Adelaide has a proud tradition of development of disability arts. A major international project in this field has been happening quietly over the last couple of years, and is now set to launch. A dance collaboration between Restless Dance Theatre here in Adelaide, and 29Dong Dance Theater and Korean Music Project, both based in Seoul is being coordinated by two powerhouses from UniSA, Dr Boram Lee, and Professor Ruth Rentschler. Glam caught up with both of them to talk about this project the dance performance Counterpoise, and the documentary, Dancing Against the Odds.
R= Ruth Renschler
B= Boram Lee
Although the project is only now being publicly launched, it has been a long train coming for the participants and organizers.
R “We’ve been doing a project over three years. We had three grants with Dept Foreign Affairs and Trade so it’s been an iterative thing where we’ve developed our ideas from the previous projects. And then Boram really took the idea to this next stage with arts technology and disability, and making the documentaries.”
B “The project really initiated after I came to Adelaide at the beginning of 2019. I grew up in South Korea but when I came to Adelaide I encountered the extraordinary power of inclusive arts. In South Korea disability was invisible. But Australia was different. I could see people in wheelchairs, I could see people using sign language. I was really struck by the thought of what I have lost in my life. And then the amazing work by companies such as Restless Dance and Tutti Arts was really life-changing for me. Also, for the last ten years there have been demonstrations in Korea by people with disability for mobility rights. In Korea public transport is not accessible by wheelchairs, and I’ve seen people having accidents, or even deaths, by using public transport. It really broke my heart. I wanted to do something. Being in the field of arts the only way for me to do something is connecting Australian artists with disability to Korean artists with disability in order to empower both of them. When we think about international collaboration or residencies or touring people have never thought that dancers with disability could do that. But Restless Dance theatre is doing it! And usually because international collaboration is being funded by governments, they just want to showcase the excellence of the country; they don’t want to showcase people with disabilities. So we wanted to challenge that.”
Rentschler’s interest in dance is a broad one, including her recently taking up the role of Chair of Australian Dance Theatre.
R “Dance is in my blood! And of course dance is a universal language. You can speak visually through movement and that’s one of the things that we found with the people we were dealing with. And then it all had to pivot to Zoom due to covid getting in the way of what we wanted to do. We found that even though Zoom has its limitations there were lots of opportunities for our disabled artists in Australia and in Korea to learn from one another, about different cultures, different ways of asking for things, getting your message across, communicating through gesture and movement. So that was very rich for us and was a big learning experience.”
It seems almost impossible to develop a dance piece over Zoom. Yet this platform turned out to be not only possible, but positive.
R “I find those quiet international students, particularly from Asia, when you’ve got them in the classroom they’re too afraid to speak. But when you put them online it does equalize things and you find that quiet person becomes quite assertive. And it’s the same for the dancers. So we found it was an empowering thing and it gave them new skills which will really help them in their careers. Some of them have gone on to do other things, with Restless, or independently. Some of them have got residencies or internships.”
B “I think [Zoom] breaks barriers but it also creates them at the same time. It breaks down financial barriers. It is really expensive to do an international collaboration. But then working with people with disability they often need support from their care workers (with the technology) so it’s quite challenging at the same time. Our dancers in South Korea were Deaf. So there were a lot of hurdles for us to jump. We used Korean and English translation, sign language, and live captions. So the planning and execution of it were really challenging. But often because of the language of dance, translation wasn’t needed.”
Counterpoise itself is mostly contemporary-style dance, put together by extraordinary choreographers both here and in Korea.
B “Both companies are contemporary but the [Korean Music Project] in Korea are traditional. That was really interesting. The musicians would never have believed that dancers in Australia would interpret the music that way. So it was really surreal and abstract the way the lovely dancers from Restless would interpret things. So there was definitely a cultural dialogue there. Michelle Ryan who is the artistic director at Restless uses a unique way of devising choreography. She devised by giving each dancer a task. She will ask a question like ‘describe the person living next door’ or ‘how do you want to meet others’ and then the dancers interpret it in their own ways and then share it. Michelle describes it as a collaborative process between herself and dancers.”
R “We also had a choreographer in Korea, Sunyoung Lee.”
B “Yes the way she works with people with disabilities is magical. She works with dancers of all kinds of abilities. When you take time and listen: listen to what dancers want to express, or what they are in need of. She was really acting as an intermediary. We were so reliant on her because her experience of working with dancers with disability was really essential. And although I was translating, it was her actually delivering the message.”
As well as the performance of Counterpoise itself, the project involves the making of three mini-documentaries, the first one of which will be made at the end of this year.
R “By the end of this year we will actually have some product. At the moment we launched the project, on the International Day of Diversity and are getting the awareness out there that we’re doing something that’s exciting, different, and that is going to make a difference in the community. This is an innovative entrepreneurial project that follows the creative journey of people of all abilities, and we are going to capture that through our documentary.”
B “Our project started more than two years ago when covid hit. We never stopped being connected over this time but then what we want now over the next three years is to bring this performance piece, Counterpoise, to the major arts festival stage. And then our documentary called Dancing Against the Odds is really following our journey over this time. So it’s a long process, and nothing can be guaranteed. We are really open, and we want the story to emerge. We are waiting to see what the dancers with disability want to share with the public where we can actually learn from them by following their journey.”
Adelaide audiences will have a chance to share in this magical journey in December.
B “On December 9th we are hoping to have Korean dancers and musicians come to Adelaide for a workshop and small showcase. This is a long process, but we want the whole community to support these dancers to continue making this performance. They’ve only made 50 minutes and have at least another 35 minutes to make!”
For further information about Counterpoise, click here.