A Conversation with Freaque: Challenging Spinal Cord Injury Narratives Through Music & Dance

This Sunday, December 16th, Freaque (the stage name of Gabriel Rodreick) debuts a new work called A Cripple’s Dance at The Cedar Cultural Center. Gabriel sustained a C5 Spinal Cord Injury while diving into the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica eleven years ago. In a A Cripple’s Dance, Gabriel combines a five-member band with four dancers to challenge narratives about spinal cord injury, exploring anger, fear, and hope, and examines the balance between healing and risk taking.

Photo: Trista Marie McGovern

Photo: Trista Marie McGovern

MJ Gilmore (Cedar Box Office & Office Manager) met with Gabriel prior to his performance at The Cedar.

Throughout this whole project I have felt myself become more me and I’m excited about life.
— Gabriel Rodreick

MJ Gilmore: Hi, Gabriel, thank you so much for joining me this evening to talk about A Cripple’s Dance at The Cedar this Sunday, December 16th.  What is the meaning behind your performance?

Gabriel Rodreick: I go by the stage name Freaque and I’ve been a musician in the Twin Cities for about five years.  I originally was in a band called Treading North and now I’m doing this project called Freaque while focusing on the upcoming performance A Cripple’s Dance.  I am also in a band with my roommate Jack Stanek called Undoers. I really enjoy being a musician, in a lot of ways it has saved my life as a way to express myself--to be me.

The title A Cripple’s Dance just kind of came to me.  Since my injury, I have come to realize that dancing is one of things that I miss the most.  Just being able to move my whole body with or without music. I decided I wanted to make music that expresses my desire to dance again.  Naturally, I thought to myself, I should dance, shouldn’t I. I can still move some of my body, why not just go for it and see how it goes.

A Cripple’s Dance is a juxtaposition in my mind: when you think of a cripple and s/he can’t move her/his body--it’s different.  Then you think of dance and it’s a free expression and so combining these two things: I am a cripple who wants to dance. Also, taking back the word “cripple,” because it’s not politically correct. I think it’s a pretty provocative title in my mind.

MJ: Do you have a preference on the words people use to talk about disability?

Gabriel: It’s something that I’m still learning, because there are some people who have been disabled their whole life, and I’m kind of new to this game. In my mind I think of myself as a ten year old person with a disability.  I think that is the best way to describe me as a person with a disability. You are a person before you are disabled. I think some people like the words “differently abled,” and I think that’s fine. I don’t really get too caught up in labels. I just try to live my life and not really care what other people think, but I know that’s not the case for everyone.

I think anger paired with fear is destructive and not a good thing, but when you pair anger with hope, that’s when change happens. In the movement to cure spinal cord injury, the spinal cord injury community needs to be angry, we need to embrace our anger, but use it methodically, in a smart way to instigate change.
— Gabriel Rodreick

MJ:  What is the message you want to convey in your show?

Gabriel: I start out describing the stories I’m trying to tell.  I would like to think this project is specifically about people with spinal cord injuries and not necessarily people with disabilities, although I think it’s relatable across the board, but I’m trying to be very specific about spinal cord injury.  

The narrative that I’m trying to challenge is that after your spinal cord injury, you’re supposed to accept your injury and move on and live with your disability as it is. You’re expected to forget your past and if you had dreams for your future that aren’t in line with your disability, then forget about those dreams and do something else.

I think that’s important, but what I’m trying to say is, why not have it the other way as well: move on and accept your disability and also dream. You can physically want more, maybe you can get your hands back, some sensation throughout your body. There is a lot of research out there for spinal cord injury curative therapies, so why not dream for that. Loss of bladder, bowel, sexual function, there is so much more than walking, like loss of breath strength.  If I could have my hands, I would be so much more independent throughout my daily life.

Further, go for your dreams. I know of two or three other musicians with spinal cord injuries in the world, and I’ve just decided that I’m going to do what I love and do it to the best of my abilities. This is what this project is about, I’m a cripple who wants to dance, this is not the standard, and I want to push the standard.

The second story I’m trying to tell is another narrative that I’m trying to challenge which is how anger is considered a negative emotion.  I think anger paired with fear is destructive and not a good thing, but when you pair anger with hope, that’s when change happens. In the movement to cure spinal cord injury, the spinal cord injury community needs to be angry, we need to embrace our anger, but use it methodically, in a smart way to instigate change. I think this is the case with all movements, to include healthcare, Black Lives Matter, equal rights for queer people, immigrants… anger is such an important emotion in movements.

The third story I want to tell in this project is the balance with care and risk when healing. After my injury, I went to rehab. I learned, yes, you need to care and be safe and held, but also to move on and in order to dream, you need to take risks.  You need to push yourself and your support system needs to push you, otherwise you become stagnant. I am taking a risk within this dance project by getting out of my chair.  Throughout this whole project I have felt myself become more me and I’m excited about life.

These are the three main stories that I’m trying to tell in A Cripple’s Dance: challenging the narratives about post spinal cord injury acceptance and dreams, the pairing of anger and fear versus anger and hope, and the balance of care and risk.

MJ: Who are the musicians and dancers you will be collaborating with in this performance?

Gabriel: The collaborators in this project are musicians from the Kremblems Collective, Bailey Cogan of 26 Bats!, Karl Remus of Lucid VanGuard, Warren Thomas Fenzi and my roommate Jack Stanek with our band Undoers.  The dancers are the group Kelvin Wailey with Leila Awadallah, Emma Marlar, Laura Osterhaus, and my friend Angelique Lele who dances around the city and teaches yoga, she also has a spinal cord injury.

I’m always partial to collaborating.  I think it works for me just because I can’t really play instruments, so it’s a necessity to jam with other people, but I also think there is something very deep about connecting with people through music and dance.

I’m a very community and relationship oriented person. I’ve made it a goal to connect with people as deeply as possible, I want to push that boundary. I see music and now dance as a way to do that. I think it opens up doors to a relationship, you become more comfortable with each other, more open. I think you see each other differently when creating together.
— Gabriel Rodreick

MJ: How long did it take you to conceptualize and create this performance piece?

Gabriel: I had the idea for A Cripple’s Dance two or three years ago, but I started working on it after I received a grant in February 2018 from the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Artist Initiative Grant.  It’s been a lot of work in 10 months. I really like a deadline. I really like the organizing aspect of projects when I’m working with other people, I think I really thrive at this.

I’m a very community and relationship oriented person.  I’ve made it a goal to connect with people as deeply as possible, I want to push that boundary.  I see music and now dance as a way to do that. I think it opens up doors to a relationship, you become more comfortable with each other, more open.  I think you see each other differently when creating together. Like with my friend that was here before you arrived, I was just helping her record some music.  She was really nervous about playing her music in front of people and she’s never really felt comfortable writing music, but she told me that I make her feel comfortable enough to put her music out there.  I feel this is priceless; that’s how I see music and dance.

During A Cripple’s Dance, we are going to be playing 11 songs and during five of the songs we will be dancing.  The dance is pretty abstract and not rhythmic. I think this is the way it needs to be for me, because I’m so new to this and I need to be able to explore movement.  This dance feels very floaty and airy and I will be getting out of my chair with a lot of communal movement. Also we are having painter Jeremiah Soup paint during the six songs where we are not dancing.  We see him as a dancer on the stage. He is dancing on canvas, that’s what painting is.

Jeremiah Soup,  A Deep Breath and A Blurry Blink

Jeremiah Soup, A Deep Breath and A Blurry Blink

I feel like the music is very ambient and doesn’t really have a lot of form, but the the dancing on its own is the opposite, very rhythmic: driving, groovy, some of it is kind of angry and towards the end it becomes a little more hopeful.

Specifically with this dance, I am directly interacting with my trauma. Every day since my injury, I wake up and don’t feel like I’m in the right body, and throughout this project, I have made it a point to reconnect with my body and I can’t do that unless I’m interacting with my body.
— Gabriel Rodreick

MJ:  I really appreciated your video interview Gabriel Rodreick (Undoers) Discusses Health, Healing & Undoing All Ills: BTTC 7/26 Benefit for Lauren Smythe Interview.  One of the many things you said in that interview that really stood out to me was, “You can’t move forward unless you interact with your pain and recognize what is happening within yourself...you’re always weighed down by whatever has traumatized you...you have to interact with it.”  Will you please expand on this thought?

Gabriel: That quote is this project, A Cripple’s Dance, in a nutshell.  Specifically with this dance, I am directly interacting with my trauma.  Every day since my injury, I wake up and don’t feel like I’m in the right body, and throughout this project, I have made it a point to reconnect with my body and I can’t do that unless I’m interacting with my body, that’s the only way that I can reconnect.  Otherwise you are not being honest with yourself and you won’t be able to find what you are looking for.

I feel like throughout this project I feel more comfortable with my body, more comfortable moving and dancing around other people. I’m more comfortable with my sexuality and more comfortable having sex.  I’m more comfortable with platonic touch. All of this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t start moving my body and getting to know it again.

Although I am pretty introverted sometimes, I love people and have a desire to deepen my relationship with people.  To know people on a deeper level is something that drives me as a human being and drives my creativity. This is why I make music and why I tell stories, because I want to connect with people.  Also, anger is a big piece for me. Anger about my spinal cord injury. I’m angry and I want to be more than what I am. I’m also angry about the systems of oppression that surround us and how they destroy people’s lives.  This capitalist, corporate state that we live in, a state that suppresses and oppresses creativity. In this system, the only way we survive is by being productive, making things that are worth money. So if you are not making something that is worth money, your creations are worthless.  So I’m angry about this and it is another reason why I am pushing myself to create and so I can inspire other people to create, whether it’s worth anything or not, because it’s always worth something.

To know people on a deeper level is something that drives me as a human being and drives my creativity. This is why I make music and why I tell stories, because I want to connect with people.
— Gabriel Rodreick

MJ:  Who are the people who have been most influential in your life?

Gabriel: One of my musical mentors and influences is Jimmy Steffen, I took lessons from him for seven years.  He gave me the foundation for my music. My parents are both musicians and supported me in my desire to be an artist. I think in some ways I’m picking up what they left behind, they still play music, but that is not what they do for a career and I think in some ways they wish they would have done more with it.  

Also, the people I collaborate with, like the dancers I work with in this project are so inspiring and life-changing in how they create, it has changed how I create. They have influenced me by how they move and talk through creating dance and how they visualize things and how it’s a conversation through the whole creative process that has been really influential for me.  

For example with music, I’ll be writing something in my room and then I bring it to the band and we just play the music, we’ll jam and figure the music out, but there is not a lot of conversation about what the music means, what we are trying to say, and with the dancers talking through the meaning of the music and dance has been a huge part of this whole creative process.  Also, tonight meeting with my friend and seeing her courage to come out and record some music. I was the first person she played her music in front of and this was really inspiring for me. It makes me want to help more people do this.

MJ:  I learned that your father, Matthew Rodreick, is the Unite to Fight Paralysis executive director.  How is this organization accomplishing its mission?

Gabriel: Unite to Fight Paralysis is really doing incredible work. Essentially what they are trying to create is an advocacy network and trying to start a movement around the world to cure paralysis.  The way that my dad is doing that differently from how organizations have done it in the past is that he is trying to connect all of the communities and organizations who are doing the same kind of work, to include researchers and doctors, he’s trying to make it a collaborative effort rather than this capitalist ideology of competition.  That ideology has bled over to something that shouldn’t be competition, it should be for the community. This is his goal: to get everyone to collaborate.

It’s similar to creating art, let’s work together to create this piece. In some ways it may take more time, but in the end it is going to be a bigger, more influential piece. In the case of organization and movements, it’s going to be for the people, if it’s a collaborative effort.

At The University of Minnesota, Dr. Ann Parr is doing very important stem cell research and Dr. David Darrow is also working on important stimulation implants research.  There is a lot of great research going on all over the world and I think there is hope, not necessarily that there will be a cure that we will be able to walk again, but maybe getting the full functioning of my hands back, bowel and bladder functioning, to make daily life a lot easier.

MJ: I understand funding greatly helps make research possible.

Gabriel: For our performance at The Cedar, we are partnering with Pryes Brewing Company.  They have donated a keg of beer and the sales will help support Unite to Fight for Paralysis.  

MJ: Gabriel, as we come to a close with this interview, do you have any final thoughts you would like to share about your upcoming performance?

Gabriel: One part of this project, as I look forward to developing this project in the future, would be sexuality and disability.  There are a couple parts in this project that touch on this subject. I think this is a really important thing to talk about.  People with disabilities are not really looked at as sexual beings, they’re looked at as asexual, or just not able to do it, but that’s not the case at all, we are just as sexual as people with able bodies.  Throughout this project, I feel like I am coming into my own with my sexuality and I would definitely consider this project a contributor to this.

Grip My Pain (lyrics)
gonna grip my pain
tell em i’m done with chains
if you gonna be my friend
you gotta help me feel the wind

i’m gonna lick my rage
ask em if there’s a way
to dig down taste my soul
to move on and let go
— Gabriel Rodreick

MJ: We look forward to your performance of A Cripple’s Dance at The Cedar this Sunday.  Thank you so much!

Gabriel:  Thank you, MJ, I am looking forward to this performance!

Get tickets for A CRIPPLE'S DANCE by Freaque with Seaberg and Izell Pyramid on Sunday, December 16th 2018 here. Doors: 7:00 PM / Show: 7:30 PM. All Ages. $15 General Admission