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Review by Nick Minns: The Integrated Dance Summit

Integrated Dance — loosely defined in this context as the participation of able-bodied and less able-bodied dancers in a single performance (think of the analogy with Charles Hazlewood’s Paraorchestra performing with Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics Closing Ceremony) — is a genre that runs the gamut from fully integrated to polarized with subtle gradations in between. A lot of discussion at the Summit devolved, not unsurprisingly, around the contribution of integrated dance to the efforts to improve health and social services, its potential to engage audiences, and its ability to raise awareness of the phenomenal contribution of the disabled in society — aspects I came to appreciate more fully over the course of the forums. But when it came to looking at the performances with a critical eye, I looked beyond these aspects to the visual, psychological and emotional levels that lead me into a work or out of it.  After all, these are not works about disability but about the ability of each performer to surmount their restrictions to create something that inspires. The performances that achieved this were those that effectively dissolved the barriers between able and disabled.

Both Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch and The Point At Which It Last Made Sense by Robin Dingemans and Nick Bryson fall into this category. If the former is fully integrated, the latter goes one stage further by using James O’Shea’s powerful upper body (he is a Paralympic swimmer) and handsome beachcomber head to extrapolate the satire on marketing to a surreal level. Rosa Vreeling is O’Shea’s sensuous companion basking in self-adulation, while Nick Bryson’s dry humour as political commentator keeps the whole structure hanging irreverently in the air. Add understated costumes by Louise Bennetts, a clarity of vision from Guy Hoare’s lighting, marketing photos by Chris Nash that eloquently describe the work without need of words, and the package is irresistible. There’s a score, too, by Alessandro Bosetti but my eyes were so busy my ears couldn’t keep up.

Bowditch’s approach is more personal; she projects her life on to an alter ego that is Frida Kahlo; she does not try to be Frida but chooses her to channel her own history and aspirations and from whom she derives inspiration and encouragement. Kahlo was handicapped by a traffic accident at the age of 18, and Bowditch has suffered a genetic bone disorder since birth but both women have transformed their obstacles into their respective arts. In the emotional and openly erotic layering of the work we learn about both Bowditch and Kahlo, and about the unbounded force with which both women approach life. Katherina Radeva’s set and costumes are as vibrant as Bowditch herself in red skirt and blue blouse lying supine on a yellow table surrounded by yellow chairs in front of two green neon cacti against blue and white hangings. The music you hear as you arrive (the program notes tell us) is the music that played in Frida’s house, the music she lay down to. Bowditch lies on the table dreamily looking at herself in a hand mirror when the motherly figure of Yvonne Strain enters in indigenous Mexican dress to join her; she is the wholly integrated BSL interpreter whose grasp of the erotic texts provides some well-earned respect and laughter. There are two other members of the cast, Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino, whose youthful beauty and movement enhance the sensual quality of the action, laughing with arms and tongues and sharing lascivious glances. The generosity of spirit in the work includes a shot of Tequila for all members of the audience, some unforgettable lines (‘You drank to drown your sorrows but the damned things learned to swim’) and an all-too-human questioning of the marks or traces our lives might leave. It’s all about falling in love with Frida, but it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with Caroline Bowditch.

StopGap Dance Company’s The Awakening, choreographed by Chris Pavia, is performed on the West Terrace in glorious sunshine. The four dancers (Amy Butler, Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Tomos Young) rope off a square with thick black ribbon inside which all the action takes place. The creative line is not easy to fathom, though the common gestures of awakening to the sun and sky are clear; I feel on the outside of Pavia’s thought process but the work has an integrity that draws me in, especially to Poan’s physical expressiveness in his wheelchair. Legs can be expressive but when a dancer has no control over them, the focus of expression is in the torso, arms and face. The Awakening is one of the works in which the dancers with disability are more interesting by comparison than the dancers without; perhaps because their physical and emotional process comes from a deeper source. What this Integrated Dance Summit reveals is that able-bodied dancers have to go that much further in all senses to be on a similar footing when performing with less able-bodied dancers. The Awakening thus creates a juxtaposition rather than an integration of abilities. It is the same with Pavia’s lovely, tentative solo of spirals for Sampson in which her arms are like rays of light. What could possibly correspond in the able-bodied to this, or to Poan’s freeing himself from his chair? He is suddenly in another unfamiliar element and it is an emotionally significant moment. At one point Poan takes Sampson’s arm like a guide or teacher, laying on his hands: a powerful metaphor for dance as a healing art. The work accelerates with Poan’s chair off balance, animated arms once more raised in a ritual of sun and air worship until all the performers slowly remove the bindings from their wrists, drop the material on the ground and promenade slowly around the square, discarding that which binds for a sense of freedom.

Marc Brew’s (i)land also lends itself to the terrace outside, this time overlooking the beach. There is an irony of bringing six tons of sand to build an island on a terrace within sight of the beach but there are technical reasons for it. On this tiny desert island topped by a mast and a vestige of rigging there are buried some seemingly unrelated objects that the Robinson Crusoe figure (Rob Heaslip) begins to uncover. What may be evident to us is not evident to Rob who builds with them a makeshift deckchair and settles down in the sun to rest. Up pops the head of Marc Brew from within the sand, a wonderful image like Christ rising from the dead. A third character (Rebecca Evans), dressed as The Lady of the Sea, wanders on to the island to complete the trio. The narrative follows the development of an escape plan with the limited resources available but it is Marc’s struggle from being buried to becoming mobile that holds my attention because his movements constantly express both fragility and determination. There are overtones of Lord of the Flies in Rob’s attempt to stop Brew from assembling his means of escape but the relationship between Rob and Evans and between Evans and Brew are barely defined by comparison. Once Brew’s means of escape is constructed (an antediluvian contraption with wheels and sails, somewhat like Da Vinci’s sketch of a helicopter), we want him to take off into the blue sky, but this alas is not within the production’s means. Evans returns to the sea, Rob remains on the lookout atop the mast, but Brew can only wheel away his contraption. Perhaps it is an allegory of dependence and independence, of freedom and restraint, of mobility and immobility but the contradictions within the work preclude a real sense of integration and appropriate resolution.

Arc Dance presents two works choreographed by Suzie Birchfield, a dancer who early on in her training developed Dystonia which has left her in a wheelchair. She has worked tirelessly over the last twelve years since establishing ActOne ArtsBase as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and advocate for accessible dance, which is the inclusion of people with disabilities in dance-related classes, workshops and performances. In Conversations with Dystonia Birchfield dances with Peter Baldwin and Tyrone Herlihy and in A Sense of Beauty Rosie Leak expands the trio into a quartet. In both works composer Nao Masuda provides a dextrous live accompaniment. Birchfield is both choreographer and central character in each work, a difficult balance to pull off at the best of times, but with the weight of her experience and advocacy it is almost impossible to avoid a polarization of disability: we are drawn in to her affliction so closely that the contrast with the athletic prowess of Baldwin and Herlihy is uncomfortable to watch. Yet there is a moment in Conversations with Dystonia — when Birchfield is supported on the equipment designed by Alex Harvey of Ockham’s Razor and slowly descends in a classical plié as she looks out with those lucid eyes — that is pure magic. The powerful metaphor of support is contrasted with the fragility of the body and force of mind; it is perhaps in itself a pure form of integration. 

One final performance element of the Integrated Dance Summit is the Integrated Choreolab, ‘a partnership between South East Dance, Pavilion Dance South West and GDance to respond to the lack of development and choreographic opportunities for artists working in integrated dance.’ The three artists chosen (Noëmi Lakmaier, Kate Marsh and Mark Smith) were asked to choose their own collaborators. Lakmaier choose Rachel Gomme to perform a durational piece that took place over four hours outside on the South Terrace, of which I saw very little as it coincided with work going on inside. Marsh chose Welly O’Brien whom she has known since their days in Candoco Dance Company and Smith chose two dancers who suffer like him from deafness: Anthony Snowden and Kevin Jewell. Anyone thinking they had a good grasp of integrated dance before this Choreolab had yet another aspect to consider: the integration of artists with complementary or similar disabilities. Marsh has two arms, one hand, and two legs, while O’Brien has two arms, two hands and one leg (though I never noticed in Falling in Love with Frida), making a collective total of four arms, three hands and three legs. Marsh and O’Brien use their respective limbs as a composer might use a key signature: an intricately inventive composition both constrained and enriched by the imposition of a set of rules. Marsh and O’Brien know each other well and have a similar clarity and consistency in their collaboration tinged with a sense of humour that develops from an opening motif to a ratcheting up of cattiness in competitive gestures.

Mark Smith is, amongst other things, the artistic director of Deaf Men Dancing, so his collaboration with Snowden and Jewell sidesteps the Summit’s notion of integrated dance for an integration of dance with gesture and sign language. The music is by creative signer Pete Waller, aka Deafboyone, and it is Jewell’s pinpoint timing in his hand gestures to the first song that communicate extraordinary power. Smith explains in the subsequent Q&A that one of the causes of deafness is the scrambling of hair nerves in the ear that impede the incoming sound waves. As with other performances over the weekend, it is the transformation of these kinds of disabilities into a clear communication of overriding truth that makes integrated dance — in all its manifestations — not only a vital element within the broader dance field but a universally valid art form in itself.

 

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