Abi, on Apart
Abigail Mortimer reflects on her experience working with Laura Jones and Suzie Birchwood...
When I was asked by Lucy (Artistic Director of Stopgap) to make a "dance-driven" work for strategic touring on two female expert wheelchair dancers, my initial response was filled with equal amounts of excitement and the feeling of being very much unqualified and inadequate for such a brief! I had never before worked with an integrated company, I knew that this commission would make me look deep into my choreographic practice in order to discover how my movement language could be transferred - what would be lost and what would be gained in the process would be an intriguing process.
Working with Laura Jones and Suzie Birchwood was a wonderful and memorable experience. What was clear from the outset was that we had chemistry; the rehearsal room was always social, open, honest and filled with good humour. Very quickly we were able to share personal responses to tasks to develop meaningful movement material, some of which was witty, others of which alluded to something more vulnerable. What also came through very strongly from the outset was a shared joy for simply moving. In watching the dancers glide through movements in seamless travelling sequences that ebbed, flowed and turned in effortless unison, I was instantly obsessed with this kind of dancing which I couldn't do (and I did try!). I wanted to explore wheelchair dancing for all the properties which were unique to themselves.
As dancers with very different backgrounds and experiences (Suzie particularly has a strong background in classical ballet) we collaborated to synthesise our skills in a language that explored intricate function, classical line, release techniques and skills from Contact Improvisation to produce a language that was challenging for all of us. We were able to focus on wheelchair dancing as a unique practice in its own right as opposed to developing "translations" of the movement of non-disabled dancers, which remains a necessary and commonplace process for wheelchair dancers in integrated dance companies. As a result we were able to generate material specifically for wheelchair to wheelchair unison, as well as wheelchair to wheelchair contact work which required an entirely revised approach for all of us. This opened up a wealth of new potentials for both technical and choreographic approaches which I felt really excited by. Certainly, in the early phases of rehearsals I felt that I doubled my knowledge everyday, it was the steepest learning curve I have experienced in my professional career.
It is worth mentioning that we began this collaboration in the wake of Brexit and it was simply impossible to keep this topic from entering our conversations. Inevitably, this chit-chat found its way into the work as theatrical "vignettes". The dancers were just fantastic at responding to this political motivation in improvised paragraphs, each dancer challenging the last comment with their own witty jibe. The personal relationship between the dancers emerged through this task and encouraged me to explore more avenues for devising text. Subsequently, we developed several "snapshots" of witty spoken text that captured the dancers talking about their dancing, their technique, and their partnership. I was moved by how this device enabled us to make references to the performers' disabilities with humour and lightness. As with many issues, we recognised comedy as an effective way to shine light on the awkwardness that many people feel about disability. We took further inspiration from the paralympics media campaign, (which was running at the same time as our creative process). Channel 4's coverage of people with disabilities took "risks" to put out its message and the wonderful Maltesers adverts reflected the lives of disabled people with humour and "risque" content.
At the heart of this work though, was a desire to celebrate the forms and approaches that the disability of the dancers has given rise to, without "lifting up" the disability as the subject for interrogation. The dancers often spoke to me about a pressure they felt (from others) to deliver an "inspirational message" and indeed, I did not want to frame the dancers as inspirational for any other reason than their obvious skill and talent for this unique practice. With this work I wanted to somehow "normalise" wheelchair dancing by allowing the content of the dancing to be the content of the work.
This opportunity presented by the strategic touring programme took me on a physical and emotional journey that had resonance for both my artistic and personal journey. The opportunity provided me with a new lens by which I was able to wrestle with old ideas to discover new methodologies which was both exciting and transformative.