Maria Caruso considers Bodiography Contemporary Ballet more than a dance group. It's a platform for social activism.
For the past few years, she's used her choreography to tell people's stories of trumping personal obstacles, including heart transplants and children's experiences with grief.
"If I can share the beauty of humanity and make the world a more tolerable place, a more compassionate place ... then I feel I've really achieved my goals," Ms. Caruso says.
Her latest work, "Left Leg, Right Brain," follows Pittsburgh-based artist and filmmaker Frank Ferraro in his journey with Parkinson's disease through a mix of ballet en pointe, a jazz score and film interludes. It will be staged Friday and Saturday at Byham Theater, Downtown.
"I have been asked to do a ballet about Parkinson's for several years now," Ms. Caruso says.
Since 2012, she and Mr. Ferraro had mulled over the idea of collaborating and since last summer have been working together to adapt his symptoms to the stage.
Ms. Caruso is "quite the observer," Mr. Ferraro says. When they'd meet, she'd ask him to describe his day-to-day life with the disease and what those experiences might look like translated into movement. Ms. Caruso and her dancers also extracted inspiration for gestures from Mr. Ferraro's poetry and other artistic endeavors.
Weaving these dance portions together is a film that chronicles Mr. Ferraro's life with Parkinson's. It begins by depicting him before his symptoms appeared at age 38. In those clips he's more athletic and energetic. Other segments touch on his early symptoms and then his diagnosis with full-blown Parkinson's at 41. He is now 52.
Dancers will be accompanied by a live jazz band and a singer performing a score by Craig Davis. The improvisation of some parts of the music mirrors the unexpected elements of Mr. Ferraro's life with Parkinson's.
"Every day is different," Mr. Ferraro says. "There are so many contributing factors that alter the physical state of the body that it's impossible to have a carbon copy of the previous day."
This isn't the first time Mr. Ferraro's life has inspired a stage work. In 2009, he teamed with local actors and a composer to create "(gravity+grace)," an hourlong piece of 10 vignettes about the uncertainty of living with Parkinson's and maintaining dignity in the face of challenge.
"I wanted to ignore" Parkinson's at first, Mr. Ferraro says. Instead, he tried to cope through the arts with hopes of educating others about the disease.
"If I don't exploit it, I think it gets the better of me so I think my best choice is to use it."
For Ms. Caruso, the work is an opportunity to highlight the beauty in life's differences.
"You have to use your creative self to overcome adversity," she says. "I think it's a story that really touches anybody."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.