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Art of Difference

I attended a lot of cabaret performances at Art of Difference. The first reaction to being in Gasworks Arts Park was that it was like being at the Dada-Fest, which takes place in Liverpool every year – the big difference being that we were in the sun. However there are differences between Disability Arts and Deaf Arts culture in Melbourne and generally in the UK. Firstly, everything here is a lot more non-disabled led. On an organisational level, things possibly tend to run more smoothly here, as a result, but as a result there is also less of a political edge, generally.

Here as in the UK there is a tendency to place everything under the label of Disability Arts, whether or not the work is coming from a participatory, community, inclusive or disability arts format. With some exceptions, notably Alexandra Beesley’s animated documentary Revolving Door, there wasn’t much of a sense at Art of Difference of the notion of Disability Arts as being about making work that tackles discrimination directly, although there were some wonderful extracts of performances, particularly from Atypical Theatre and Back to Back theatre.

The edgy side to Disability Arts seemed to be themes that were introduced as parts of an overall aesthetic integral to the Art, rather than overtly advocating a political agenda. So when Sarah Mainwaring from Back to Back introduced a film clip from her piece Foreign Body during one of the seminar sessions, her approach was here is a piece of Art, rather than here is a Disability Arts. The clip showed her delivering a monologue direct to camera, Alan Bennet-style. She used an apple and impeccable timing to deliver a very funny but highly political story about "a bad girl called Eve." The bible story was a device for her to talk candidly about disability and gender politics.

Similarly, at the Thursday night cabaret Atypical Theatre Company performed a scene from ‘One more than One’ – a dialogue between a 3 foot high Caucasian woman and a 6 foot 6 Asian man, who are to all intent and purpose meeting for the first time through a dating service. The premise was original and entertaining, but also highly controversial, subverting notions of the freak show. The piece used elements of movement and physical theatre to illustrate character development, whilst the dialogue unraveled into a string of disablist and racist insults hurled between the two characters. It was a very clever bit of writing, daring to make the incredible, credible by imposing disability and race onto an ostensibly mundane piece of social interaction.

I also really enjoyed the readings from Insanity Consultant and poet Sandy Jeffs. There was an edge to her delivery that gave an insight into life and conditions for a mental health service user, served up with lashings of humour.

I've still lots of notes to write up, so keep returning to this blog for further reflections on the Art of Difference and the disability arts scene here.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 22 March 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 25 March 2009

Touch Compass: The Sleep of Reason begets Monsters

Harmonious Oddity – the triple bill by Touch Compass presented over the first three nights of the Art of Difference Festival began with a piece of Dance for Camera called The Picnic made in 2003. Imagine a bizarre Victorian garden party envisaged through the lens of Alice in Wonderlands' looking glass, peopled by an eclectic mix of strange folk. Playing with images of circus freak show, the piece was a highly polished, original and entertaining whirl around the theme of a pleasant summer afternoon by the river. Each characters' costume took on architectural importance, elegantly and cleverly framed within a fast paced movement. Every frame was staged like an Impressionist painting  - with some direct references to Degas' pictures of gentlefolk, white parasols in hand, indulging themselves in social fraternity.

Much of Touch Compass' work plays on the idea of dream images and the surreal. The second piece was a duet with Suzanne Cowan and Adrian Smith called Grotteschi. A gothic horror, the piece told the story of a spider woman, at turns feeding, using and devouring her acolyte. The lighting was used to dramatic effect to capture small, riveting movements of the spider womans' head, torso and her many legs, which at times seemed to fill the stage. A very versatile piece, the work embraced a range of tempo and mood changes from cafe society, to ballroom, to dark subterranean lair.

In a work staged later on Thursday in Federation Square, at the heart of Melbourne's arts hub, Suzanne Cowan created another strange Bosch-like character for another duet with a non-disabled dancer. Bedrock was quirky and in-your-face, angry and funny look at the patronisation of disabled people. Covered from the head down in thousands of cotton wool balls, Suzanne looked something like a terrorist sheep, dependent yet menacing. Performing without her wheelchair, Suzanne was handled and placed into position by her dance partner Sean Curham. On one level the piece was about a fight to stay in control, throwing out notions of aesthetic and celebrating the inane.

I loved the boldness and the weirdness of this work, but unfortunately the main piece within the triple bill, Harmonious Oddity, failed to meet my expectations. Whilst some of the narrative held the attention, much of the intent behind the work got lost. The basic story took the audience through a day in the life of the central performer, Jesse Steele setting the scene with a film of him having dinner, going to bed, and falling asleep into dream after a day of rehearsal.

It would have been far stronger if there had been more autobiographical references, but it was unclear how much of the storytelling had come from the central character. We were looking in on Jesse’s internal world, ostensibly exploring the taboo area of learning disability and sexuality. I've seen this theme worked before, done with tenderness by UK inclusive dance company Stopgap and with an unequivocal directness in a film recording of Back to Back's Sally and Bunce. In Harmonious Oddity the main character is assailed by creatures of the night. At first he is scared but then comes to welcome their presence. But there was something verging on exploitation as the relationships were played out. The non-disabled dancer flirts with the learning disabled dancer. He warms to her, but you know that there is going to be no follow through. There is a tacit collusion with the general discrimination that a learning disabled man has no right to feelings of desire. The central character becomes further infantilised as the movement turns into flights of fancy about horse-play and mock gun battles.

Coming from the UK I'm not used to dance companies working along the lines of mixed ability. It didn't work for me. The dynamic of the more experienced performers became overshadowed by the physicality of the less experienced, unconfident performers. I kept wanting more from Jesse Steele. He struck a charismatic presence on stage, but we never got to him. There was a story in there to be drawn out, about how surreal disabled peoples' lives can be – having to navigate through the misconceptions and prejudices of the external world, but what we got was bitty and mostly superfluous.

The aerial work which Touch Compass cite as having given them an international reputation for ingenuity in their performances, took away from the energy of the performance rather than giving it gravitas. Apparently Harmonious Oddity won four Tempo awards in 2007, but I wonder what level of critical debate the company have had around their work.

During the two days of the Art of Difference seminar there was much discussion around the lack of critical debate around disability arts. It is part of the package that comes with the majority of reviews of the work of disabled and deaf performers and artists. There is a worthy sheen that is placed over the work, which stifles debate. Often it is the reason why artists with disabilities don't want the disability tag. It is the same here as in the UK. But then the other side of the coin is that there are few platforms for work informed by the disability experience.

Tom Shakespeare talked a lot about the lack of reference to art historical resources, which would give reviewers a way of contextualising the work. Bruce Gladwin talked about the job for reviewers having got easier in reference to Back to Back Theatre Company, as the body of work they have produced over the 23 years they have been going, has created its own reference points.

Generally there is a sense, certainly in Melbourne if not other parts of Australia, that the Disability and Deaf Arts movement is coming from a viewpoint that puts artistic excellence in front of other considerations; an argument I think that we are still seeking to win in the UK. Not that our artists don't do artistic excellence, but maybe it is still accepted as a key priority.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 March 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 March 2009

Touch Compass on the radar

I was very excited at the prospect of seeing Touch Compass, having met several of the artists from the programme whilst I was in Auckland where the company is based. Tim Turner, Rodney Bell and Suzanne Cowan all talked about their work with such passion and commitment. When disabled artists (or artists with disabilities as is the preferred term in Australia) take their work into a professional arena they are driven to give several hundred per cent. There is an extra determination needed. Having heard Rodney Bell speak at Momentum with such warmth and candour about his process of development as a dancer under the mentorship of director Catherine Chappell I had a sense of the company as a place where dancers are pushed to find the limits of their artistic expression. 

Rodney talked about his first attempts at creating intent within his dance movement by using mundane actions like making toast. As he developed confidence so he levitated to explore his psyche in greater and greater depth. What he showed us at Momentum was very much derived from his Maori heritage.

Often dancers will stay for a very long time - more than a decade even - with the same company. This happens partly because of the lack of opportunity to perform with other dance companies. It also happens because of the need to build up relationships over time, to develop an original expression. There is a greater need for peer support when working within a disability or integrated context. However with Touch Compass all three of the dancers I've met thus have either moved on or have other strings to their bow. Rodney Bell is now with Axis Dance company in California. Suzanne Cowan has come to Touch Compass after having spent a couple of years with Candoco in the UK. Tim Turner works with Touch Compasses' educational programme, but also sustains a career as a visual artist.

Having seen two Touch Compasses performances at Art of Difference I have been greatly impressed by the work of Suzanne Cowan. To read my review of Touch Compass please return to these pages later.


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 14 March 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 14 March 2009

Art of Difference Festival: Melbourne 2009

Art of Difference is a disability and deaf arts festival produced by Gasworks in South Melbourne between 10 - 21 March 2009. I have the privilege of attending the first week of the festival and reporting on it for dao.

Coming to grips with the size of Melbourne has been somewhat daunting after traveling through the relative smallness of Auckland and Wellington. I arrived from New Zealand late last Monday, tired and jet-lagged. I made it to the hotel bar to be greeted with a g-day by a guy named Blue from wheat and sheep country in New South Wales. I've not quite got over the unrealness of it all; of being here and taking in the festival yet. But there is a great line-up of artists to be looked-forward to. I’ve had a warm welcome, so internet hiccups allowed for, I’m warming up.

Kicking off on Tuesday afternoon were a group called Just Us Theatre who performed a dance piece titled The Forest of Gongs. Just Us are a company who have evolved – like many of the best learning disabled performance companies – from a day programme set up by the City Council. 

They reminded me of learning disability groups like Heart n' Soul and Art + Power in their very early days. What 'Just Us' lacked in confidence they made up for in determination. The performers gelled as a group and were able to convey a strong sense of mutual support. I also felt the work was coming from the right place - with the performers in control of what and who they were presenting. It is a fine line when directing performers learning how to project themselves on stage. If anything, I would say there needed to be more focussed engagement with the narratives being explored. Overall there was a cohesion, and an enjoyment about The Forest of Gongs that was engaging. 

A series of large gongs were set as a backdrop that created a dramatic atmosphere and were an interesting device to set the dance around. Bird-woman Melissa Slaviero created a sumptuous image as she set the cast of forest explorers to sleep. The action was evocatively orchestrated by a mostly percussive musical background, that took the audience through a mixture of scenes from jungle to the river Styx, where the ferryman came along to survey the troupe. Were they truly sleeping or was this the underworld?

The one thing that jarred with me was the sudden appearance of Elvis, whose character upset the magical atmosphere that had been building through the dance. I've seen so many learning disability groups use Elvis as a device. It just seems like lazy art direction.

Just Us were a good example of participatory arts in development. It is important to create and showcase opportunities for creative development that artists with disabilities would not find through traditional avenues. However, the performance left me acutely aware of the problem around the definition of the term Disability Arts. Here, as in the UK, it is a term bandied as a catch-all for any and all work by artists and performers who define themselves under the disability label. But where does that leave professional disabled artists, who have chosen to own that identity as artists, who create work that is informed by the experience of disability and the attitudes that society poses in reference to disability.

It is a problem I shall delve into in more detail during my reviews of the festival yet to come.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 March 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 March 2009