University of Atypical Bounce back with another cutting edge disability arts festival

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For the 8th year running Bounce Festival in Belfast produced by the University of Atypical took place from 5th to 8th September 2019. Brim-full of artistic events in a punchy, passionately political creative programme, Julie McNamara interviewed the producer, artists and festival-goers to give an overview of its trials and triumphs.

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Lady Vendredi. Photo Credit: Paul Moore

Boris Johnson, our unelected Prime Minister plans to introduce a two-tier border in the six counties, the North of Ireland; on contested land where the Queen allegedly has sovereignty. Meanwhile there is an extraordinary festival here, led by Deaf and Disabled artists, flourishing in spite of cuts in Arts and Culture. Bounce Festival spawned in Belfast, the heart of Ulster, continues to thrive.

Since its conception, I have become an avid fan of Bounce Festival. I must admit my bias, Shirley McNamara – my Mother, Queen of the Mersey became poster girl for their creative dementia project Art and Biscuits. That was back in 2012, the year the Olympic flame was due to arrive in Belfast and Chris Ledger, Director of the festival and CEO of Arts Disability Forum (ADF) decided to meet the flame with a high-quality Disability-led festival to watch out for.

Since local D/deaf and disabled artists burst onto the scene waving banners and bouncing on 70s style space hoppers to become Ulster media darlings, the festival has grown each year in its stature and impact, engaging more and more local groups and spreading its influence further afield.

Local communities were sceptical at first, fearing people would not buy into an elitist event heralding the spectacle of professional Disabled artists with strong production values. Never one to shy away from controversy, Chris Ledger insisted that this was no ‘come all ye’ but was about to become a curated festival based on quality.

Whilst based in the Cathedral quarter, home to Belfast’s most celebrated arts events and festivals, Bounce was about to present D/deaf and disabled talent centre stage in the full glare of international attention. Nowadays Bounce is fondly described by the Irish News as “One of the North’s most diverse and eclectic arts festivals…one of the leading disability arts festivals in Europe.” (21 Aug, 2019)

I have witnessed some wonderful work here; work that raises the bar in quality, reach and imagination, like Katerina Fanouraki’s Grotesque, Linda Fearon’s work with Croi Glan, currently working on #Me Too, Jane McCormick’s Not Half Right; the poetry and music of Alice McCullough and Pat Dam Smyth, the beautiful, keen eye in Paul Morris’ photographic exhibitions. Kids in Control, directed by David Calvert, has a long-term partnership with University of Atypical. They filled the foyer and stairwells with overjoyed crowds at the Mac, who Hugh O’Donnell, Outreach Worker and Arts & Biscuits Co-ordinator proudly announced are “better than ever – they get better every year!”

2019’s Bounce Festival was leaner due to recent funding cuts across the creative industries in Ulster; decided just 5 months prior to the festival delivery, so the fact that the festival thrives at all is a God-forsaken miracle and a complete tribute to the team. Hats off to you all.

On September 7th, I had the sheer pleasure of witnessing one of the best physical theatre/ dance productions I have ever witnessed in my thirty years involved in Disability Arts, with 111 by Joel Brown and Eve Mutso. This was a stunning piece, it was incredibly moving, careful, vulnerable work, woven around the physical relationship and virtuosity of two very different bodies in a symbiotic relationship. Joel who uses a wheelchair like no other performer I have ever encountered, who tells us he has “11 functioning vertebrae”, performs with Eve, who he describes as “moving as if she has 100”. This was utterly compelling and truly beautiful work with the highest production values. Do not miss a chance to see it on the circuit. It is definitely my festival favourite this year.

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Joel Brown and Eve Mutso. Photo Credit: Paul Moore

Chris Ledger, Festival director, says:

“Northern Ireland’s arts/disability scene has evolved differently to elsewhere in the UK. We had no Disability Arts festival here previously. So I have had to explain to journalists that we won’t accept triumph over tragedy type coverage, that I expect them to focus on the art and on what the artists want to tell them. I want disabled/deaf artists to have their work respected and presented in a professional and accessible context and I want to challenge preconceptions about what we, as disabled people can or can’t, should or shouldn’t do!”

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Joel Brown. Photo Credit: Paul Moore

The response to that first ever Bounce Festival was so overwhelmingly strong that the tiny staff team became determined to find a way to continue. For some D/deaf or disabled people, it remains the only time in the year that they go out to an arts event. In commercial language that is about trust for ‘the brand’. The ethos behind Bounce is about bouncing back – about the extraordinary resilience of disabled and deaf people, but also about the joy of experiencing work that comes from celebrating difference and from seeing artists who are at the top of their game.

From the outset, Arts and Disability Forum (ADF) chose to evolve a festival that suited people living here. So there has never been a requirement for the work to meet formal definitions of what Disability Arts is or isn’t: They’ve programmed fun, inclusive creative collaborations alongside work that has hard-hitting political power and have always programmed workshops led by disabled/deaf artists.

On the weekend daytimes, they’ve developed a family-friendly, inter-generational programme with a range of people taking part together. Non-disabled people attend the events alongside local disabled artists and audiences. There’s a great mixture of people who have claimed this festival as their own. Visitors from Croatia and beyond found it hard to let go.

The European funded Digital Ambassadors project supporting learning disabled artists from 4 countries to visit Bounce responded with excitement when I asked how their visit had gone the representative from Croatia disclosed:

“Chris said something that taught me very much. She said, ‘We don’t want to fix people here. We like people who’re different. We want to change the environment and the infrastructure’. Now I know more how we need to make changes back home.’’

People use emotive language about Bounce festival and describe ‘life-changing’ experiences. Claire, Mother of young Teddy, approached me full of enthusiasm at the close of Neon Dream after Lady Vendredi had called out ‘high five to all the autistic people in the crowd’.

Lady Vendredi later said: “I am quite instinctive with a lot of my choices. I am always concerned that people are connecting to the work, to themselves, to each other. This is why accessibility is so interesting and vital to me… it encapsulates ideas of what it is to be human…”

It had been a relaxed performance on Friday night and Teddy’s mum, Claire was overwhelmed with joy: “This is the first time my daughter has been able to fully be herself, to dance, run and play about, to mix with people and be a part of it all. It’s brilliant!”

This festival award winning Guardian journalist Frances Ryan launched her scathing attack on the current government and those who continue to target disabled people with their austerity measures. Her powerful investigative journalism and terrifying analysis of our current reality in Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People nigh sold out within two hours.

Another interesting artist in this year’s programme was playwright Christian O’Reilly (author of Inside I’m Dancing and Sanctuary) talking about his new project Unspeakable Conversations, which explores the controversial subject of euthanasia, based on the correspondence between disabled activist Harriet McBryde Johnson and the controversial Princeton academic, Peter Singer, who believes in euthanizing disabled infants. O’Reilly earned criticism in Ireland in the past, casting non-disabled actors in lead roles in: Inside I’m Dancing whilst one of our home-grown activists and award winning disabled actors, Mat Fraser was protesting loudly screaming: ‘”outside we’re vomiting!”

Bounce festival is a burst of exuberance, cheekiness and, as one of the festival funders said “perhaps a wee hint of subversion.” I asked Chris to give us an idea of what the team would do with Bounce, if they were to receive adequate funding.

“I would extend the work out of Belfast and have a multi-city festival with headline artistic product touring to other cities, I would market the festival as a mini break package – crips have holidays too. I would get out more to see new work, I so rarely get the chance. I would set aside some of my bigger budget for ‘with added Bounce’ programming into mainstream festivals at other times of year, I would take in some bigger pieces… it is no secret that I want to programme disability work onto the Lyric’s main stage here. I would like to have even one cast of thousands piece like Reasons to be Cheerful or the Paraorchestra and I’d like the spectacle of Extraordinary Bodies!

“I’d set up a police-checked volunteer companion scheme so that people who can’t get out to the festival could attend, I’d run a Bounce residency so that artists could have the opportunity to do longer term development work here and build working relationships with local people in the run up to the festival.”

Bounce Festival will continue to thrive and grow. ADF is no longer, now that the organisation has rather cheekily re-imagined itself as University of Atypical, I’ll be signing up for a PhD. I’d quite like to be a quack, some kind of Doctor of Social Insecurity?