GIMP. The title seems a mission statement in itself. Smacking of a widely-parodied overly-earnest approach to contemporary dance, and disabled contemporary dance at that, the title of this new piece form the Heidi Latsky dance felt like a warning shot for what was to follow.
Indeed, it proved so. GIMP felt like it had been designed to fulfill a remit that could be boiled down to one word: ‘challenging’. Certainly in terms of the subject matter, but also in terms of the physical performances that follow.
First up is a stunning section involving two performers and a length of ribbon – the ‘gimp’ referenced in the title, meaning a length of braided material, which is suspended from the ceiling.
The performers – former gymnast Nate Crawford and Jennifer Bricker, who was born without legs – swing on the rope; climbing, descending and end up wrapped up in the swinging silk. It’s quite stunning.
The following sections are more conventional, and are made up of a troupe of able-bodied and disabled performers, including choreographer Heidi Latsky and the particularly impressive Jeffrey Freeze, who shares an intriguing spot with Lawrence Carter-Long, who has Cerebral Palsy; the contrast in their gaits uncomfortably fascinating.
The slower sections where the GIMP cast explore their bodies are impressive, and accompanied by a rich soundtrack. But the many frenetic sections that see the performers thrashing around to chaotic beats is unfocussed and rather bewildering.
A short piece that sees Carter-Long and Catherine Long – the latter born without a left arm, kneecaps or hip sockets – performing to the Body Rockers track I Like The Way You Move seemed very out of place and calculated to score a point rather than complement the rest of the production.
Another key segment sees Carter-Long deliver a monologue that repeats patronising if well-meaning platitudes of which, presumably, disabled artists and people are frequently on the receiving end. “You’re so beautiful… so amazing. I’m going to tell people about you…”
It makes an important point about audience reactions, and those of the public, to disabled artists and disabled people generally; and makes the viewer aware of the rather voyeuristic nature of watching the performers. But it also serves to alienate the audience and make the viewer feel stupid for even being there.
This is all counter-pointed by a post-performance Q&A with the cast that is warm, amusing and enlightening – serving to accentuate the lack of empathy between audience and cast during the performance, and also highlighting the lack of humour throughout.
SevenStreets felt poorly-qualified to offer an authoritative opinion. Frankly, we didn’t know what to make of it. Many questions, but few answers. Perhaps that’s the point. But GIMP seems content to simply scream ‘provocative’ and leave the viewer to his or her doubts and bemusement.
It’s right and proper that DaDaFest should pose these questions – if not here then where? – and it’s also right that the Deaf and Disability Arts Festival should stage productions that cater for the niche, even at the risk of alienating a wider audience.
We should point out that the audience on the night were appreciative. But SevenStreets went away fairly perplexed by the night’s entertainment. There’s much to appreciate, and much to ruminate upon.
But perhaps the simplest thing to say about GIMP – and, in some way, the most important – is that we didn’t really enjoy it, even if we’re just glad that it’s there.