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Carole Lander points to a considerable disparity between the UK and Australia’s arts funding, particularly with regard to disabled performers.
The stage is black. Two dancers come into focus as the music begins. Marc Brew is very tall and sits behind Caroline Bowditch who is very short. Their arms dance in time to the music. As the pace quickens, he wraps his torso seductively around hers and it becomes obvious why they are seated for this performance. She does not have the full use of her legs.
Bowditch spends most of her life in a wheelchair because she was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones). Stella Young, who died last November, had the same condition. Like Young, Bowditch has not only become an outspoken promoter of disability rights, she has also defied all medical predictions and sustained a very successful career after completing a performing arts course at Deakin University (Geelong).
In 1996 the UK’s Candoco Dance Company visited Australia. Arts Access Victoria invited Bowditch to prepare some local performers living with a disability to share in the visiting company’s dance experience. “It was at this time that I really discovered the joys of being in my own strange, awkward, little body,” says Bowditch. Romance took her to Scotland in 2002 and she stayed there because great opportunities for dance and choreography kept presenting themselves.
Recently Arts Access Victoria invited Bowditch to lead a seminar with Victorian artists and producers. The deadline for Australia Council disability grant applications ($1 million for development and projects) was close so the discussion became animated; particularly when Bowditch described the generous support she receives for her dance and choreography.
“In the UK I have a sense of entitlement to make work,” Bowditch said. “But it seems that disabled performers in Australia are just getting the crumbs that fall from the table.” Interestingly, one in five people live with a disability in both Australia and the UK.
Local artists with disabilities welcome the opportunity to apply for arts funding through this special fund and $1 million sounds like a lot of money. However, it equates to only $333,000 a year for the whole of Australia, across all of the arts – dance, literature, theatre, music and visual arts. Considering Bowditch’s 2014 piece Falling in love with Frida cost £93,000 ($183,000) and took eighteen months to mount, it is obvious that the Australia Council money will not go very far to promoting our disabled artists.
Many people at the Arts Access seminar were clearly disenchanted, as expressed by Kate Hood, a wheel-chair-using actor: “It’s frustrating to be kept in the cage by a lack of money, forethought and expectations. We have to constantly support ourselves. How can we shift this lack?”
Hood’s position as deputy chair of Actors Equity’s Diversity Committee gives her a voice on behalf of disabled performers. Formed in 2013, the committee is working towards the same thing Bowditch advocates for – a much-needed change that will see disabled performers on stage, television and film in Australia as a matter of course.
Participants at the seminar agreed that a change in attitude is necessary with Australians becoming more receptive to performances by people living with disability. They envied Bowditch when she reported that 18,000 people across the UK watch a Scottish Dance Theatre performance each year and nobody is “turned off” by the disabled dancers on stage.
When London hosted the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, huge sums of money were made available for disabled artists to develop work under the banner of Unlimited: London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Bowditch was the lucky recipient of one of these grants to mount Leaving limbo landing, a massive performance for outdoor spaces involving six dancers, aerial acts, a water wall, ropes and scaffolding. The Unlimited project was so successful that it will be repeated next year. When Bowditch returns to the UK, she will sit on a panel to select ten new groups who will share the allocated £500,000 ($982,000).
Bowditch asks: “What would happen if the Australia Council’s $1 million led to a big showcase event like Unlimited in the UK? Would this demonstrate to producers just what disabled performers are capable of? Would this lead to the change in attitude that is so desperately needed in this country?”
Surely our disabled artists should not have to wait for a major event like the Olympics to generate interest in funding and promoting their work.