Most of us connected to dance, even simply as spectators, take movement for granted. What we see every time we go to a performance is virtuosic – dancers and choreographers who have spent years training their muscles into instantaneous action, showing the body’s active life and capabilities as they are earmarked by beauty, agility and strength. But what happens when we look at the other side of the coin: when the very simplest physical act is a challenge, is hampered by stiffness, spasm and dysfunction? This is the world Laura Dajao asks us to consider in her curated evening of dance, Take a Closer Look, which was performed at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells this past Wednesday as part of the theatre’s Wild Card series.

Laura Dajao © Sadler's Wells
Laura Dajao
© Sadler's Wells

Not even out of her teens, Dajao was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2007. Clearly a young woman with vivacious drive and unfettered optimism, Dajao continued on with her life despite her disease, which soon had her confined to a wheelchair. She enrolled in dance classes and started her own company. The program that she organized for the Wild Card series includes seven short pieces that are choreographic responses to MS and to disability in general. Dajao, wheel-chair bound, performs in four of them.

The performance was held in a large studio, the audience’s chairs ringing the stage space, which was marked off by white tape. Before the live performance, a video shot and edited by Shakti Zapata, with music by Jinn Ko, was projected onto the large back screen of the studio. The film was one of the more important performances of the evening. It showed in long, real-time detail how difficult it is for Dajao to perform even the simple act of leaving her home and driving to the studio. Sitting in the car, she must disassemble her light wheelchair, taking off wheels, collapsing the seat, hauling all the parts into the passenger seat of the car, all from the same position, as if she were tethered to the car – a procedure she must repeat on arriving wherever she is going. The voice-over repeats fragments of her talking: ‘I quite enjoy the drive’; ‘quite enjoy the drive’; ‘I think there’s a sense of freedom when I drive’; ‘a sense of freedom’; ‘driving offers the choice to do things that I need to do’; ‘things I need to do’.

The short pieces that comprised the evening came primarily from contemporary and urban dance steps. Human, choreographed by Hakeem Onibudo, the director of Impact Dance, and Sweet Sunrise, choreographed by Dajao with British Sign Language interpreter Jeni Draper, featured Dajao and other dancers in a pattern of movement exchanges in which dancers mirror each other's gestures. This trope threw both the capabilities and the disabilities of the dancers into high relief. Keanu Wilson partnered Dajao in the first piece, and his b-boy-style athleticism was an intriguing contrast to Dajao’s lyrical but confined movements. Sweet Sunrise added the intriguing movements of signer Jeni Draper. Signing has always seemed to me a very lyrical and fascinating way of converting verbal language into movement, and Draper’s mediating presence between Dajao and soul singer Jazz Bailey added another dimension to layers of physical meaning in the piece.

But Dajao’s most moving piece was Marionette, in which the complex issues around control over the body were displayed through the enactment of marionette-like gestures. Be Yourself, choreographed by Chi-Lin Nim, and 12 Months On, choreographed by Nikki Watson, looked at the physical meaning of MS through how the disease affects the physical movements of the sufferer. The first piece uses falling, stiff and spasmodic movements as the dance vocabulary, and they are strikingly engaging. They contain their own form of beauty. The main motif of the second piece was that of holding an inert body until one’s own fatigue forces the holder to drop her burden on the floor. It vividly enacted the necessities of dependence.

Dear Madame Myelin was a physical allegory of sorts of how MS attacks the well-functioning body. Choreographed and danced by Jole Pasquale with Xena Gusthart and Antonio Aguado aka BBoy Shyno, the piece was well served by Aguado’s stunning breaker moves and athleticism.