The British Paraorchestra : The Nature of Why

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The British Paraorchestra is a large-scale professional ensemble of disabled musicians. Their new show The Nature of Why, commissioned by Unlimited (delivered by Shape and Artsadmin), was performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday 5th September. Review by Trish Wheatley

Bringing the audience onto the stage has been a trend for the Unlimited Festivals at London’s Southbank Centre. Sometimes it has been about artform, and sometimes it has been about the daunting prospect of filling a huge auditorium. Much work still needs to be done in developing audiences for work by disabled artists. In the British Paraorchestra and Friends’ case, it was an artistic decision to use the stage space in a groundbreaking way to democratise the performance space in an innovative way.

The Nature of Why. Credit: Paul Blakemore

The popularity of the event could well have done to sell auditorium tickets as well as those offering the immersive and magically intimate experience of being on stage during the performance as at times it was difficult to be in a position with good sight lines, particularly for the wheelchair users amongst the standing audience.

The Nature of Why is devised by composer Will Gregory, choreographer Caroline Bowditch, and conductor Charles Hazlewood which blurs the lines between musician and dancer, creating sonic expressions of movement, and movement that interprets the music.

Takashi Kikuchi in The Nature of Why. Credit Paul Blakemore

When I first saw the British Paraorchestra perform at Orchestra in a Field in 2012, I was sceptical about the repertoire of ‘classical hits’ chosen for the unconventional collection of instruments played by this ensemble. Disability Arts Online was able to commission Towards Harmony, the first piece written for the group by Lloyd Coleman, founding member and now Associate Artistic Director.

Will Gregory’s composition and the way that this particular incarnation of the Paraorchestra has gelled for this piece is extraordinary. There were sections of dramatic percussion, sumptuous strings and then a glorious electric guitar solo that soared overhead, complemented by wordless operatic soprano vocals from Victoria Oruwari and Joanne Roughton-Arnold.

The audience was immersed in this cinematic atmosphere that shifted between tension, suspense and lightness into mystery. The spoken sections that punctuated the nine distinct movements within the music referred to electrical and magnetic forces linking them to the force of the earths gravitational pull questioning how to describe those forces in a playful and succinct way.

The text mirrored the choreography and the music as the audience, dancers and musicians: the push and pull in the movement affected the audience on stage, gently forcing them to move and respond to what was happening around them. In mid-play dancers gracefully moved around and over each other, luring musicians and audience into contact with them.

Like any immersive show, it’s a subjective experience that is different for everyone depending on where they are positioned. It requires the audience to actively participate in being there and make choices about where to watch from. For me, this created the incredible opportunity to get up close to the musicians and really listen to the different sections of the ensemble, which was an absolute privilege.

This show throws convention out of the window and begins to reshape the audience experience of classical music, bringing it closer to the individual. This is exciting. This could have lasting impact on an artform that is usually filled with convention and tradition. The Paraorchestra and Friends have found their place in the world and are just getting better and better.

For more information about The British Paraorchestra go to http://paraorchestra.com/our-projects/the-nature-of-why/