Two singers stand with arms outstretched while dancers move around them
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New parameters

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.

Two people in wheelchairs entwine hands and a singer engages an audience member as dancers, musicians and audience mingle.
The mingling of dancers, musicians and audience. Photo Toni Wilkinson

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.

The Nature of Why continues until February 23.

Pictured top: Sopranos Joanne Roughton-Arnold and Victoria Oruwari with arms outstretched as dancers move around them. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

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In the middle of a crowd sits a horn player in a wheel chair, behind him stands a clarinet player and two dancers are linking arms
Dance, Features, Lectures and Talks, Music, News, Performing arts, Perth Festival

Disabling the boundaries

English conductor Charles Hazlewood will be in Perth in February with the British Paraorchestra. He talks with Rosalind Appleby about disabilities, the haptic baton and disrupting classical music.

When was the last time you saw a stage with disability access? Or a professional orchestra that included musicians with disabilities? In 25 years of conducting the world’s top orchestras, English conductor Charles Hazlewood had seen neither.

“If music is the great universal language how can it be that an orchestra – which is the beautiful large evidence of that – how can it be it doesn’t have people of disability in it? It’s a no brainer,” says Hazlewood.

We are talking over the phone ahead of Hazlewood’s visit to Perth with the British Paraorchestra as part of the Perth Festival. In 2010, inspired by his daughter who has cerebral palsy, Hazlewood founded the world’s first large-scale professional ensemble for virtuoso musicians with disabilities. The British Paraorchestra made their debut at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

“Most people don’t put disability and musical excellence in the same sentence,” Hazlewood says. “We need to take the same seismic leap in music that has happened in world class sport. Look at what the Paralympics has achieved.”

Conductor Charles Hazlewood. Photo Paul Blakemore

But Hazlewood’s dream is not just to provide musicians with disabilities the opportunity to play in orchestras. He wants to disrupt the barriers around our experiences of traditional orchestral music.

Hazlewood and the Paraorchestra are bringing to Perth their adventurous dance and music theatre work The Nature of Why. The immersive all-age experience involves four dancers and the Paraorchestra musicians supplemented by the string players of the Perth Symphony Orchestra. The work was created in 2018 in collaboration with Australian choreographer Caroline Bowditch with music composed by keyboardist Will Gregory from the electro-pop duo Goldfrapp. Their inspiration came from the Novel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and audio excerpts from his lecture Why underpin the work. The Nature of Why erases the boundaries between audience, music and movement with musicians and dancers performing in and around the audience.

“I wanted to create one space where the performers and the audience are immersed in the piece,” Hazlewood explains. “We are putting everyone in a glorious pit together, with sound bombarding you at every side. It is a deeply exciting environment to be in.”

It was exactly this kind of immersive experience that first inspired Hazlewood to pursue a life in music. “When I was seven I was a choir boy watching an orchestra rehearse in Cheltenham town hall. The conductor said ‘You look lonely, come and sit with us’. I sat in the middle of the orchestra and there were sounds fired at me from all directions. At that moment my life shifted in its axis. It was a tremendous and addictive moment to understand and experience this large team working in an astoundingly evolved way, working together but with each individual having freedom and flexibility.”

Performers and audience mingle in The Nature of Why. Photo Paul Blakemore

The blurring of genres and boundaries in The Nature of Why reflects the British Paraorchestra’s goal to re-invent the orchestra for the 21st century.

“The orchestra is the guardian of a great and noble tradition; Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven are our birthright on this planet. But as an artform it has stood still for a long time. It still has the same instrumental make up of a century ago which is incredibly unadventurous especially in the light of the new musical worlds we’ve uncovered through technology.”

The makeup of the Paraorchestra includes a Baroque lute, a Celtic harp, lap steel guitar and conventional instruments. The performers are people with hearing impairment, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other disabilities, often using technology assisted devices to enable them to play their instruments. Hazlewood says the recent invention of the Haptic Baton means for the first time in history vision impaired musicians will soon be able to perform in an orchestra. Wireless transmissions from the conductor’s baton will transmit to a radio pack worn by the performer and the buzzes on their body will indicate the beat plus the space between the beat, enabling the performer to follow the ebb and flow of the music.

Hazlewood’s dream of a level playing field is one step closer.

“One day it will not be surprising for world class orchestras to include people of disability. These are musicians who play brilliantly, at the top of their game. It is the most thrilling journey.”

Charles Hazlewood will present a keynote address Building an Orchestra for the 21st Century on 18 February. The Nature of Why runs 21-23 February at the Heath Ledger theatre.

Pictured top: performers from UK performance of The Nature of Why. Photo Paul Blakemore

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