the disabled dancers behind a wondrous new BBC film

The dancer Chris Pavia is taking me through his inspirations for his mesmeric, propulsive 10-minute solo in the dance piece Artificial Things, in which he plays a tyrannical figure having a meltdown inside an empty shopping centre.  “He’s like a cross between Mussolini and Voldemort,” he tells me. “He’s a […]

The dancer Chris Pavia is taking me through his inspirations for his mesmeric, propulsive 10-minute solo in the dance piece Artificial Things, in which he plays a tyrannical figure having a meltdown inside an empty shopping centre. 

“He’s like a cross between Mussolini and Voldemort,” he tells me. “He’s a dictator, who has become over powerful; he’s letting his frustration out. I’m really into movies and films, so often, when I’m coming up with a character, I put together a scrapbook full of my favourite characters and write down my ideas. There’s a bit of Laurel and Hardy in there too.”

Pavia who is 39 and lives with his parents in Surrey, has been a full-time dancer since 2001 and has performed all over the world. He also has Down’s Syndrome. “When I told Chris I wanted to make a solo with him, and that it could be about things he liked or things he didn’t, he said he wanted it to be about the latter,” says Lucy Bennett, artistic director of Stopgap, an inclusive dance company that includes disabled and, more unusually, dancers with learning disabilities alongside non disabled dancers.

“It was a big step forward for Chris because usually he’s trying to please people. Down’s performers tend to get cast as the sweet innocent characters in a piece, never the nasty ones. This was Chris saying to me: ‘People have been telling me what to do for a really long time now; I’d like to take control of it’.”

Taking control is at the heart of Stopgap, and of Artificial Things, a landmark show first performed in 2014 and recently turned into an award-winning 25-minute film of startling, ghostly beauty by Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph) that will be broadcast on BBC Four on Wednesday.

Full of eerie long shots that hint at shadowy presences just out of sight, the film stars Pavia alongside Dave Toole, the trailblazing dancer and double amputee who died last month, and Laura Jones, who became paralysed after suffering a neural bleed when she was 16. 

Toole, Jones and Pavia developed the physical language of the piece themselves, meaning the non-disabled dancers Amy Butler and David Willdridge had to adapt, or ‘translate’ in dance parlance, to their movements rather than, as is more usual in integrated dance, the other way round. So much so that when Butler and Willdridge appear about two thirds through, they feel like ‘interlopers’, as Fiennes puts it, so intensely directed is our gaze on the world inhabited by the disabled dancers.

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