DaDaFest 2016: 11 Million Reasons to Dance

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From Gene Kelly singing in the rain to that white suit in Saturday Night Fever, 11 Million Reasons to Dance sees Deaf and disabled dancers re-imagining iconic dance scenes across cinematic history. Jade French caught a performance of it on 29 November at the Brindley, Liverpool as part of DaDaFest International 2016.

Cinematic style photograph by Sean Goldthorpe of two female dancers. One has a rope around the other one's waist, they are in dancing costumes.

One of Sean Goldthorpe’s photographs from the 11 Million Reasons exhibition

Commissioned by People Dancing with support from Unlimited Impact, this exhibition showcases the work of emerging photographer Sean Goldthorpe.  Exploring the photographic series in the Brindley’s art gallery, there’s real moments of beauty to be found. The photograph Black Swan featuring Sian Green depicts the silhouetted figure of a ballerina taking centre stage. The soft layers of her tutu are illuminated by the vivid spotlight, but this classic imagery is ingeniously disrupted by the shadowy outline of the dancer’s prosthetic leg.

The photographs are well staged and executed but their overall display seems somewhat out of place. The photographs in Brindley’s modern gallery space are displayed in large antique gold frames which dominate, and rob the exhibition of a contemporary feel. Similarly, to this curatorial decision, information is displayed in small writing on shiny silver plaques which are not only tricky to read in the glare of the gallery lights, but again, look dated. That said, the addition of the supporting films in a brilliantly designed interactive booth, lifts the display and adds a much-needed layer of interpretation and depth to the work.

Alongside the exhibition, is a dance performance of the same name.  A group of local disabled dancers from the Ella Together performance group worked with a choreographer to develop a new piece, which was showcased on 29 November alongside a duet by professional dancers Kate Marsh and Welly O’Brien who are both associate artists with Candoco Dance Company.

Marsh and O’Brien opened the show with their collaborative piece titled Famuli. As the lights dimmed, the room filled with the voice of Tom Waits and the duo strike poses upon a red velveteen box.  Marsh and O’Brien then danced by utilising a range of objects – balls, signs, handkerchiefs, and curiously, each other’s missing limbs. O’Brien, who is missing a leg, sits on Marsh’s lap giving the illusion of a ‘whole’ body, unravelling the constraints of normative corporeal ideals.  It looks cheeky, suggestive and distinctly vaudevillian.

“The piece is a result of our shared research, we looked a lot at the vaudeville performers Daisy and Violet Hilton, and were really drawn to their experiences and lives.” explains Marsh after the show.  “You mentioned a sexual theme to the work, which wasn’t conscious. We were talking about this after last night’s show and wondered if that is really about aspects of voyeurism”.

I happen to agree with Marsh. The suggestive posing, the changing configuration of thighs, arms and hands appears to be a lot about capturing the ‘gaze’. For me, the performance brilliantly explores the disabled female body and spectatorship – the sense in which all visibly disabled people are ‘on display’ when in a public space. Marsh and O’Brien utilise the vaudevillian style synonymous with the voyeur and subvert it into an empowering performance.

The second performance of the evening was by Ella Together. It began with a striking spoken word poem written by performer Stacey Wood. The poem, which spoke of equal rights and of strength, flowed perfectly into a contemporary dance piece. It was modern, edgy and political, but both performances seemed at odds with the imagery I’d viewed in the gallery.  There seemed to be a disconnect.

On the one hand, I am acutely aware and supportive of the importance of, as People Dancing describe, “positively profiling Deaf and disabled people who dance”. But at the same time, I’m wary that this can lure us into the quagmire of simply promoting celebratory narratives around disability, edging us into the ‘superhuman’ rhetoric.

Nonetheless, 11 Million Reasons to Dance does do a great job in supporting a broad audience to challenge normative constructions of who in our culture can be considered dancers. This is not easy. I am delighted that they are embarking on an ambitious tour of the UK with this project, and applaud their approach in drawing the visual arts and performing arts into dialogue.