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Friday, March 15, 2019, 17:45
Different and loving it
By Liana Cafolla
Friday, March 15, 2019, 17:45 By Liana Cafolla

Created, performed and produced by differently abled people, the first No Limits festival in HK is expected to celebrate the spirit of diversity and inclusiveness. Liana Cafolla reports.

Gala, the opening act of the No Limits festival, is performed by professionals and amateurs of different ages and abilities. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Most performing arts events are typically designed for passive viewing. The audience is not required, or encouraged, to consider the real person behind the facade of the character he enacts.  An actor’s foibles, imperfections, differences, weaknesses, or special way of seeing the world — the qualities that make us human and unique — remain unknown to the spectators. Both audience members and performers seem bound by an unstated pact that art is best served by suppressing the real in favor of the represented. The No Limits series of performances, presented as part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF), turns such a pact on its head. Performed, produced or created by people of differing abilities, the seven shows demonstrate that much of the human condition is in fact informed by the disparate nature of human competence, regardless of whether we like to face up to it. 

The program aims to promote inclusiveness and understanding, says Tisa Ho, executive director of HKAF, which is co-presenting No Limits with the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust and strategic partner Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong. “With this we will be able to embrace and serve a wider population in different ways, and in turn we will add to the expression of the diversity and energy that is in this city, as well as its capacity for empathy and inclusiveness,” she says. 

No Limits opens with Gala, a dance performance directed and choreographed by Jérôme Bel in 2015. Performed by professionals and amateurs of different ages and abilities, the lineup includes those who perform on stage in the light and others who sit in the dark watching them, explains Bel. It has a gala format, made up of different pieces and scenarios showcasing a variety of styles, experiences and abilities without requiring the audience to feel a need to judge them. The structure aims to celebrate the variety of life and maximize inclusiveness as well as make the show flexible enough to tour with. 

Bel describes the show in a similarly fragmented way. “I would here give you five words: culture, singularity, realness, imperfection, joy.”

Defeating Down syndrome

Making its international premiere in Hong Kong is King Arthur’s Night, a dramatic production that has been described as “compelling, comedic” and “original, poetic and full of surprises”. Based on the legend of King Arthur and co-written by Neworld Theatre’s Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef, the cast comprises people with and without Down syndrome (DS). McNeil, who also plays the title role, has it.  

Writing scripts for cast members with different abilities was an enriching process for everyone involved, says Youssef. “(We) all had things to learn: that every single one of us was very good at some things and pretty shitty at others and that this was equally true for every person in the room. When we gave our community actors (those with DS) space to lead, and followed them as they did what they love and are good at, the results were inherently dramatic, beautiful and a direct challenge to the millennia of exclusion and isolation that have characterized the experiences of so many people with developmental disabilities.”

Founded in 1994, the Vancouver-based company has a history of exploring diversity and inclusion in its projects. “Over time we became more and more interested in what makes us believe we are different from other people, and how those beliefs often tell us more about our own assumptions and biases than they do about the other people we may assume are ‘different’ than we are,” explains Youssef. Working with mixed abilities has also pushed the other cast members to up their game. “We also learned that we had to meet our community artists’ level of openness and transparency, and continually try to be more honest, more present, more clear, and allow ourselves to be more visible and more fully seen,” he says.

Patient hearing

Visible or not, none of us are without our defects. Perhaps none of the shows promises to make invisible disabilities visible in a more intimate way than Reassembled, Slightly Askew by Shannon Yee. Yee suffered a rare brain infection in 2008 that saw her fall into a coma of a kind that only around 10 percent of people survive. Yee spent months in hospital undergoing surgeries to remove pus from her brain and regaining mobility, and was left with an acquired brain injury. She mined the early days of her hospitalization to come up with a unique audio-based experience. In the show the audience will lie on hospital beds wearing an eye mask and earphones, under the care of a “nurse”, in the suitably evocative setting of the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.

Yee says brain injury sufferers and their family members who have been to the show often tell her it’s the first time they feel their experiences have been represented. The show has also proved to be a transformative experience for those caring for brain-injured patients.

“Many medical professionals have experienced it and have said they will change the way they do their jobs because of having been a ‘patient’ in Reassembled… — which is important … exciting to know it’s impacting more people’s lives in that very isolating experience of being in a hospital or the early days of acquired brain injury,” Yee says. 

If you go

No Limits 

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust.

Gala 

Venue: Auditorium, Sha Tin Town Hall, 1 Yuen Wo Rd, Sha Tin

Dates: March 15 and 16

Reassembled, Slightly Askew

Venue: Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, 2 Caine Lane, Mid-Levels

Dates: March 15-30

King Arthur’s Night

Venue: Auditorium, Sha Tin Town Hall, 1 Yuen Wo Rd, Sha Tin

Dates: March 19 and 20

www.nolimits.hk/en/


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