Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre: Centre stage for diversity
Not even a third lockdown can stop this year’s Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Open to all through its re-platforming as a digital festival, this fifth annual celebration of disabled artists’ vision and creativity seeks to break boundaries of all kinds across its varied schedule of dance, performance, comedy, music, visual arts and more. With accessibility being the foundational ethos, all these online events have audio description and closed captioning options available.
For the price of an internet connection, there is a such a wide range of work to see: from live comedy performances to on-demand recorded dance pieces. Artificial Things, directed by Sophie Fiennes and reimagined on film, is completely entrancing. Choreographed by Lucy Bennett, the disabled and non-disabled performers (Amy Butler, Laura Jones, Chris Pavia, David Willdridge, Dave Toole) suggest the connections of human bodies are essential but fragile. Likewise, writer Jonzi D suggests the precariousness of ties across different social groups in Here/Not Here. Forced to share an abandoned warehouse on an estate, a trio of DeafVVers struggle to find common ground with a group of footballers and street dancers. The piece, directed by deaf artist Bim Ajadi, absorbs influences from Visual Vernacular (the choreographed and poetic form of sign language), hip-hop and Krump street dance. A terrific ensemble gives real energy to this multi-styled cinematic work, capturing the tensions, exhaustion and solidarity between expressive young people, deaf and hearing alike.
If Artificial Things and Here/Not Here emphasise the physical and social, Cheryl Martin’s One Woman is a quiet, evocative reminder of lifelong mental disabilities. This artistically abstract, bi-aural experience soaks its audience in a dissonant dreamscape that can feel disorientating yet strangely touching. While Martin’s voice is a clear guide to her own personal experiences of severe depression and borderline personality disorder, her fragmented work allows viewers to navigate their own thoughts and feelings into the cracks. Saturn Returns, an upcoming film of a theatre production, based on the poetry of director Sonny Nwachukwu, similarly explores multi-generational psychological trauma. Drawing inspiration from his Igbo background, Nwachukwu weaves together West African diasporic history, spirituality and psychology in the medium of choreopoetry (choreographed poetry). While the choreopoem is itself limited to a few spoken word extracts, the live panel discussion nevertheless provided a fascinating insight into all aspects of the creative process. The emphasis on creating an artistic “safe space” to cope with the emotionally triggering content is especially thought-provoking.
Safe space for artistic and identity expression was also the important theme in Brownton Abbey’s Zoom chat Gods of Lockdown, featuring Black, disabled, queer artists Pure, Syrus Marcus Witch of the West and The Uhuruverse. This chilled-out chat between celestial beings covered the ongoing problems and possibilities of society within (and beyond) the pandemic. The hour-long broadcast certainly offered a bit more nuance than Glooptopia. A loud, proud political polemic, one can only assume that the titular Glooptopia – an autistic green drag queen – was going for parody in her chanting for the utopian “Commucracy”!
Breaking boundaries with format as well as content and style, the festival offers interactive digital media content. The Origin of Carmen Power, created by theatre maker Toby Peach, provides fun, easy digital navigation for particularly difficult subject matter. Sharing her real-life journey with cancer, young Carmen and Toby’s inventive storytelling turns a life-altering event into a bright, inspiring parable suitable for all ages.
The above offers only a brief slice of the festival’s varied schedule. Fundamentally, however, the sheer range of content ensures that the diversity of experiences and talent from disabled artists is given centre stage once more.
Photo: Carlton Dixon