ArtsAbility Festival heads to the Artscape

Nadine McKenzie, co-founder of Unmute and producer of the ArtsAbility Festival 2018.

The Artscape Theatre Centre is gearing up for the fourth annual ArtsAbility Festival, taking place in conjunction with the International Week for Persons Living with Disabilities, from Tuesday November 27 to Sunday December 2.

The festival, themed inclusion this year, is presented by the Unmute Dance Theatre, a company of artists with mixed abilities, whose vision is to inspire the inclusion of disabled people into mainstream society through the arts.

The festival acts as a platform for artists living with and without disabilities, to collaborate and showcase their work.

The Unmute Dance Theatre started in 2013, when artists of mixed abilities, who worked for the then Remix Dance Company, started a production project called Unmute.

Co-founder of Unmute, and the producer of this year’s ArtsAbility Festival, Nadine McKenzie, said while putting together the ArtsAbility Festival was a challenging task, the end result was always rewarding.

Nadine was knocked down by a drunk driver when she was just two years old, and has been in a wheelchair ever since.

“I don’t really remember what it was like to be able to walk, so this is a way of life for me.”

She attended the Astra School for pupils with disabilities until Grade 9, then attended a mainstream school.

“Personally, I don’t think there should be schools for children with disabilities. You get so used to being around people with special needs, that you don’t get used to ‘normal’ people. In mainstream school, you become more aware of yourself and your surroundings, and people become more aware of you.”

She said learning to use a wheelchair had been an adjustment for her, as was continuous treatment, but it soon became normal.

She was going to study business management after matriculating but the dance company Remix, who had performed at her school, had her in awe.

“This was the first time I’ve ever seen able-bodied and disabled people dance together, let alone that disabled people could dance. A woman from Remix asked if I would be interested and I said no – I never saw it as something I could be part of.”

After much persuasion, Nadine decided to join the dance company, formed part of their productions, and even became a trainer.

In 2012, Remix closed its doors, and a few of the staff members, including Nadine, asked themselves ‘where to from here?’ So they decided to start their own project, and a year later, Unmute was born.

“We were then approached by Artscape to form part of the incubator programme, which helps artists with administration and creative training.

“In 2017 we became one of the in-house companies at the Artscape.”

She said funding was one of the biggest challenges, as was working within a society that still believed people with disabilities were not active members of communities.

To date, Unmute has been a training facility for people with and without disabilities; doing outreach programmes, dance classes and workshops in rural communities; working with special needs schools and “normal” schools, who also partake in the festival.

Nadine said the ArtsAbility Festival was born from the idea that everyone should have a platform to showcase their art.

“There are many arts festivals around the city, but none which are inclusive, or have the platform for collaborative work between people with abilities and disabilities. We try to make the festival as inclusive as possible, not only for people with physical disabilities, but with mental, visual and hearing disabilities.”

She said what used to be an audition process for the festival recently changed to the team having to go into communities and find people with disabilities and give them a chance to perform.

“Able-bodied people have more access, so we had to give the marginalised a chance,” said Nadine.

In terms of disabled people being accepted as an active part of society, Nadine feels that there is a long way to go.

“I don’t feel any change in the city centre. Just moving around is a problem – I cannot use public transport.

“Education is the key. People need to change their thinking around disability.

“The only time they are considerate is when they have personal experience with a disabled person.”

Visitors to the ArtsAbility Festival can expect dance, live music, poetry, visual arts, film, fashion design, art installations, theatre and site-specific performances as a medium to challenge the public’s misconception on people living with disabilities.

The productions that are featured this year include Longitude of Silence, a collaboration between a Durban-based dance company Flatfoot and Unmute Dance Company, One At A Time by Swiss/Italian choreographer Alessandro Schiattarella and the Ability Market that will be featuring Cape Town’s young designers, visual artists, fashion designers and craft makers.