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Momentum09 / 28 February 2009

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Photo of Rodney Bell of Axis Dance Company

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Momentum has been a difficult occasion for everyone involved. Philip Patston described his experience of it as being like driving a ten ton truck and suddenly hitting black ice and careering out of control.

I can’t imagine myself in his position, trying to keep faith and to keep face in the shock of having caused those people who had booked their flights in advance, to lose so much money. Many individuals lost their Arts Council funding to make the trip.

We had a difficult welcome in amongst all the ensuing chaos. But I was intrigued to see what might arise from the ashes. The first half of the day that Philip pulled off, was filled with engaging, powerful narratives. Aside from a lot of the sharing of stories that went on there was a  specific focus on three individual disabled artists careers.

Rodney Bell is a dancer from New Zealand, originally of Maori descent who has since moved to San Francisco where he works with the long established dance company Axis Dance Company. He came across with a rare combination of humility and power, talking us through his life; acquiring a disability at 19 after a motor-bike accident.

I loved the strong shapes and sense of the earth that he conveyed in some of the dance he showed us. His is a not untypical story of someone struggling with the new body they find themselves with after impairment and using art as a means to coming to terms with their predicament.

I could say loads but have limited time here. Mat Fraser from the UK told us his story, which is a story I know well, having followed his career fairly closely. He is about to appear in Channel Four's 'Cast Off' - a drama I'm very much looking forward to.

He talked about growing up in a show-biz family and finding his way with the support of the disability arts community. We are still strongly of the opinion that there is a need for more development in this arena - especially for emerging artists searching for opportunity and experience.

Tom Shakespeare is someone I’ve always been in awe of, partly because he has often been outspokenly contentious, but mainly because he always comes across as so damn intelligent. His talk was about advocating for disability as creative starting point for making art that reflects different bodies, different experiences of being in the world. I’ve always felt slighty intimidated by his presence as a writer and an academic, so it was refreshing to hear him talk about his personal journey as an artist.

I was not expecting him to talk about his sense of failure in his endeavours. He quoted Beckett’s famous maxim: 'Fail again, fail better', which for me in the context of Momentum; everything that has happened, is something very precious to hang on to.

Tom talked about life as a series of failures. It is at the crux of the fear that non-disabled people project on to us. We can carry on as artists in our individual careers, either fighting failure or living with it; knowing that there are successes to be gained through being honest and open about who we are and what we can achieve..

Listening to him talk gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own journey through disability arts. I've often considered the path I've taken as a road to failure. During the course I've often been advised to find a path outside of the disability arts arena. But I am motivated by a sense of failure. It is what has driven me to persist in banging on the disability arts drum through all these years. For me success is very much about learning to fail better.

The path Momentum has taken, has changed rapidly over the past few weeks. As the festival itself has failed, due to funding being pulled at the last minute, so another path has made itself available – through the online domain. The Big idea are coming on board to partner with Momentum to help build an online community, with some of the core resources that Philip has been working at producing. Amongst these, the narratives shared today will be hosted online when the new site goes live on 1 April.

One person I would have loved to have heard more from was a Maori woman - Whairitotu – who gave us all the experience of a unique Maori welcome known as a Powhiri – a dedication and a recognition of our presence as a group of people being invited by the Maori ancestors of the land. She talked about the Maori community as a community who are disabled in many ways. It would have been good to have heard more from her about her feelings about that.

There was a strong emphasis throughout the day on physical disability; but we are disabled by society in many ways. She said the day had given her songs and stories to take home to her grandchildren. I came away with a sense that being an ear to those narratives, could open up a great deal of insight into other perspectives on disability.

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