Artist Takes Inspiration from Amputation Lisa Bufano lost her legs and her fingers from a staph infection when she was 21. The award-winning artist recently premiered a modern dance piece, Five Open Mouths, about coming to terms with her body as it is.
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Artist Takes Inspiration from Amputation

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Artist Takes Inspiration from Amputation

Artist Takes Inspiration from Amputation

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Andrea Shea from member station WBUR has her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING)

ANDREA SHEA: Lisa Bufano loves to run along the busy Charles River between 2 and 8 miles a day.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMPING)

SHEA: The 34-year-old says she gets funny looks and practically stops traffic, because she runs on high-tech carbon fiber prosthetic legs that look like big C-shaped springs. It's impossible to stand still on them, says Bufano, shifting her tiny frame back and forth. But jogging, she says, isn't as hard as it looks.

NORRIS: You don't have to be that coordinated to do it. You know what I mean? It's just one foot in front of the other, or one prosthesis in front of the other. I spent a lot of my life sort of like figuring out how would someone with legs do that, and then how am I going to do that. But with running you can just kind of let your mind go.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING)

SHEA: Back at her storefront studio, dressed in street clothes and wearing her everyday legs, Bufano makes a pot of green tea. It's no small task, because she also has no fingers.

NORRIS: I hope it's steeped enough.

SHEA: Bufano's first performance, called "Fancy," was commissioned by the University of Linz. In it she wears tall stilts on her stumps and her hands fashioned from red Queen Ann-style table legs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: The audience saw a table and there's an accordionist who comes and sits at the table and starts playing the accordion, and then the table basically comes alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEA: The reveal is that the table is Bufano. Her raven black hair and petite form emerge from beneath a suspended squared-off cloth, shocking the accordionist. On stilts, Bufano looks like a beautiful mutant. She could be a crab, a gazelle or an insect. The effect is striking.

NORRIS: I want to be seen as attractive and beautiful and sexy like everyone else. But I think that in my artwork, for me, it's trying to find some comfort with being everything that a human can be, with being like grotesque or being weird or bizarre or just kind of exploring whatever I can be on stage.

SHEA: Bufano's stage characters evoke a circus sideshow, which is fine by her. She says she also connects with comic book characters who've undergone extreme transformations.

NORRIS: It always starts with a really gross accident. You know, someone stepped into the magnifier and so they formed this hideous part of themselves that they have to come to terms with. They feel like that they have two identities and, you know, are they going to use it for evil or are they going to use it for good?

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND NOISE)

SHEA: Now, Bufano is transforming herself again, as an artist. A few months ago she received a grant to stage a major dance work in New York City.

NORRIS: I couldn't believe she did it. I mean to come to New York City all by herself, to put yourself in the hands of a choreographer you do not know, one on one, and you're not a trained dancer, that's intense.

SHEA: Choreographer Heidi Latsky was a principal dancer for pioneer Bill T. Jones. Bufano contacted Latsky in September for guidance. They hit it off. Now, Bufano is Latsky's muse.

NORRIS: (Unintelligible).

NORRIS: It doesn't have to be that fast, but it has to be - you have to breathe.

NORRIS: I was concentrating on making it bigger and I lost kind of the quickness.

NORRIS: Just get the quickness.

NORRIS: Okay.

NORRIS: Watching a lot of dance, you become accustomed to seeing how the body can be superhuman.

SHEA: Dance critic Joy Goodwin writes for the New York Sun. She says Latsky and Bufano's new solo piece holds its own as a work of modern dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE PRACTICE)

SHEA: The piece begins with Bufano wearing her carbon fiber running legs. Like the music, she's frenzied, then she sits on a chair. After a lengthy, emotional battle with the idea, Bufano takes her legs off. She looks vulnerable, almost lost without them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEA: Critic Joy Goodwin calls this piece dance theater because it tells the true story of Lisa Bufano losing her limbs, finding power in her prosthetics, then coming to terms with her body as it is.

NORRIS: One image that really stays with me from the piece is the image of her clenched fists, which are fists without fingers, but nonetheless defiant and incredibly powerful when she raises them over her head.

SHEA: When they started working together, choreographer Heidi Latsky asked Bufano to tell her an important story from her life. Bufano started by describing her post-op bandaged hands.

NORRIS: They were really big, so it took a long time, and just unraveling and unraveling and unraveling and unraveling. And meanwhile, the bandages are sort of piling up on top of me in the bed, and my hand is getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, and it's starting to indicate just how much of my fingers had been taken.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEA: When she finished, Bufano found five wounds where her fingers had been. The wounds, she says, looked like open mouths. "Five Open Mouths" is the name of the new dance. And it ends with Bufano's graceful gesture of removing the bandages.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHEA: A good number of amputees and disabled people were in the audience at Bufano's recent New York performance. John Fenzel(ph) lost his leg to diabetes.

NORRIS: This piece shows with less is more, like yoga, relaxation. When she took off her legs, she became free, like a flower, an insect. She could be a worm, a snake. She could fly. I'm free now. I'm not as tall, but I'm free.

SHEA: Even so, Bufano is percolating some pretty wild ideas for future performances with prosthetics.

NORRIS: I want a big articulated mermaid fin. I want propellers. I did a video once where I was a superhero and I had rocket legs.

SHEA: Soon, Lisa Bufano will jet off to California to start a job with AXIS, a renowned company for disabled and able-bodied dancers. In the meantime, though, she can be seen sprinting, like a bionic comic book character, along the banks of the Charles River in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING)

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: You can see video excerpts of Bufano's piece "Five Open Mouths" at npr.org.

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