Sarah-Vyne Vassallo says it simply, “There’s not a lot of inclusivity in the dance world because its history is based in a very technical form and in a stereotype of body shape; which many dancers throughout history have busted open. I feel that ‘dancers with a disability’ is just another type of redefining of dance.”
As the founder and Artistic Director of the Marrickville based Murmuration Dance Theatre, Vassallo has dedicated herself to exploring both the creative and broader social possibilities of bringing people of mixed ability together to make work and ‘bust open’ stereotypes.
Her exploration of this territory began in 2006 when she was, in her own words, “an emerging choreographer trying to find [her] voice.” Over the years her dance practice and her passion for integrated arts coalesced. Inspired by flagship companies like Adelaide’s Restless Dance and nurtured by a Winston Churchill Fellowship grant, she created Murmuration to fill what was a void in the mixed ability space in NSW.
“It just really interested to me to work with really diverse people,” she explains. “I like working with people that think differently. It’s like, one of the things coming into this space is that you might be like ‘right, we’re doing this’ but because of the different ways of thinking, and of course the different physicalisations of the dancers, the direction of the work can be just spun on its head.”
To date, this head spinning process is still in train. Indeed, over the next ten weeks Murmuration will be working in tandem with former Restless, now London based, ‘disability dance’ star Dan Daw to bring the company’s first fully fledged productions to life.
Of Daw, Vassallo says, “He’s a bit of a celebrity. I didn’t know how famous he was until I kept mentioning his name and people were like ‘oh yeah, I know Dan Daw’. He really is an eminent artist and advocate, so it’s totally deserved.”
One of the works that Daw, Vassallo and co-creator Daniel Monks will be developing is a duet called Bower Birds. Named after the elaborate nest building bird, the work explores one of the last great no-go areas surrounding disability; namely, sexuality. “It is perhaps a little bit controversial,” Vassallo admits. “It’s still a massive taboo. It’s like; because you’re disabled you’re not sexual.”
By exploring mating rituals and the pervasive psychologies of desire and attraction, Bower Birds touches upon themes at once universal and specific. Whilst acknowledging that we all alter our behaviour in order to be more attractive, it also maps this notion onto the very particular experiences of people with visible disabilities.
Sarah-Vyne Vassallo’s take on this is that of both an insider and observer. “I’m somebody who identifies with invisible disability and so for me it’s not an obvious or apparent thing, regardless of my sexual orientation,” she reveals. “Whereas for both the Dans they have physical, visible disabilities … and so it’s right there on the surface. So, with Bower Birds what initially interested me was the dynamics of relationships and the rituals of the bower bird … and then seeing how that sat within the context of two men, let alone two men with really apparent disabilities.”
Of course, these ideas work perfectly in tandem with Murmuration’s overarching objectives of participation and integration within the context of creative excellence. As Vassallo insists, it’s about art more so than politics, even if the latter is unavoidable. “People see the disability as all the person is,” she states bluntly. “I’m not intentionally making political works but I think it’s going to work out that way.”
So whilst Vassallo, the two Dans and the company’s team get busy over the winter months building up a repertoire of new works, the politics, the passion and the performance aesthetics will no doubt learn to dance with one another, and quite possibly in unexpected ways.
As Vassallo concludes, an undeniable smile in her voice, “I’m a little bit addicted to that ‘unknown’ in the creative process.” Indeed, she might even say that it makes her head spin.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Daniel Monk in Sarah-Vyne Vassallo’s ‘Bower Birds’. Photo by Giselle Vollmer.