Monday, September 17, 2012

Spare Parts

The last few weeks seem like a strange fantasy dreamland in retrospective: Thanks to the Paralympics, not only sports became more diverse, inclusive and exciting, but London 2012 also gave disability culture a massive boost. For 12 days, disability was everywhere, from disabled comedians on TV and on stages to films and plays by disabled artists and exhibitions on disability.

One of those exhibitions, that was not part of the official Cultural Olympiad, was 'Spare Parts'. It is curated by a young Australian lady, Priscilla, who had the idea for the project when she found a few of her own old prosthetic legs stored away in a cupboard. Held at the 'Rag Factory', off Brick Lane, 'Spare Parts' showcased prosthetic limbs turned into artworks by a wide range of artists. In addition, it' also showed futuristic-feeling prosthetic limbs that are made with cutting-edge technology - Priscilla admits having a bit of a crush on Paralympic 'Blade Runner' Oscar Pistorius, who might have served as an inspiration for those exhibits.  There are also a few photographs displayed of amputees with special, customized prosthetic limbs. One of the glamourous ladies depicted is London's very own performance artist, model and fashionista Viktoria Modesta, who starred in the Paralympic Closing Ceremony.

The exhibition showcases that prosthetic limbs can be fun (a little girl proudly presents her artificial Barbie leg) and sexy - both the artists and the owners of the limbs have turned them into objects of desire. Upon seeing a diamond-encrusted hook, I am startled at how stunningly beautiful it is and my first reaction is 'I wish I had this!', before I can actually process the connotations of this thought.

'Spare Parts' definitely challenges preconceptions about artificial limbs and about beauty, in a similar way that Sue Austin's 'Creating the Speactacle!' creates a new dialogue and desirability around the wheelchair.

Unfortunately, 'Spare Parts' was only on during the Paralympics, but below are a few pictures of the exhibtion that Priscilla allowed me to take. Enjoy.

Zoe and her flowery leg that is now replaced by a Barbie leg

Viktoria Modesta and her steam-punk leg

The naughty Vagina arm

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I am your private dancer... Promenade Performance at the Unlimited

I wrote a review of Fittings Multimedia Art's spooky promenade theatre production 'The Ugly Spirit' for Disability Arts Online, which you can check out here.

This experience left me deeply unsettled, which is good, but it's also not necessarily one I would like to repeat. Ever. Janice Parker's 'Private Dancer', though, is a completely different kettle of fish. By relatively simple means, Parker has achieved to create magical, individual moments in her promenade dance production.

I knew before we saw the production that it would somehow involve dancers inviting -or not inviting- people into their 'rooms'. I also knew that most dancers were disabled, most of them having learning disabilities. As we entered the Level 5 Function room, a very neat and proper middle-aged gentleman told us a bit about the history of the Southbank Centre, and of the level on which we were at, which included a 'Royal Box'. As a big fan of her majesty, I was very keen to see this.

Our majesty at the opening of the Royal Festival Hall in 1951

We were then lead into a room, which was dominated by a wooden construct, which was divided into different small rooms with closeable doors. We were then explained that in each room, there would be performers, and that they could select us, one at a time, to be intivited into the rooms. As the music started playing, a few people were taken instantly by the hand and led into one of the rooms. Sometimes, doors were left opened, and all the rooms had little holes through which the performance could be seen from the outside, but I was very keen to be invited in and became slightly disappointed when it didn't happen for a while.

When I did finally get invited,  I felt very intrusive entering the girl's 'room'. Yes, I had been invited in by the person guarding the door, but I still felt voyeuristic, watching as the girl danced in front of a cluttered desk, and was glad when the short performance was over. However, when I left the room I almost instantly felt a light touch on my shoulder and was invited into the next room. In there was a middle-aged woman with grey hair, sat in a wheelchair. She got up from the chair for her performance, and her dancing had a fascinating frailty and strength at the same time. She had a naughty twinkle in her eyes, which reminded me of Zoe Wanamaker, while my boyfriend, who was invited into her room too, compared her to Helen Mirren.  It was a joy to watch her, and I felt incredibly lucky to be chosen to go into her room. After that, I was invited into another room, in which two girls where performing. It seemed less personal and intimate to watch two people, but almost had the feel of going to the house of a friend and having a little dance before going clubbing.

The construct of 'Private Dancer'
What I think is fascinating about Private Dancer is that the experience is different for everyone in the audience.  Even if you have seen the same people as someone else, you have not seen them at the same time and you will never know whether the performance was the same or completely different. The production makes you go through a roller-coaster of emotions: the anxiety of whether you will be invited in, possible unease as you enter someone's space, and an intimate connection with a dancer, which seems very special, as dance performances usually happen for a big audience, which always made me feel somewhat detached from performances. Before the event was over, all the dancers left their rooms and created, together with all of the audience members, a massive disco moment as Blondie's 'Atomic' came on.  It felt really relieving to celebrate and move around, and to have a moment shared with everyone in the room.

The production made me think about intimacy and privacy, things that are often not respected by your environment when you are a disabled person. For many people with a learning disability, it is very difficult to have a space where you can be intimate with someone, and for many people with physical impairments even the most private acts, like having a bath or getting dressed, require the help of a carer. From my own experience I feel that privacy and intimacy did not come easily - as a child, I needed the help of my parents for many things a lot longer than my brother did, and I spent a lot of time at hospitals where people wander in and out of your room all the time without having to ask for permission. I think the idea to give disabled people a space where they can create intimate and autonomous performances is very subversive and it felt like a big privilege to see such a performance.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Unlimited Day 2: In Water I'm Weightless and Mat Fraser's Criptease Unlimited

On Friday I saw two amazing things at the Unlimited: Kaite O'Reilly's play 'In Water I'm Weightless' and 'Criptease Unlimited', which had Mat Fraser and other disabled people undress and do burlesque performances. I was very pleased that both things had Mat Fraser in it, so I was in fangirl-mode all night.
My review for Criptease is up on Disability Arts Online, an online journal, and you can read it here. below is my review of 'In Water I'm Weightless'. 

'In Water I'm Weightless' starts off like a fashion show. Pounding music and bright lights is the backdrop as the five actors enter the stage in elaborate gowns, suits and striking headpieces. The characters take turns in shouting at the audience, shouting that we are all the same, we are all mortal. After this impressive beginning, 'In Water I'm Weightless' goes on to explore how the story of the five characters overlaps, and how it overlaps with everyone's story.
The characters go through moments when they are dancing and celebrating. But they also go through passages where they are sad, angry or struggling. Many scenes shift from one emotion into another, for example when Sophie Stone does a scene entitled 'things I have lip-read. The ablist, and often sexist quotes her character has lip-read are deeply unsettling. Her reaction to them, however, and the obvious fact that her character is not anything like the quiet, submissive deaf girl men assume her to be, create a lot of humour and laughter.

Sophie Stone in In Water I'm Weightless
 Kaite O'Reilly, who wrote 'In Water I'm Weightless', has created a piece that is fragmented and mostly consists of monologues, but also tells a captivating story. The characters are constantly frustrated with the way the medical profession and society try to govern their lives and their bodies, and manage to escape this control for short periods, in which they express themselves through music and fascinating dance performances. Some of those sections have a very sexual feel to them. This sexuality is celebrated tenderly through the performers' movements and stands in opposition to the objectification of their bodies by doctors and authorities.
The characters express the tension between the way they are seen and the way they see themselves. However, the play manages to transcend the idea that only disabled people have to deal with this tension and instead, 'In Water I'm Weightless' shows a wide rainbow of emotions that are universal and left me deeply unsettled, in a good way.