Dancer/choreographer Suzanne Cowan doesn’t shy away from provocative titles.
Her latest work is called Manifesto of a Good Cripple and it’s got an almost sci-fi sounding theme to it inspired by her own personal experiences.
“I’m fascinated by the idea that our bodies are not separate from the world – but rather intrinsically embedded into our environment and, therefore, informed by the landscape,” says Cowan, who ended up in a wheelchair after a road accident when she was 22 and travelling in Canada.
For a year, she struggled with “what next” but it was clear to the aspiring dancer that while her body might no longer move in a conventional sense, dance hadn’t left her. Some 20 years ago, Cowan’s career began as a dancer and choreographer with Touch Compass (a company that works with dancers of different abilities) and she has continued to move her body – wheels and all.
As the first woman in a wheelchair in the world to graduate with a research PhD in dance,
Cowan has developed her ideas about the body and environment through research and academic work even exploring various concepts of “post humanism” on the dance floor.
This is where the sci-fi elements come into play – post-humanism considers ideas a person or entity exists in a state beyond being human. One of her guiding questions has been, “Where does human-ness and technology intersect? And what does that hybridity look like?”
Directed by fellow dancer/choreographer Lara Liew,Manifesto is unequivocally autobiographical and highlights the importance of disability artists telling their stories, in their own words and on their own terms. It might be tempting to think the work is exclusively cerebral but Cowan’s creations tend to exude charm and weave together performances that both political and lyrical.
“Rather than minimise my point of difference, I want to exaggerate it,” she says. “I want us to come into conversation about the extraordinary human body and move beyond the binary of abled/disabled and man/woman binaries – both in terms of gender and the politics of diversity.
“The show draws together pivotal moments in my life, elements of my PhD research, highlights of my performance career and in doing so creates a new work out of the traces of the past – and that’s exciting.”
In 2008, she made the dance work Grotteschi, a mesmerizing duet between a gorgeous spider-lady who moves exquisitely and precisely towards her mantis gentleman-lover, sadly, only to unfurl some rather devastating consequences for her ill-fated mate. It was excellent work, taut and perverse, and easy to watch repeatedly.
Like Grotteschi, Manifesto draws upon elements of the freakish and the burlesque to share her story. It also blends theatre and film footage with dance and Cowan’s also confident that Manifesto will be a unique experience for the Basement.
“In the past, the Basement hasn’t always been a very user-friendly space but that’s changed, and I’m excited to actually be one of the first artists with a disability to perform in there.”
Ultimately, it’s a huge milestone for Cowan on a personal and a professional level.
“People with disabilities are not often seen in directing or choreography roles, they’re not often in complete control of the aesthetic – so I’m delighted that this show comes through me – my lens, my works, my lived experience, my twenty years of performing.”