Restless Dance Theatre’s Private View marks the fourth occasion that the company for dancers with and without disability has featured in the Adelaide Festival. Now, they’re inviting audiences into a voyeuristic world of secret desires and dreams, imbued “with a little bit of naughtiness and a bit of cheekiness.”
Artistic director Michelle Ryan says it “always cracks [her] up” when someone misjudges that the emotions of people with Down syndrome are skewed towards the positive, rather than across the whole spectrum. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, the dancers, they’re happy all the time.’ And I'm going, ‘They're not! They’re human beings with feelings’.”
When it comes to romance and sex, there exists a stigma where people living with disability are often infantilised. “The reason I wanted to do this was just we’re all human, aren’t we? And we all have those desires. Pretending that people don’t is not a realistic thing.”
Ryan, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30, says, “Even just on a personal level, I know that when I acquired a disability that I could feel the judgement from people. I mean, I know that people were fantastic and have the right intentions. But I can tell that there’s certain judgements.”
Part of Ryan's mission at Restless is to challenge audiences’ perceptions by exploring universal themes with diverse artists onstage. Back in 2017, the company deliberately made no reference to disability in any promotional material for their show Intimate Space, which brought them “a really different crowd.” Ryan outlines their approach: “Lure the audience in, make them feel comfortable, and then try and hit them with something that makes them think.”
With around one in five Australians identifying as having a disability, the onstage representation that Restless provides in a renowned, mainstream arts festival holds the utmost importance for eradicating stigma. “It’s about just having those conversations and not being scared of people with disability. And if you don’t know, ask the question,” Ryan says.
To ensure that the dancers’ voices were included in Private View, Ryan utilised the Pina Bausch model to collaboratively devise movement. “It is about when you set a task, and then you ask the dancers to respond, mostly physically, and then you mould it into scenes and then the overall structure of the show.”
The hour-long production is segmented into four main scenes: romantic, playful, enticing, and rebuilding. “It’s not exactly their stories, but it's absolutely informed by their responses to that provocation.”
25-year-old dancer Darcy Carpenter, who hails from the Riverland, performs a playful duet in which she giggles and tickles with her partner. “I dance with Charlie [Wilkins] who is a brilliant dancer. He and I are aware and comfortable with me. And I feel safe. And it is a safe show.”
To counter the heavy-handed themes, Ryan implemented safeguards in the working environment to maintain a healthy balance between the toxicity and beauty, including changing into stage persona t-shirts after warm-up, employing intimacy coordinator Eliza Lovell, and mixing up rehearsals with fun activities like playing with condoms. “You bring part of your own self to this, but we always talk about that we leave any personal stuff at the door,” Ryan says.
After seeing Private View, Ryan hopes that audiences will accept dancers with disability as legitimate artists and that Restless is “not a poor cousin to other companies.”
She adds: “I also just hope that they might see a bit of themselves in one of the rooms at some point, and then just realise that we're all in this crazy world together and we all share the same things. And that people with disability are allowed to have attraction and to have sex.”
Although, “there is no sex onstage,” she reassures us.
Private View, Odeon Theatre, until 9 March