Art from the heart

UK Disability History Month: Celebrating our lives; challenging disablism; achieving equaliy27 NOVEMBER 2015

Yesterday we had the very great pleasure of welcoming Signdance Collective International to the Old Town Hall Stratford, our international guest artists for 2015 who flew into the UK the night before. The collective is led by Cuban dance artist Isolte Avila and Brit David Bower (Hugh Grant’s brother in Four Weddings), who work with Deaf and hearing, disabled and non-disabled dancers from across the world on different productions, touring and working internationally. For the festival, Isolte and David were joined by Paunika Jones, formerly of Dance Theater Harlem, and Deaf dancer Antoine Hunter from San Francisco, accompanied by Austrian sound artist Lila Schwammerlin mixing pre-recorded tracks on her iPad with live guitar. (I was secretly thrilled to lend Lila my own Yamaha guitar, to save on flight costs, and to hear such wonderful music coming from it. I was also delighted to discover she was from Graz, where I have been fortunate enough to perform twice myself.)

David Bower (foreground) works with participants at the dance workshop at the Old Town Hall Stratford on 26 November 2015

David Bower (foreground) works with participants at the dance workshop at the Old Town Hall Stratford on 26 November 2015

We began the day with an open workshop at 2.30pm, attended by a diverse range of locally based Deaf, disabled and non-disabled artists. Participants were able to find out more about the company and their unique and considered approach to making work, in addition to experiencing and experimenting with their choreographic techniques. First, the company and participants introduced themselves, and Isolte Avila led a discussion about language barriers, dance and Sign culture. Isolte also explained: “Dance isn’t about acrobatics. It’s an art form. It’s about communication. Disabled artists make work that is real, that comes from our hearts and bodies.” Everyone who took part had an enriching experience, and we hope to be able to create another opportunity to learn from the company before too long. In the meantime, Together! is opening a contemporary dance club in the New Year, where disabled and Deaf people and their companions will be able to use improvisation techniques to create film-based dance work. Contact us for more information.

Participants at the dance workshop at the Old Town Hall Stratford on 26 November 2015

Participants at the dance workshop at the Old Town Hall Stratford on 26 November 2015

As always, it was a joy to see people with very different access needs and experiences of impairment coming together with non-disabled people to celebrate their creativity – and yet again I wondered why society continues to segregate people by their perceived medical condition? We have not experienced one difficulty as a result of our inclusive approach, but both locally and nationally, many people with learning difficulties in particular continue to be segregated for the vast majority of their time. Having access to disabled-led spaces is very important for all disabled people, but not at the expense of first and foremost being included in wider society. Meanwhile segregating people with mental health difficulties overlooks the mental wellbeing needs of all disabled people, as well as increasing isolation. Then of course people with mobility and sensory related impairments and long-term health conditions may also have learning difficulties or mental health problems; in reality it is impossible to put us into different boxes anyway. I am pleased to be working in another role with national Mind, so that they are better able to take this type of complexity into account.


The power of David Bower’s performance continues to increase with age; fortunately, in Carthage he has an equally talented cast around him.

In the evening the company performed Carthage, set in an imagined despoiled landscape, with dramaturgical direction by Spanish writer Beatriz Cabur. The production explores the displacement, forced migration and trafficking of individuals, especially in the aftermath of wars, and is directly relevant to the experiences of many local residents as well as resonating strongly with international current affairs.

Isolte Avila explained to me earlier: “The ancient city of Carthage was the centre of the Carthaginian Empire in antiquity, and is currently a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia. The play on words in the Spanish language is ‘carta ajena’, which translates literally as ‘letter from afar’ and also references the port city of Cartagena in Colombia and its namesake city in Spain. One of the key themes woven into the text is the power of language and the struggle for many who face adversity; and as such cannot speak the language of the oppressor as eloquently and therefore are rendered disenfranchised. This theme is amplified by the use of Sign as another language that is also not widely understood. Yet invention and yearning for freedom by way of articulating a plea for freedom in a second language can render the language all the more poignant. Carthage/Cartagena encapsulates and distils this dilemma perfectly in poetical terms.”

Together! is an indoor-outdoor pop-up arts organisation which produces free disabled-led performances, exhibitions and events that are open to all, and the Old Town Hall’s Victorian splendour creates a surprisingly flexible background. Here, the municipal associations underlined the fact that the only difference between a refugee, an immigrant and a citizen is, as my UK-born godson once said after spending four weeks in Yarlswood detention centre aged 9, “having the right paperwork”. The company reversed our usual production area and opened the blinds, so that the ornate windows became part of the set and the light from the passing traffic added to the atmosphere. I enjoyed taking Beatriz Cabur’s role as searchlight operator, on occasion adding my wheelchair lights to her handheld torch, while my assistant Cliff Segree mixed our own lights.

Signdance Collective International embodies the fact that diversity is core to artistic excellence, and the contrast with the cloned bodies more common even in contemporary dance companies was striking. David Bower has always been a mesmerising dancer, and the power of his performance continues to increase with age, confounding those who feel that professional dancers should end their careers at 40. Fortunately, in Carthage he has an equally talented cast around him, including Lila Schwammerlin. Small wonder that the company seldom stop touring; we were extremely pleased to have the opportunity to host this London visit. You can read Angus McKenzie-Davie’s review of the performance in Disability Arts Online here:!-festival-signdance-collective-international-carthage 

In the next few years, Stratford’s own East London Dance will be joined by offshoots of Sadlers Wells and Random Dance. Meanwhile English National Ballet will be moving to my own neighbourhood of Canning Town, where we already have the hugely popular pop-up Hallsville School of Ballet run by Lydie Schrepfer (who is a familiar local figure as she cycles between venues with a large trailer attached). If the Paralympic Legacy receives the parity that was promised, then this flowering of dance culture in Newham should provide many further opportunities for disabled artists to develop careers in dance. However, funding cuts have already drastically reduced the opportunities that East London Dance were able to provide disabled dancers with in the past, including the ground-breaking Cultural Shift project for disabled choreographers (where I was on the steering group). As with everything to do with Legacy, we need everyone’s support to ensure that the Paralympics creates a new era of arts inclusion in East London and beyond.

Next: Not following the herd

With grateful thanks to our funders:Arts Council England, with further support fromTrinity Buoy Wharf, Countryside Properties, Davenport Venue and Events Management and London Borough of Newham.