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Rachel Gadsden in Qatar - disability arts online
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The Arts and Disability Festival in Qatar takes off with Mark Brew and Joel Simon / 29 March 2013

photo of wheelchair dancer Mark Brew on stage with animator Joel Simon and British Council representative Carole McFadden

Marc Brew, Joel Simon and Carole MacFadden at the Arts and Disability Festival in conversation event. Photo by Tim Hayton

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We are coming to the end of our stay in Qatar. And as the temperature here creeps higher – up around the mid-thirties most of the time by now – in the UK, we know, in sharp contrast it is languishing at around zero!

We have a second opening event – to provide an opportunity for the public to meet and have an in-conversation with the newly arrived dance performer and choreographer, Mark Brew, and animator Joel Simon.

Rachel is called upon to create a second live artwork and Carol McFadden, British Council Unlimited co-ordinator chairs. Lana Kayed, British Council Qatar, opens proceedings. Interestingly, with news of the Festival having now spread, the in-conversation seems to engage at a more profound and constructive level, and the discussion centres upon the future ambitions for further outreach and development of this work around the Gulf states.

We undertook the last of our art workshops yesterday morning at Katara Cultural Village; given to three different groups of young people: a school for hearing impaired girls, an integrated school of mainstream and special needs girls, and a school for special needs boys. Interestingly, with the older students, there comes a request to keep the young men and women seperate.

Word has spread about the art workshops taking place at Katara Village; and despite all the careful planning we actually run out of fresh paper and have to improvise – and at just this same moment another large group of younger disabled children arrive unexpectedly – on the off-chance of being able to take part. It is with great regret that by now we simply do not have the space to accommodate any more in the courtyard, and so instead – while our small army of helpers from British Council keep the momentum going within the groups already painting – Rachel takes this group and the many members of staff off for an extensive interactive tour of her exhibition, where there is an opportunity to disuss, compare and contrast much about the UK education system and the education structure for disabled young people in the Gulf.

The British Council team are punctuating the end of each workshop with a visit to watch the three film installations which are part of the Arts and Disability Festival: Joel Simon’s Mecropolis, in which two disabled squeaky toys escape from a factory and find themselves lost and alone in an urban world full of over-sized humans; Sue Austin’s film, which documents Austin’s performances in a self-propelled underwater wheelchair; and Chris Tally-Evans film Turning Points, which asks the question: When did your life change?

Katara Culture Village is something of a labyrinth of interconnected pathways and courtyards, and it is with pleasure and interest that visitors to the Centre with their children chance upon the various film instalations which play in the open-air and in entranceways. As the sun sets the flickering movie screens serve as a powerful magnet.

Rachel’s exhibition and her outreach programme have generated an unprecedented amount of interest here in Qatar; and as a result, towards the end of the morning, Qatar TV arrives to film, once more, this time bringing with them a well-known presenter/anchor; and Rachel is filmed and interviewed for a prime-time magazine slot. British Council have done a fabulous job of alerting all of the media to the Arts and Disability Festival; and, in turn, across the board the media has responded brilliantly; and turned the spotlight on.

This evening we attend the reception and first performance in Qatar of Mark Brew’s contemporary dance and music performance, Fusional Fragments, with Evelyn Glennie, which received its first outing, as many of you will know, at the opening event of the Unlimited Festival on the South Bank in the summer of 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. We see the performance this time around from the front row, and despite our excitment and appreciation of the magic of the work, it has undoubtedly developed further with time.

This new work for five dancers, created by Marc Brew in collaboration with composer Philip Sheppard and Dame Evelyn Glennie combines classical ballet and contemporary dance. Fusional Fragments questions whether such elements can be fused or whether they should remain as fragments in isolation. Dame Evelyn and all of the dancers are on top form and, even though as a culture the Qatari audience are less used to contemporary dance, the performance is very well received.

Evelyn Glennie’s percussive (and dance) element, woven through and through, must strike a chord with a nation which has its own rich ‘rythmic’ musical heritage; and clearly here is a common cultural link to be explored. Another bonus this evening for the audience and particularly us is to see Mark perform one of his intimate solo works, where his beautiful sense of the body in articulated movement and motion is breathtaking. 

We have one day off before flying home very early tomorrow morning, so unfortunately we do not have time to arrange the desert adventure we had planned. Anyhow, we are tired. So instead of this we clear out our courtyard studio and drive back to the fantastic Villagio shopping mall, next door to the hotel; and we settle for an ice-cream instead and we put our feet up, and watch the motorized gondolas plying the Venecian canal which runs all the way along the central walkway of Villagio – beneath a painted Venecian sky. Only in Qatar!