‘For the space of an hour, a magical space, it was a reminder of possibility’: Alison Croggon on The British Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why
Listening is something that happens with your whole body, your whole psyche. The listener isn’t a passive vessel into which something is poured by someone else: listening is an active exchange, a mutual giving over of being.
Most of us are aware of this, to some extent: we instinctively understand the difference between merely hearing something and paying deep attention. The Nature of Why, an extraordinary, multilayered performance from The British Paraorchestra at the Perth Festival, foregrounds this distinction: it’s an invitation to be fully present, to be open, curious human animals in a world of sound.
It made me think of Tom Middleditch’s recent Witness essay on Relaxed Performance. “Once there was no dip in the pavement kerb,” says Middleditch. “Once the TV had no captions. Both of these things were installed to give access to disabled people, but they were also adopted by everyone else as an essential and useful part of a functioning society. This is known as the ‘Curb Cut Effect’. The benefits extend well beyond the realm of disability.”
It’s a shame that he couldn’t see this show, because I think he would be excited by The Nature of Why. Charles Hazlewood, conductor and founder of The British Paraorchestra, the first professional orchestra for disabled musicians, and Melbourne’s Caroline Bowditch, who choreographed the dancers, have completely rethought the experience of listening to music.
Their first concern is to make Will Gregory’s score available to everyone, no matter what their abilities. Every performance is fully accessible, with wheelchair access, assistive listening, audio description and Auslan interpretation, and before we enter the performance space there’s an introduction to let people know what to expect. There were many disabled people in the audience, but it’s an exhilarating experience for the able-bodied as well. All art ought to be like this: if not in form, in effect. All art ought to have this vitality, all art should generate this electric, generous, fluid sense of exchange.
The Nature of Why, commissioned by the British Paraorchestra, is a lively, powerful, constantly various score that circles around an impromptu lecture by theoretical physicist Richard Feynman on the question “why?” Asked by an interviewer why magnets repel each other, he launched into a disquisition on how asking why, and answering it, only ever leads to other questions, other answers, which in turn open up more questions.
Audio of Feynman’s interview punctuates the music, creating breathing spaces during which the composition shifts focus, as if it’s responding to the points Feynman makes. The music swirls around the space and through our bodies, a thrilling combination of strings (from the Perth Symphony Orchestra as well as the BPO) and percussion, brass, electric guitar and voice.
Instead of sitting in a darkened auditorium, we’re invited onto the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre, a moving crowd surrounded by and surrounding the instruments, musicians and dancers. It’s not always possible to tell who’s a performer and who isn’t: and as the performance progresses, the distinction dissolves further, as members of the audience are lightly touched and gently invited into the dance.
We’re invited to curate our own version of the show: as Caroline Bowditch says, no one will be able to see all of it, because there’s too much going on. What she doesn’t say, but is implicit, is that there’s no wrong way to respond. If you want to hang back in the shadows, that’s perfectly ok too: though I noticed nobody did, not even the shyest people, and that by the end almost everyone was dancing.
The show is a kind of chaotically ordered promenade, in which each audience member follows what interests them. At one point, enchanted by voices that I couldn’t trace, I circled the whole stage attempting to track them down (I finally found Blind soprano, Victoria Oruwari, singing among the crowd).
Nobody stays in the same place: the performers constantly move the point of focus, perhaps swinging a giant xylophone to create a new performance space in the crowd, or dancing through a knot of people. The choreography and music was constantly inventive, always gentle, often powerful and completely joyous.
It was enormously moving to be there, among all these strangers united in curiosity and pleasure through Gregory’s glorious music. For the space of an hour, a magical space, it was a reminder of possibility. Yes, human beings can be like this.
The Nature of Why, composed by Will Gregory, choreographed by Caroline Bowditch, conducted by Charles Hazlewood. Directed by Caroline Bowditch & Charles Hazlewood. Lighting Design by Seb Blaber, sound design by Simon Honywill, production manager Laura Hook, costumes designed by Bianca Ward. Musicians: The British Paraorchestra & String players from Perth Symphony Orchestra. Dancers: KJ Clarke-Davies, Victoria Fox, Marta Masiero, Alex McCabe. The British Paraorchestra, Perth Festival, until February 23.
Please note: this is a standing show with limited seats available.
Wheelchair accessible with assistive listening, audio description, tactile tour and Auslan interpretation for all performances.