Presenting Dance Interrogations and Enunciations at Footscray Community Arts this year, I have witnessed the wheelchair take on multiple incarnations – utilitarian object, personified and combative companion, a private space, extension of body and as a symbol for the disability and the arts movements. Disability and the arts. Even the words phrased in this way, separate and imply a division of perspectives that is opposed to coming together.
Speaking about disability is not easy or comfortable for many. This translates to silence around programming the work of artists who have a disability, perpetuating cycles of systemic discrimination on our stages. In Kate Hood’s words, her career was ‘denied to her’ the day she started using a wheelchair with paid work drying up despite an illustrious career on Australian and international stages. Art reflects life and conversations in Australia about the full spectrum of humanity, are sorely lacking the inclusion of the disability agenda.
So what does this mean for a contemporary arts centre such as FCA and what does it mean to platform the work of artists who have a disability? What did two such distinct works from Melinda Smith with Dianne Reid and Kate Hood with Raspberry Ripple — her new disability-led theatre company — add to this year’s Call to Create program?
Dance Interrogations was a poetic inquiry into the physicality and temporal experience of the body in space. Technology became an embodied altering of the physical response to and from communication devices, powered wheelchairs and film. Dance Interrogations wove together these elements to reveal the ‘small dance’ of Smith, materialising before the audiences’ eyes to become a unique choreography of concentration and focus. As we watched Smith draw movement from within to the outer layers of her body we shared the somatic experience on stage. Juxtaposed against Reid’s body-typical embrace of dance and improvisational form, more was revealed of Smith’s dance alongside that of Reid as they found a physical language between them that was responsive to the moment, space and knowledge of movement from one sequence to another.
The theatre work Enunciations on the other hand, normalised disability. Pointing the finger squarely at an able-bodied world with little, if any, practical understanding of what disability really is or of the diverse ways in which people may inhabit their bodies. Written, compiled and directed by Kate Hood, Enunciations covered a lot of grounds, through multiple short scenes with disabled and non-disabled characters who interacted with disability and ableism at every turn. Flipping roles and power relationships and literally spitting the dummy, Hood unapologetically breathed life into the existence of a wheelchair on stage, claiming its right to be there – along with the right of its user, the actor using it.
In a photograph, these shows appear similar. A discerning viewer may identify distinct dance traits in Dance Interrogations images that hint towards the non-linear narrative formula of the contemporary dance genre. For all intents and purposes, they both feature a wheelchair – is there any more to get? The short answer is yes. A whole lot more. And like a slow download, these shows graciously accept the ignorance of their audience. While not expecting to take on the dual task of being experimental as well as educating the community, they do. Exposing audiences to the thinking, working, intelligent bodies on stage.
The image of a wheelchair has many connotations, few of which are positive for someone without a disability and someone who has been fairly well indoctrinated with ableist ways of thinking. Both Dance Interrogations and Enunciations did more than their fair share of lifting the lid off stereotypes. More importantly, Smith, Reid and Hood got to the heart of the matter in eloquent and elegant style which left the audience with a sense of the sublime – a sense that something has shifted for having borne witness to the movement and the stories on stage. It won’t be long before a wheelchair is a common sight on stage and the revolution will be over. For now, I will enjoy these days of pioneering performance. Trail blazing is surely more interesting.
Image: Melinda Smith and Dianne Reid’s Dance Interrogations at FCA
Susan Doel is change agent and Creative Producer at Foostcray Community Arts Centre. Susan has worked in Community Arts and Cultural Development for 10 years and is passionate about the role of the artist as agitator in society. Susan enjoys working with the intersections that occur naturally in community and the ways in which this brings about innovative, transgressive arts practices.
Footscray Community Arts (FCA) is a community-engaged, contemporary arts centre working with local, regional and international communities.
We collaborate with artists, communities and organisations to build capacity, create opportunities and drive social change. We are the place where important conversations happen: we then action; we cultivate; we deepen.