Every body's welcome to this perfect storm
A vibrant new company is set to test our expectations of dance
In the opening scene of The Impending Storm, a bold new production which is receiving its world premiere at the International Dance Festival Birmingham next month, an integrated company of able-bodied and disabled dancers are writhing on the floor, thrashing it with pillows. It is a strange, yet strangely mesmerising sight. The seven performers are simultaneously whipping up a storm and strong emotions within me.
At the end of the rehearsal of this scene, the artist Mark Storor, who is devising The Impending Storm, steps on stage to say that he is particularly pleased by the effect of seeing the performers reflected in the shiny floor. "It gives it a whole other viewpoint. It makes it feel like you're surrounded by rain water."
"It's Busby Berkeley on a budget!" interjects David Toole, the acclaimed dancer who is leading this company.
The Impending Storm, which is being performed in The Patrick Centre at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 1 and 2 May, interweaves the performers' own tales of pain and pleasure, from the grief of a child who has lost a parent to the delight of reunited lovers.
Set against the backdrop of a gathering storm and accompanied by a wonderfully versatile three-piece band, the show is a collaboration between Storor, Toole, UK-based dancer Lucy Hind, British musician Dom Coyote, South African singer Sandile Gontsana and Remix, South Africa's only professional integrated dance company. Part of the Cultural Olympiad, The Impending Storm will also be performed at the Unlimited season at the Purcell Room in London on 7 and 8 September.
Featuring a "rainbow nation" company of able-bodied, disabled and black and white performers, this could have been a clunky production, bashing us over the head with politically correct points about equality. But in fact, this vibrant group have invested the show with a welcome lightness of touch.
In one scene, for example, the dancer Mpotseng Shuping acts out a memory from her past of carrying her bed from place to place on her head. Her feet drenched in stage blood, the weary performer finally arrives at a double bed in the middle of the stage, where her feet are gently washed by Toole.
Over lunch, the company explain that their aim is not to wave a banner for worthy causes, but to create a unique work of art. "The ending is particularly joyous," declares Toole, a wry Yorkshireman with no legs who is extraordinarily expressive on stage. "But I can't give that away. If I did, I would have to kill you!"
Storor, who has created such award-winning shows as For the Best and The Fat Girl Gets a Haircut, stresses that it is not his intention to impose a message on the audience. "It's important that there is space for you to bring your own story as an audience. Some work can be didactic, but we recognise how intelligent audiences are. We want people to join the dots up themselves."
Malcolm Black, the artistic director of Remix, agrees that The Impending Storm is not an overtly political show. "It is not specifically South African – it is universal. People go through the same stuff everywhere."
Nor is the issue of disability – three of the company use wheelchairs and one is deaf – rammed down the audience's throat. Toole, who worked for six years with the Candoco integrated dance company during the 1990s, says that, "I have a problem with people who treat integrated work like some mythical, magical thing. That's rubbish. You work with people's emotions, not their disabilities.
"I get annoyed when people ask, 'How do you audition a disabled dancer?' You give them a task, and if they're no good, you throw them out!"
'The Impending Storm', Birmingham Hippodrome (0844 338 5000) 1 & 2 May; Purcell Room, London SE1 (0844 875 0073) 7 & 8 September
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