Perth Festival Review: The British Paraorchestra, The Nature of Why ⋅
Heath Ledger Theatre February 21 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅
There are multiple things happening at once in the British Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why. Musicians with disabilities are in the spotlight and the audience is on the stage too, co-mingling as ‘revered accomplices’ according to English conductor and Paraorchestra founder Charles Hazlewood.
Hazlewood’s eloquent invitation before the performance began to ‘be curious as physicist Richard Feynman was curious’ disguises a challenge. Because as we process onto the stage, surrounded by chanting musicians, dancers, wheelchairs and instruments, it is clear the artists have the upper hand. They know what is about to unfold around us and we don’t.
Hazlewood and his orchestra of disabled musicians made their debut at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics with the goal of disrupting the barriers around our expectations of disability and our experiences of traditional orchestral music. In this production, created in 2018, they also quietly flip power on its head.
Wheelchair bound Caroline Bowditch’s choreography blocks performers and the audience into shapes and places we are barely aware of. A blind violinist clearly knows where he is going while the audience is on the back foot trying not to get in the way. But it unfolds with such gentle joyousness that it is only afterwards these role reversals become clear. At the time it is all about the immersive experience.
I feel the hot breath of a dancer on my foot, the reverberation of percussion on my skin and the constant movement of people brushing by. I have a heightened alertness to the moments of pathos and joy expressed around me. Am I in the way? I want to join in.
The Heath Ledger Theatre stage is framed by Hazlewood and the string players of the Perth Symphony Orchestra at one end and a battery of percussion at another. In between wander musicians (amplified through speakers above our heads), dancers (there are only four but it feels like more because the musicians often join in) and the audience.
The dancers and musicians use contact improvisation to weave a dance built from shared weight, touch and awareness. It is by its nature measured and responsive, with slow lifts and entwined limbs. Bodies coagulate and disperse, reforming elsewhere. Out of nowhere a line of dancers form with arms floating like wings, lit by a corridor of light.
Cameos pop up in corners including a particularly delightful pas de deux between a dancer and a musician in a wheel-chair whose horn rests on his lap while he spins. A string bass player establishes a walking bass line groove while a dancer literally gives legs to the instrument, crab-walking around the stage with the bass in his lap.
The work is structured around audio recordings of Feynman discussing the attraction and repulsion of magnets. The American Nobel-prize winner’s constant refusal to draw definitions that might be limited by his own frame of reference provides a theoretical backdrop for Hazelwood and his creatives to question the parameters we put around music and dancers, performers and audience, those with a disability and those without.
Composer Will Gregory from the electro-pop duo Goldfrapp creates sections of semi-improvised music in response to the audio excerpts. It is riff-based; built from a rhythm or walking bass line and layered with the colours of bass clarinet, strings, harp, percussion and luscious electric guitar. Two sopranos float above the texture, joined by the glorious calls of the horn. The rhythms invite movement and the harmony has a plaintive yearning.
Bit by bit the audience responds, enticed into the dance by an ecstatic crescendo which evaporates at its peak into sudden silence. There is a sense of disappointment that the new world we created has finished too soon. Also pride at the parameters we ‘accomplices’ have inadvertently expanded thanks to the guiding hands of the Paraorchestra and friends.
Pictured top: Sopranos Joanne Roughton-Arnold and Victoria Oruwari with arms outstretched as dancers move around them. Photo Toni Wilkinson.