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> > > Review: Aylesbury Paralympic Flame Celebration
photo of artist / performer Rachel Gadsden moving between three large canvases

Rachel Gadsden in action. Photo (c) Kay Young Photography 2012

Melissa Mostyn-Thomas reviews Aylesbury's Paralympic Flame Celebration on 28 August with StopGap Dance Company and Rachel Gadsden

‘Bumped into deaf artist Caroline Parker at Aylesbury’s Flame celebration,’ I tweeted yesterday. ‘Signs are good!’

In retrospect, I had set my expectations too high. Born and bred in Aylesbury – and having empowered myself through collaborations with deaf and disabled artists of Parker’s ilk – I’d thought that the pre-opening event would transform the town into a mini-Liberty, with free-range sign language interpreters (SLIs) and live-captioning galore.

How wrong I was. As it transpired, I would only be empowered if I was part of the line-up. Otherwise, I couldn’t be more disenfranchised from my former collaborators if I tried.

If I was the only deaf person attending with the thousands, I wouldn’t be surprised. In the whole of the 12 hours I was there, SLIs were present only on stage, and for a total of three hours. Whenever footage on the big screens constructed in the town’s two main squares switched from Stoke Mandeville – where the lighting of the Paralympic torches took place - to Aylesbury, the live captions also cut out. This left me in the bizarre position of knowing exactly what was happening in the stadium 10 minutes’ drive away, but not when it was right in front of me.

‘We can say with pride that the Paralympics is now the second-largest sporting event in the world,’ Lord Coe, Chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) was saying on screen with a grin. Sure, but to what effect on Aylesbury’s attitudes towards disability?

Much of the afternoon’s entertainment was typical of a town perpetually lacking in artistic vision: mediocre and resolutely local, with world music that simply didn’t appeal to me. 

The only visionary (and accessible) spots were both disability-led: StopGAP and Starting Line, a multi-disciplinary collaborative piece involving Rachel Gadsden, Candoco Dance Company and the film-maker Abigail Norris.

StopGAP put on SPUN Productions, a 30-minute song-and-dance extravaganza that threw a lowly car mechanic called Dave into the high-glitz world of interactive TV via a dream. Rather like TV channels being flicked through mindlessly, the play’s narrative was deliberately fragmented and packed with subliminal images, notably a garishly made-up TV presenter at large, a roaming TV production crew and a guy in orange braces who just wants to be famous.

Ultimately we wound up sharing Dave’s bemusement as he fumbled through a world where the surreal and the real blended fluidly into one another, to the extent where he feared for both his sanity and his marriage. Exuberant and captivating, as the first StopGAP production I’d seen, SPUN Productions was the perfect introduction to the company’s high-calibre performing values.

Starting Line - which took place after nightfall, in front of Aylesbury’s dignified Magistrates Court - incurred a long wait due to other acts running over time, but was worth it. Alongside a live commentary (in BSL and spoken English) and a big-screen montage of archive footage showing people with spinal injuries in rehab and Paralympians created by Abigail Norris, Rachel Gadsden appeared Guttman-like in glasses and a long white coat. Next to her, disabled dancers in off-white calico shorts and vests - some from Candoco Dance Company – took turns in mimicking athletes participating in various sports.

Eight giant white canvases were wheeled onto the stage, whereupon taking her coat off, Gadsden began to boldly swirl charcoal all over them using her own choreographed moves. The more she swept in between canvases, the more like energetic Paralympians the charcoal marks became – a kind of rehabilitation for the eyes that mirrored perfectly the dreamy archive film montage.

At one point a dancer reined in Gadsden with a long strip of black rubber from behind while she continued to draw, reinforcing her strokes. At another, other dancers boxed Gadsden in her own canvas, leaving us with a smoke of yellow pigment emanating from within. In the end the stage became a gallery of animated black-and-white charcoal drawings infused with adrenaline red and yellow.

A starting line this piece might have been for the profile of high-quality, innovative disability arts in my locality, but I very much doubt that it will lead to improved access to the arts, necessarily.