Saturday, 9 May 2015

Chapter 76: Extraordinary Bodies' WEIGHTING

Karina Jones & Jamie Beddard
watching young twins Kika Green & Anna Welch 
There are days when nature seems to mock in metaphors. I woke up yesterday with an election hangover to grey skies and an overcast world. On the way back from the school run, the day before, the CD of Barnum was playing in the car at my three year old's request, and as we pulled up to the polling station we were chanting "taxes have to be increased, to give to those who have the least" - well, that's my kind of humbug, and we were on a roll. Turns out the majority weren't buying it though. So, where do we go from here?

Well, I'm going to start by recommending that everyone go and see Weighting, by Extraordinary Bodies.  The show had come onto my radar after recognising a familiar face (Circumference's Aislinn Mulligan) on a poster a few weeks ago, then hearing more at a pitch at Canvas (see previous post), where a chance conversation there with Nick White, the participation manager, led me to the preview yesterday (Friday). Extraordinary Bodies is a professional circus company, the partnership of Cirque Bijou and Diverse City, that integrates disabled and non-disabled performers, dances and actors, and in the process becomes one body of a company, dissolving separations - as Billy Alwen, the artistic director of Cirque Bijou, said afterwards, "I think in terms of the abilities and not the disabilities". Extraordinary Bodies won £100,000 from the Clore Duffield Foundation for the development of this project that is an uplifting vision bringing a diverse community together in harmony. 

Aishlin Mulligan, Karina Jones & Deb Roach
The show itself is a moving family story about a father, Blake (Jamie Beddard) doing his best to protect his wife Ella (Karina Jones) and daughters, the twins Dora & Myla (Aislinn Mulligan & Deb Roach) from the world outside, learning gradually to let go and take the plunge himself. The action pivots on a central suspended contraption that can act as a staircase, steps leading to new adventures, a crossing place bridging worlds and a tipping point from where to leap to new horizons. As well as the circus performers, actors and dancers, there is a terrific musical score by Dom Coyote, a superb live band (complete with hula-hooping harp player Helen Orford, as I texted my Dulwich-based harp teacher!) and a local community choir under the direction of choirmaster Colin Rea, whose sublime grand finale of "Moments and Memories" is still going round in my head. 

Tom Ball
Among the audience it was great to recognise a few familiar faces from Canvas, including Kate White and Daisy Drury from the National Centre for Circus Arts (formerly Circus Space) which has been supporting the show in the provision of a developmental working space, and Circus Space graduates are involved in the performance as well. Guttingly, though, we only saw the first and last five minutes of the show as rain interrupted play. John Kelly, main vocals and electronic percussion, chivvied people along and kept us all laughing - "blame the Tories!" - and entertained while tarpaulins were hauled out, then pushed back again, temporary shelters erected and umbrellas unfurled, but my heart went out to the disappointment of the choirs of children from two local schools due to be joining in the grand finale who had to go home without performing. For my part, I was glad to have even a glimpse of the magnitude and beauty of this project. The innovative use of the bridge/steps has to be seen to be believed, and the tricks pulled on it at the end by Tom Ball were heart-stopping. A word probably overused in circus critiques, but otherwise I'm speechless. 

Panel Discussion
It was invaluable to have access to the panel discussion as well, comprising (from left to right) the Southbank's Jude Kelly, David Ellington (performer), Claire Hodgson (Artistic Director of Extraordinary Bodies and Chief Executive of Diverse City), Jenny Sealey (from Greae Theatre Company, which provides an exciting platform for world class disabled artists), Karina Jones (performer), and Jamie Beddard (performer). Together the panellists explored the value of diversity. What place does the arts have in society and education? The key word here is Empathy. As Jude Kelly pointed out, all too often in the arts, cultural production  has traditionally both reflected and been blinded by the vision of the white middle-class able-bodied male, which while it is a valid point of view, is not the universal point of view, so when it takes centre stage as it has done, it is to the detriment of multiple experiences and marginalises diverse narratives that need to be heard in order for us to have a connected, functioning society. "You can't understand the world you live in unless you've been listening to the stories of many people, stories that aren't your own." 

So I felt deeply Jamie's disillusionment as he talked of the "profoundly depressing" state of affairs for people with disabilities, that despite the inroads made in the wake of the high profiled Paralympics Games those there today, involved in this project, were the lucky ones, but "the voiceless millions, well it breaks my heart". I listened keenly to the challenges faced within the deaf community, signalled by David who also runs a production and film company, that leave a wealth of hidden skills untapped and ignored. To Jenny's wake-up call for a Revolution that starts here. To Claire on the impact of the  cuts to the Access to Works scheme (click here for further information in The Independent's article). To Karina, visually impaired, asking with a wry smile how many other companies would be up for employing a blind aerialist. The re-election of a governing body responsible for existing and now further projected cuts, both in arts funding and support for people with disabilities, means that now more than ever, voices clamouring for minority rights need to be heard. And, crucially, you don't need to belong to that minority in order to stand up for it. That should be bleeding obvious, but sadly it often isn't and it is worth repeating.  

Cast with musical director, singing, Dom Coyote
That Weighting is happening now, then, is fantastic in terms of increasing visibility and bringing diversity into part of our everyday landscape in an extraordinary way, through the medium of music, circus and performance. The grand finale to the piece where the 180-strong chorus sings of "Moments and Memories" becomes a celebration of our connection as a community of otherhood. It is a moment to hold onto, and time to shout out, albeit in harmony, with one voice that speaks to every body of  diversity. 

Weighting is on this weekend in Dulwich Park - today (Saturday, 9 May) 2pm and 7pm, and tomorrow (Sunday, 10 May) 2pm, with follow up workshops in Southwark next weekend, and will be at four more locations round the country.

Weighting comes under "Plays", one of three programmes of work looking to highlight the value of diversity in the arts, and encourage social engagement. The other two being "Sings" the creation of a mass local community choir, and "Leads" which appoints two cultural leaders to promote integrated practice both within their local community and as part of a community of advocates on a national scale. As this event is taking place in five different locations there is an element of handing over the baton of knowledge and experience to each site specific local community. 

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