For the past twenty years, dancer/choreographer and disability artist Suzanne Cowan has been challenging definitions of what is to be a dancer. Dancing in and out of her wheelchair with Touch Compass integrated dance company in New Zealand, and Candoco mixed ability dance company throughout Europe, and subsequently through her choreography and academic studies, she has contributed to the expansion of dance as an art form which engages with a wide range of bodies, experiences, artistic perspectives and approaches.
In Manifesto of a Good Cripple, an hour-long solo performance, Cowan puts her own life on stage, bringing together dance, text, film and design around themes of reviewing the past, learning from experience, and remaining open to new possibilities which emerge. She shares insights into her life, her travels around the world, the implications and ethics of disability, the conundrum of identity, and the future potentialities of being in the world.
The material with the most impact, of course, is that performed live: a series of short dances on key themes, and the presentation of two wickedly witty manifestos which play along the boundaries of political correctness and offer wry wisdom but nevertheless hit home with the audience. Received with laughter, Manifesto of a Good Cripple offers advice about providing what she calls “social grease” that makes others feel comfortable, how and why “inspiration porn” is to be avoided, and when social exchanges can be enriched by the crip’s observations. Manifesto of a Bad Cripple, by contrast, encourages the relishing of crip experience to the exclusion of any other experience.
While a series of film clips show Cowan dancing with Touch Compass and Candoco, and dancing in her own choreographies for Grotteschi (with Adrian Smith) and her PhD creative practice presentation (with Emilia Rubio), it is the live dance solos which show Cowan at her best.
In the opening sequence, she rolls slowly to and fro, chalking a profile of the Canadian Rockies on the back wall, gazing contemplatively at their peaks and valleys, adjusting a line here, smudging a snow field there, pausing under a light to exult in the warmth as she curves and stretches her back and shoulders. A little later, she is tipped onto the floor at the base of the mountains, only to push herself through an agonizing, extended scrabble to escape from the wreckage of the pivotal, traumatic road accident which has injured her spine and added a wheelchair to her existence.
Dancing in the chair that extends her dancing body and which she now experiences as a kind of hybrid exoskeleton, we experience Cowan’s strength and control, agility and expression of finely nuanced movement. She luxuriantly reprises her much loved dance for Ava the Spiderwoman from Grotteschi, exulting in Ava’s many-legged form, stroking her face sensuously with legs raised around her ears, and creating a cat’s cradle of limbs on her lap. Most poignantly, though, she dances with a second wheelchair, empty but kept in sync through her dexterous shifting and adjustments as the two chairs trace serpentine patterns and make super-fast crossings of the space. The empty chair can stand for many things – her stand-alone independence and individuality, the person she might have come, the loss of a dance partner or dear friend, but it is also open to the as yet unknown possibilities of future developments which she is committed to continuing to explore.
Though billed as a solo show, Manifesto of a Good Cripple is an interdisciplinary production with a full creative team behind it, and it is to their credit that their contributions are beautifully intermeshed and deftly unobtrusive Cowan’s team includes creative director Lara Liew, lighting designer, Sean Curham, choreographic adviser Clare Luiten, video and projection editors, Alyx Duncan and Adam Luka Turjak, and sound design by Charlie Rose and Kristian Larsen.