1 October 2008
Colin Hambrook is inspired by eight disability, deaf and inclusive arts companies showcasing 20 dance, theatre and music events on the streets of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
High Wyrrd was a street-art festival with a difference, giving the town a chance to witness disability and inclusive arts. The idea for High Wyrrd arose from Signdance performer David Bower's interest in anthropology. Wyrrd is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a moment in which consciousness opens up to new and different perceptions.
David told me: 'The word 'weird' is obviously derived from wyrrd. I wanted it to say that it's okay to be strange - that we could use this event as a way of breaking down international, cultural and disability barriers.'
What I enjoyed about the festival was the spirit in which it was put together - the sense of family that all the artists have worked hard to create over a very short time. Artistic director and Signdance performer Isolte Avrila said: "We could only have done this with artists we've built up a relationship with over many years." Signdance spend at least half of the year travelling and performing all over the world.
From the Friday afternoon onwards, I sensed a real buzz in the town - here was something High Wycombe had never seen before. Friday evening in front of the Guildhall Undercroft began with Taste the Art, a street performance based on the idea of bidding to sell the dancers' art. "Come on", shouted Jurij Konjar. "We're in the business of selling souls here. Who will give me £2,000?" Tentatively he took the four dancers through their paces, admonishing them, making them stop and start again. The musicians looked shocked by Jurij's aggression, but responded with brilliant timing as the dancers submitted gracefully. 'For £100 you can have a dancer perform especially for you. You can memorise their moves and take it home to put on your wall.' The price dropped to £5 or £10 as a bucket was passed around to willing punters. It was a disconcerting idea, but there was enough humour in Jurij's delivery to make it work.
And it led perfectly into Signdance's Travelling – an overture to the nomadic lifestyle of the artist, perpetually crossing physical and existential boundaries. Performer Isolte Avrila explained that the direction by Ornella D'Agostino had left Signdance with a piece of work so solidly constructed that they could take it and perform it anywhere. The audience reaction was fascinating, with consistent and loud shouts of approval from one or two people – especially during some of the humorous interludes. Signdance somehow took hold of the intrusive language and used it to add to the energy and dynamism of the piece. That ability to take random chaotic elements and spontaneously use them to your advantage is a skill that always amazes me.
I wondered what JG Ballard would have made of High Wyrrd. His latest psychopathological novel, Kingdom Come, has a similar setting to the Eden Shopping Centre where some of my High Wyrrd highlights toook place. In the centre of Eden on Saturday afternoon David Bower performed Listen – a hardcore Disability Arts piece about tinnitus and hearing loss. It opened with a projection of high-pitched sounds fed through visual-imaging software to create a series of landscapes. Bower mirrored the tall towers projected onto the screen, acting out his experience of deafness with a powerful, charismatic performance.
The delicate moment when Bower's signing of a flower opening was reflected in a graphic projection behind him is etched onto my memory. An audience of passing shoppers gathered in amazement. They were intrigued, dazzled. Some asked questions about what he was doing.
They wanted to understand what was going on - a massive testament to the performance and direction of the piece. JG Ballard's Kingdom Come is based on the Ikea riots of 2002. He talks about the shopping mall as a religious centre geared to the worship of the god Mammon, which is changing human attitudes and consciousness. He expresses an idea that the body of shopping centres built up on the satellite towns around the M25 are turning those communities into a uniform, mindless, brutal and prejudiced mass, devoid of humanity.
The fact that town planners would even call a shopping centre Eden implicates this theory. But into this land of milk and honey came Signdance, using the environment to say something personal about the human condition. I couldn't say it proves JG Ballard wrong – but the fact that the Eden allowed it to happen and their customers were engaged illustrates that the extreme situations in the plot of Kingdom Come are not the whole story.
The most chilled-out part of the festival for me involved the Saturday afternoon dance performances in All Saints churchyard. I was massively impressed by the dedication and sheer focus of Anjali Dance Company. They are so unique in look and feel. They performed Butterfly - a piece based on the language of superhero Japanese comic books.
There is a sensuality to what they do that crosses boundaries. It reminded me of David Bowers' comment, repeated throughout Travelling, where he interjects with the refrain 'You are not allowed to do that.'
Anjali have set a precedent that shows just how skilled learning disabled dancers can be, proving wrong all the voices of dissent. Butterfly, originally devised as an outdoor piece, worked beautifully in the churchyard attracting an audience of more than 200.
Spontaneity was key to its success. Urban dance warrior Antoine Hunter from Oakland, California was a star of improvisation. Every movement he makes is imbued with intention. He works with a massive range of dance companies and can do everything from jazz and hip-hop to ballet with a grace and definition that defies the imagination.
He performed a piece called Black Satan based on his experience of 'otherness', as a Deaf, African American. The dance was painfully intense and provocatively engaging. He says he wants his audiences to 'taste the dance'. He can move through space like a leaf falling through a summer breeze or an object which has learnt to defy gravity.
There was a lot of fun too – especially during his contact improvisation with Jenny Clitheroe. It was an adventure in communication as the two dancers wove patterns around each other in all directions.
There isn't enough room here to name-check all the companies. I'd love to have caught more of the Ana Monro theatre - a wild Slovenian street act whose hilarious efforts at cleaning up the streets of High Wycombe were very entertaining. It was also a real privilege to finally get to see Esther Appleyards' work in the flesh. Her exhibition 'In Response' in the foyer of the Swan Theatre was a significant add-on to High Wyrrd. She showed paintings from A Series of Lines alongside work by the late Adam Reynolds, who collaborated with Signdance many times. The work dresses up images of DNA patterns to ask questions about genetic boundaries.
This pilot festival was a tour de force in balancing serious intent with family fun. Many of the locals may have found the event weird, but in an entertaining, thought-provoking fashion. All the partners involved in making it happen, from the shopping and market centres to Arts Council England, Wycombe District Council and Creative Bucks, must have been pleased with the outcome. The audiences totalled nearly 1000 over the weekend, excluding the multitude of shoppers who only briefly interacted.
So, here's to another High Wyrrd next year.
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