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Art of Difference Festival: Melbourne 2009 / 12 March 2009

Art of Difference is a disability and deaf arts festival produced by Gasworks in South Melbourne between 10 - 21 March 2009. I have the privilege of attending the first week of the festival and reporting on it for dao.

Coming to grips with the size of Melbourne has been somewhat daunting after traveling through the relative smallness of Auckland and Wellington. I arrived from New Zealand late last Monday, tired and jet-lagged. I made it to the hotel bar to be greeted with a g-day by a guy named Blue from wheat and sheep country in New South Wales. I've not quite got over the unrealness of it all; of being here and taking in the festival yet. But there is a great line-up of artists to be looked-forward to. I’ve had a warm welcome, so internet hiccups allowed for, I’m warming up.

Kicking off on Tuesday afternoon were a group called Just Us Theatre who performed a dance piece titled The Forest of Gongs. Just Us are a company who have evolved – like many of the best learning disabled performance companies – from a day programme set up by the City Council. 

They reminded me of learning disability groups like Heart n' Soul and Art + Power in their very early days. What 'Just Us' lacked in confidence they made up for in determination. The performers gelled as a group and were able to convey a strong sense of mutual support. I also felt the work was coming from the right place - with the performers in control of what and who they were presenting. It is a fine line when directing performers learning how to project themselves on stage. If anything, I would say there needed to be more focussed engagement with the narratives being explored. Overall there was a cohesion, and an enjoyment about The Forest of Gongs that was engaging. 

A series of large gongs were set as a backdrop that created a dramatic atmosphere and were an interesting device to set the dance around. Bird-woman Melissa Slaviero created a sumptuous image as she set the cast of forest explorers to sleep. The action was evocatively orchestrated by a mostly percussive musical background, that took the audience through a mixture of scenes from jungle to the river Styx, where the ferryman came along to survey the troupe. Were they truly sleeping or was this the underworld?

The one thing that jarred with me was the sudden appearance of Elvis, whose character upset the magical atmosphere that had been building through the dance. I've seen so many learning disability groups use Elvis as a device. It just seems like lazy art direction.

Just Us were a good example of participatory arts in development. It is important to create and showcase opportunities for creative development that artists with disabilities would not find through traditional avenues. However, the performance left me acutely aware of the problem around the definition of the term Disability Arts. Here, as in the UK, it is a term bandied as a catch-all for any and all work by artists and performers who define themselves under the disability label. But where does that leave professional disabled artists, who have chosen to own that identity as artists, who create work that is informed by the experience of disability and the attitudes that society poses in reference to disability.

It is a problem I shall delve into in more detail during my reviews of the festival yet to come.