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> > > Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2009

21 July 2009

Liz Porter reflects on the programming of deaf and disabled artists at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2009

image of graeae performering 'Against The Tide' Judith Kilvington

Judith Kilvington, of Graeae, and Strange Fruit performing Against the Tide at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival

Image: Judith Kilvington

The Greenwich + Deptford International Festival (GDIF) programme displayed on the website announced that it was themed around water. I went with my family on Sunday 28 June - we had a great day and my daughter got loads out of it.

The marketing for GDIF was well thought through. There has been a dramatic shift in how professional disabled and deaf creatives want to be perceived. The programme reflected diversity in art-form practice, with carefully worded introductions to the work on offer. A lot of us have been aiming towards this dawn of a new age in opportunities for professional disabled and deaf creatives for a long time.

As a visually impaired person it would have been difficult to have gone on my own. Although there were several stewards who stood out, there wasn’t much signage pointing people to where performances were happening. Had I not had a sighted guide to take me to the Royal Observatory I would have had a hard job finding it. To be honest I didn’t make the effort to find out about audio description for either of the pieces of work I saw. But there were no announcements as to where to get headsets if there were any. This flags up the whole question about advance access information versus on site access information for visitors.

I’m sure the festival gave lots of food for thought for Cultural Olympiad festival programmers and Arts Officers. It is clear to me that professional disabled and deaf performers and artists can be programmed in mainstream festivals and be well received by large audiences. However, one concern is where does this leave Disability Arts content and festivals such as London’s Liberty and Dada-Fest in the North West? It’s essential to reflect upon lessons learnt about marketing styles and use of language as well as access issues. Equally important is the question of who commissions the work and assesses quality. It is important to find a balance between creating opportunities for companies to take risks and break new ground alongside emerging artists and community arts-based work, if and when appropriate.

image of graeae performer during against the tide Judith Kilvington

Photo by Judith Kilvington, of Graeae and Strange Fruit performing Against the Tide at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival

Image: Judith Kilvington

Performed in the Cutty Sark gardens, Against The Tide was a wonderful collaboration between Graeae and Melbourne-based performance arts company, Strange Fruit.

I haven’t seen Graeae’s work for ages and found this performance simply brilliant - mesmerising and inspiring. I was a bit disappointed that we arrived with a minute to spare as this meant I couldn’t ask for the audio description, which would have added another dimension. Without it I certainly missed some movements and incidental action. This piece worked on many layers and the use of language English and British Sign Language at times was a bit like watching someone weaving a tapestry rowing across the wide ocean - beautiful to watch and effortlessly flowing.

Imagine a stage set like a desert, fishing boats, and a cast of physical theatre/circus practitioners, actors/singers. Imagine an island where the inhabitants live each day recalling their stories of a time when they had water. Imagine watching incredible aerial work with performers perched on the top of four swaying moving poles, capturing the hypnotic rhythms of the sea.

Alex Bulmer was the dramaturge for Against the Tide, and the two companies worked with Circus Space and young people during its development. I loved the use of theatrical storytelling from Caroline Parker, although it was perhaps too scripted for my taste. I would have liked more of the poetic layers, echoing the sirens of the sea and reflections of memories. The sound score was great too, but I would have welcomed some live music. My six-year-old daughter loved Daryl Beaton’s highly amusing character the most.

This imaginative professional piece of mainstream family theatre worked on many levels for adults and children alike - and the fact that the skies were filled with threatening dark clouds only added to the atmosphere.

**Nocturne **

Nocturne was a dance piece, inspired by JM Whistler’s famous painting and performed by four dancers including a wheelchair dancer, Marc Brew. The whole dance sequence moves around two huge double beds. The performers, in couples, cavort, leap, bound and rolled around as they explored their relationships. The work examined the differences between disabled and non-disabled people and those intimate night-time moments.

We should have read the brochure properly to gauge potential content before we went to see it. This wasn’t in my view a piece suitable for children or family audiences. If festival programmers want to commission pieces of work like this, I’d urge them to consider having an age suitability mark in the publicity material, and by the stage. It was billed as a 20-minute performance. In my opinion five minutes would have been enough.

**Glissendo **

Using the central square for the stage, Glissendo was one of the most wonderfully weird, hilarious and dark acts I’ve seen in a while: a troupe of cassock-clad musicians, on unseen wheels with hats of flame, glided gracefully around the square. The performance was beautifully choreographed and conducted by a woman wielding huge flaming sticks. It was strange and slightly intimidating to begin with as surreal, tall beings headed in lines towards the audience, like ships coming into harbour.

The music was a classical mix of melancholic pieces by Eric Satie, interspersed with familiar tunes such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. The movement became stronger and at times fast like sails fluttering in the wind. The conductress drew intricate fire designs on the pavement that the troupe sailed through and around. It was a glorious piece of mainstream street performance.

We climbed up the hill to the Royal Observatory and to the Peter Harrison Planetarium for our final show of the day - EXTANT’s Obscurity, performed in collaboration with Braumarts - a BAFTA award-winning digital arts and media production company.

Despite being quite some distance from the other festival action, this contemporary retelling of the Blind Men and the Elephant attracted a large audience. EXTANT is the UK’s only professional arts company for visually impaired artists. Set up by artistic director Maria Oshodi in 1997, the company are gaining a reputation for exploring blind culture through innovative projects. Obscurity used a cast of visually impaired musicians and performers and was it was great to see blind culture reflected within a mainstream festival arena. Using Peter Harrison’s large sculpture as a central feature worked well, but it was more of a ‘live art’ experience than outdoor theatre.

There was stunning music from Baluji Shrivastav and Takashi Kikuchi, who wove some delicious music and cultural references in and out of the narrative.

As the performance developed a multi-layered soundscape was built around the audience, led around the sculpture by four actors. The poetic journey asked us to reflect on things that seem apparent to us or are sometimes hidden. The sound wasn’t always easy to hear, but this was partly due to the sudden downpour that strangely added to the quality of the piece given the watery theme of the festival.

The work demonstrated the hierarchy of the senses, and illustrated how frustrating it can be for a visually impaired person in a crowd, not knowing clearly what is going on. However I wasn’t convinced we needed to be led around to get that perspective.

Difficult enough for sound crews and performers, it was visual artist Sally Booth that I felt for. Whilst the soundscape and narrative performance took place she was depicting elements of the story on a large white screen. The audience were invited to describe her work, which engaged my daughter, who got the point about the elephant entirely. However, despite random descriptions, I wasn’t aware of half of what was happening.

I am pleased this piece was included in the programme. EXTANT are not afraid to try new ways of working and this should be encouraged. I didn’t think it all worked, but it was thought-provoking and definitely worth experiencing if EXTANT decide to put it on again.