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Pepperland and beyond
Date posted: 01 May 2019
Dance artist and writer Kate Swindlehurst reflects upon her experience of the opening night of Mark Morris Dance Group’s UK Pepperland tour and the next day Dance for people living with Parkinson's - Looking ahead: a one-day interactive symposium at Sadler’s Wells, London in March 2019

My first taste of doing things differently came at Sadler’s Wells on the opening night of Mark Morris Dance Group’s UK Pepperland tour, for which I was fortunate to have tickets. The first ten minutes threw me: was I going to like this? Was this the company I knew and loved? I’d had my doubts about the Beatles theme anyway. But from the first the live orchestra offered a very different take on the familiar tunes and soon I was captivated by the creative approach of the musical director and (of course) of the choreography and the dancers. Another bonus: a post-show talk with Mark Morris himself centre stage, a shared experience of joy the emphasis.

The next day the symposium began for me with a hug from Sara Houston (Principle Lecturer in the Department of Dance, University of Roehampton)  and a further treat in the movement session. My discovery of the Mark Morris company had come originally from the video recording of Falling Down Stairs accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach Cello Suites. Not only did David Leventhal (Founding teacher and Programme Director for Dance for PD®, a programme of the Mark Morris Dance Group) choose this music for his opening session but he also led us in the Mark Morris choreography – a reminder of the central tenet of the Dance for PD programme: that we are all dancers.

The day was full of surprises. For Alison Williams (Visiting Professor Queen Margaret University, Creativity Specialist, and person living with Parkinson's) the choice for someone living with Parkinson’s is simple: it’s misery or dance. Sara Houston opened her contribution on Practice, not with the summary of research you might expect but with a poem which called for the unexpected and ‘messy’, a ‘what if?’ approach towards a process of ‘unfoldment’. I was too involved in the discussions which followed to make clear notes so ’messy’ it is! But one or two observations: I liked Alison Williams’ challenge on language – that we should avoid terms such as ‘disability’ and that we should focus on the dance practice itself. I found Magdalena Schamberger’s (Independent Creative Collaborator, Theatre Director, Teaching Artist and Honorary Professor at Queen Margaret University, Division of Nursing) idea of a pre-class ‘reset dial’ interesting, with her suggestion of dualities to consider – empathy/artistry, imagination/reality, structure/improvisation, history/the present. As well as old friends, I made one or two new ones.

I was somewhat troubled by the assertion from the floor that Parkinson’s rather than dance is at the centre of every class although I imagine the speaker was referring to the way each aspect of an approach can be said to target and work with a particular facet of Parkinson’s. For me, though, as someone living with Parkinson’s, absolutely the best thing about dance for people living with Parkinson's is that I can leave my Parkinson’s at the door, a genuine belief in the ‘dancer’s way’. To echo David Leventhal speaking in the wonderful film Capturing Grace: "In that state of flow, of ultimate fluidity, Parkinson’s is nowhere in the room."

That we still have some way to go in this direction was brought home to me in an encounter with a lovely delegate in one of the activities, who corrected my assumption: "Oh I’m not a dancer – I have Parkinson’s – I just go to one of the groups." My other reservation about the daytime session was a sense of reluctance in some to make the process really collaborative. "They’re not dance specialists," I heard at one point. "They don’t want to be involved in the planning." Other discussion focused on art ‘versus’ therapy and the need for boundaries and support for the dance artists and teachers.

One feeling I absolutely shared was the need, expressed from all corners of the room, to be bold in our championing of dance. Director, Dance for Parkinson's Partnership UK: Kiki Gale MBE saw it as a need for ‘clamour’. If only I had been bolder on the day, ready to speak out as a dancer-living-with-Parkinson’s! But I’m very much looking forward to seeing the fabulous artwork finished (see below) and on the website: as a way of ‘reporting’ on the highlights of the day, that is definitely ‘doing things differently’ in action.

I was heartened by the extra event hosted by Danielle Teale and friends in partnership with the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, which David Leventhal introduced with his perception of the need for changing the narrative. From the big hug from Danielle on arrival to the fact that in her project she is ‘still asking the dancers what they want the research question to be’, this was clearly an enterprise built on inclusivity and emotional empathy, a democratic endeavour based on shared dialogue. The short film emphasised the importance of creativity and play and the effects are evidently felt by all in the friendships established beyond the class. I particularly liked the idea of the evolution of a shared language with ‘everyone in the class fluent in either dance or in Parkinson’s’ and I was so sorry that I had to leave before the panel discussions. I love the fact that Danielle has collaborated with Neurology and Research Physiotherapist Ben Beare to take her artistic practice into the clinical setting and that she is also working on performance work alongside dancers living with Parkinson’s: how fantastic it would be to be involved in this!

With this in mind, I return to the film Capturing Grace. Here is Cyndy on their performance: "When you think that your life is not going to hold any more surprises, here comes this wonderful gift". Now the film is playing on my laptop, of course I can’t leave it there, but snivel (and, if I’m honest, sob) my way to the end. For me the film represents all that is remarkable about the dance for Parkinson’s programmes. So a huge thank you to the Mark Morris Dance Group and Sadler’s Wells, the Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership UK at People Dancing, Dance Consortium and Danielle Teale for the symposium and the evening event but more especially for enabling our ongoing transformations. In the words of Reggie Butts, one of the participants in the film: "There are no patients. There are only dancers."

Kate Swindlehurst

Artwork: @MendoncaPen