodreick does something he doesn't normally do in front of an audience: He gets out of his wheelchair.
It's for the part of his story where he's lying face down on that beach in Costa Rica and realizes he can't move. For the performance, the dancers lay him on a mat, and as the music picks up, they push and pull his body up and down, symbolizing the ocean he thought would take him away.
It's a vulnerable project for Rodreick. He's performed in front of a crowd as a singer plenty of times, but it's not the singing part he's worried about.
"This is my first time doing any kind of dance, so I'm really trying to figure out how to move my body with music, how to move my body with other people," he says.
Part of the story Rodreick wants to tell is about his anger — an emotion he says gets a bad rap, and has helped him persevere through the years since his injury.
Then there's the duet with Lele, which is all about sexuality. In the story, Lele's character is experienced and comfortable with her sexuality. Rodreick's is just opening up to sexuality post-injury. She pulls him closer until they touch.
"I'm trying to convey that people with disabilities are sexual beings," he says. "We are interested in sex. We are good at sex. It needs to be talked about."
This is the most nerve-racking dance in the show, he says. It's not the aspect of his story he's used to telling, and he's not sure how a crowd will receive it.
"How do I be sexy in a wheelchair?" he asks. "And what's that going to be like in front of an audience? Are they going to be uncomfortable? Are they going to find this sexy?"
The other dancers and musicians feel the weight of what they're creating, and the message they want the audience to take home.
Lele wants to show them what it means to be a performer in a wheelchair, and, in turn, to be a human.
"I would just like for people to see us — and for maybe us to see ourselves — as whole. I think, if that's how we feel, that's how other people will see us," she says. "In some ways, I think I'm healing as much as I'm working on this."
After Sunday's performance, Rodreick doesn't know if he'll take "A Cripple's Dance" on the road, but he does know he's created something worthwhile.
"This project, and the Freaque project as a whole, is trying to put the pieces back," he says. "I'm getting really excited about where this is going, because it feels a lot more like me."
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036