Inclusivity in motion: dance and disability

Inclusivity in motion: dance and disability

Just a few weeks ago the strength of community dance practice in Canberra was given national recognition when the 2017 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance went to Canberra-based performer, choreographer and director Liz Lea.

The accolade went to Lea and her collaborators for the work Great Sport!, which was honoured as an outstanding site-specific work at the National Museum that drew on input not only from Lea but from a number of Canberra groups, including the GOLDs from Canberra Dance Theatre, two ACT-based Dance for Parkinson's groups, and several choreographers, including Lea herself and Canberra artists Phillip Piggin and Jane Ingall.

Michelle Ryan in a scene from Michelle's Story

Michelle Ryan in a scene from Michelle's Story

Now Canberra's strengths as a centre for community dance, where there is a strong focus on dance for people of mixed abilities, will again be highlighted in a celebration as part of the 2017 International Day of People with a Disability. The dance component of this three-day celebration will take place on Sunday, December 3, at Belconnen Arts Centre.

Following an open dance class and a forum "Dance, Disability and Wellbeing", the performance component will begin a 1.30 pm and will feature work from Canberra Dance Theatre's CD Teens group and the GOLDS company for dancers over 55, as well as dancers from Belconnen and Tuggeranong Arts Centres' Dance for Wellbeing programs.

Michelle Ryan and Vincent Crowley in Michelle's Story.

Michelle Ryan and Vincent Crowley in Michelle's Story.

Photo: Supplied

A particular highlight will come from Lea and Katie Senior who will dance That Extra "Some", a short work created by Lea, originally as part of the Ausdance ACT mentoring program Escalate II. Lea worked on this show with Senior, who is affected by Down Syndrome, and found the process a rewarding one in which she set out to convey how those who are affected by the syndrome are, in many ways, no different from those who aren't.

"I have worked with Katie over many years and enjoy this process because I am challenged to rethink my approach to methods of choreography, direction and communication," says Lea.

"There is a joy of life, laughter, and movement that characterises the people who live with a disability that I have worked with. Katie and her mother Margaret and I had many conversations about how best to reflect Katie's experiences, achievements and skills through dance and film.

"It was a complex process and Katie is very trusting. Margaret and I shaped the work together and this, too, was a new approach for me, giving me new insights on practical and artistic levels."

The dance day will conclude with film screenings, which will include films from Restless Dance Theatre, the Adelaide-based company for dancers with and without a disability. The three short films are excerpts from Intimate Space, a touching and often hilarious film set in an upmarket Adelaide hotel; a short promotional film for Restless featuring comments from Michelle Ryan and Robyn Archer on the role of the company; and an excerpt from Ryan's 2015 work Touched featuring Down Syndrome dancer Lorcan Hopper.

Restless Dance Theatre has strong Canberra connections. It is currently led by Ryan, a former dancer with Meryl Tankard's company both in Canberra and Adelaide. Canberra audiences will perhaps remember Ryan for the diversity of her dancing in works such as the reflective Chants de mariage; the heart-stopping Furioso, in which she performed with all the skill of an aerialist on suspended ropes; and the enticing Aurora, in which she tapped her way into everyone's hearts.

Ryan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while on holiday in Berlin after appearing in London in 2000 in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game. As her condition grew worse she returned to Australia, made some short films, worked for National Disability Services in Queensland, and eventually was selected as artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre. Under her direction, Restless has gone from strength to strength and Ryan has very clear ideas of what she expects to achieve.

In an oral history interview, recorded for the National Library of Australia, Ryan said the company works with people with a disability in a way that enhances their development as artists, and allows them to realise that there is a career path in the arts for people with a disability.

"I am not there to set up a therapy session, but to promote and celebrate for the general public work created by people with a disability," she said.

Ryan features in the concluding dance film on the program, Michelle's Story, directed by Tankard. This 30-minute documentary follows Ryan's career, her diagnosis, and her astonishing determination to manage her condition.

December 3 is a day to discover how strong is the commitment in the Canberra region to inclusiveness in dance.

Dance program coinciding with the International Day of Disability, Belconnen Arts Centre, December 3, 11:00 am to 4.00pm, free. Part of the "Detonate" program.

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