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> > > Liberty 2011: London's Disability Arts Festival

A personal perspective from Liz Porter

photo of a group of young dancers performing

Deaf Men Dancing at Liberty 2011

This year Liberty found a new home on London's Southbank. We went as a family and thoroughly enjoyed it along with what looked like thousands of others. A large mainstream audience exposed to a wide variety of disability arts staged in four different zones. Did it work? On the whole yes. However, naturally there are teething problems and lesson’s to be learnt, particularly around access and marketing.

A fantastic programme was put together by the creative production team in partnership with Southbank. A lot was on offer, music, cabaret, video, dance performance, circus, street arts promenade pieces, art and sound installation and children’s activities. Impossible to see it all in one afternoon but here’s some of my reflections.

The use of space in the performance zone in the square outside the National Theatre worked well. The first piece we watched was ‘Alive’ (one of the Without Wall’s commissions) Rachel Gadsden and Deaf Men Dancing. I’d seen it before in Brighton. Since May this piece has grown in confidence. An expressionistic experience a merging and melting of dance and visual arts as Rachel brings to life the dancers movements and characters in her live action painting which unfolds before the audiences’ eyes. All characters weave in and out of each other’s individual experiences and merge into one. I love the concept, and the dynamic energy given.

Certainly there was more engagement with the audience this time round and a better use of performance space. Good choice of music and interpretation through the beat. The company is developing it’s style. There was an attempt to incorporate some bits of spoken word within the music, but it was fairly subliminal. I would like to see them play with creative access with some kind of live creative descriptive using language and more BSL too. In general the use of live creative description does seem lacking in outside dance and physical performance arts, but I appreciate the complexities of achieving this in large open spaces.

The child in me still wanted to see a bit more mess as the characters became the painting. I reflected on the TV programme ‘Vison On' that I watched in the 70’s. Tony Hart used to do those massive outdoor’s paintings in car parks, splurging paint all around, creating simple but effective pieces of art with swerving movement. Vison On was also one of the first TV programmes to include BSL.

I’m not surprised that Deaf Men Dancing have been awarded a Cultural Olympiad commission to develop their creative team and work with young deaf and disabled people. I look forward to see what happens next.

photo of stopgap dancers

StopGAP dancers: Lucy Bennett, Sophie Brown, David Willdridge and Laura Jones. Photography by Chris Parkes (@photographic_cp)

I then saw StopGap Dance’s latest show, ‘Spun Productions’, wonderful, poignant and funny, exploring the many layers of ‘celebrity’ culture. This was my favourite piece of the day. I liked the use of audience interaction between the female producer character, tongue-in-cheek, the use of melodramatic large movement juxtaposed with the many subtle layers woven in.

I’d have liked to have heard the audio description for this show, but often when there are so many crowds of people to wade through it is not always so easy to find where to get the headsets. You have to arrive early and endanger losing your place in the auditorium. The programme did give full details of which times AD was being provided, but I didn’t ever hear any announcements and this would have been useful. Perhaps this could be incorporated into turn around announcements, particularly if performances are to be held in the same space, (one aspect of access that did work well).

Graeae’s Rhinestone Rollers came next with a new twist the involvement of the ‘Muscle Mary’s’. A fun show with audience participation with a wonderfully camp version of the time warp included (Mary’s in drag). I do kind of like the use of live AD in this work, but wonder where they’ll take it next? Will they consider adding live music and vocals? It was good having a contained area to watch all the performances in.

I always enjoy Fittings Multimedia Arts work. This time around I was really pleased to see good theatrical family storytelling mixed with dance drumming a bit of song and poetry. The three performers led the audience through a snippet of the life history of the creator of tap dance - Master Juba.

What struck me this year is that Liberty has moved into being an inclusive outside arts festival with quality work being shown, professionally staged and virtually all family friendly - very appealing to a wider diverse audience and funders. I think this is appropriate and realistic to a degree particularly as festivals are popular and many disabled artists want to be a part of this scene.

Yet I ponder what this means for the disability arts with a ‘rights or political slant’ – definitely missing this year. Where will the wider audience see ‘strong disability-related work now?

Liberty Festival also saw the showcasing of a short video and animation work 'Memoirs : Disability Culture' directed Simon Mckeown and produced by Caglar Kimyoncu.

The composite video work presents a playful whistle-stop retrospective of Disability and Deaf Arts over the last sixty years culture, splicing together archive footage and imagery with contemporary material.