Feature: Dancing through disability – Suzie Birchwood’s conversation with dystonia

For any dancer or choreographer, to have an evening of your work staged by Sadler’s Wells is a coup.

But for Suzie Birchwood, who presents and performs in A Conversation with Dystonia, part of Sadler’s Wells’ Dance and Dialogue series, it’s nothing short of remarkable. When Birchwood was 16, and on a full scholarship at the London Studio Centre, a niggling pull down her right hand side, at first put down to rapid muscle development as a result of her full-time training, led to her collapsing in the middle of a class, locked in spasm.

It took Birchwood eight painful years of misdiagnosis, hospital stays and a multitude of therapy programmes, before she was finally diagnosed with the incurable condition, Generalised Dystonia, the day before her 25th birthday.

“I have to say it was actually a tremendous relief,” admits Birchwood of the eventual diagnosis. “I knew there was something very, very wrong, but it had been such a long time of not being believed, or understood. I’d learnt to deal with it on my own, and I was doing a pretty good job, I felt I was being pretty brave, but getting that diagnosis – I felt I could match anything as long as I knew what it was.”

Despite the previous years of uncertainty, and the painful spasms, which left Birchwood exhausted, and often in hospital, she had already channelled her energy into founding, teaching at and running Silver Birch Dance Company in 2002 (previously named ActOne ArtsBase), an inclusive dance organisation, which Birchwood describes as an immensely positive place where no one is ever excluded.

“Eventually it took up my life, this wonderful, positive place I could go into,” she explains.

“I really enjoyed building a wonderful group of young people and team members, it gave me an incredibly positive focus and a real need to be useful.”

Birchwood says that her time spent battling her condition left her with an irrepressible urge to give something back in some way – and her diagnosis gave her an extra spur.

“It gave me an extra determination that I was going to make the absolute most of my life,” she says.

“There had been a real possibility that I would die, and it was incredibly important to me, at the age of 25, that I left a mark on the world in some way that was positive. I had a great sense of guilt – for what my parents went through, for my sister not getting the attention she deserved because I’d been so poorly; I had a sense that every day I wanted to put something back.”

Shortly after her diagnosis, Birchwood met her husband Andy, who encouraged her to explore dancing once again as a professional herself, as well as teaching. Shortly after this, she found the support of another key individual when she began working with her partner, Peter Baldwin, who she describes as ‘wonderful’.

“I explained my condition to him, and he pretty much ignored all of that and started lifting me and throwing me around – Peter is incredibly sensitive to my body and how much strength I have in my legs, when I need catching and how much my legs move. He didn’t presume anything, he just sensed it somehow and he gave me a tremendous amount of freedom,” says Birchwood.

Working with Baldwin, and exploring aerial silks and specially designed sets, Birchwood began to dance professionally again, touring her work before striking up a collaboration with Ballet Cymru.

“They said ‘this is really unusual, where have you been?’ and I said ‘well, I’ve been teaching, I haven’t been working as a professional dancer’, and they were very encouraging,” says Birchwood.

“They hadn’t met a classically trained ballet dancer who was disabled before. That was the beginning of a long relationship with Ballet Cymru. As far as we know, I was the first classically trained ballet dance with a disability to work with them as a dancer on a regular basis, not as part of a programme or a pet project.”

Birchwood makes the distinction between flagship projects and regular opportunities for disabled dancers, and says that while contemporary dance has pushed the boundaries of inclusivity and integration, with world-renowned companies like Candoco and Stop Gap, who both work with disabled and non-disabled dancers, ballet is yet to become anything like as integrated.

“It isn’t appropriate that I’m one of very, very few ballet dancers in a wheelchair in this country,” says Birchwood, who is working as an assistant researcher to devise an examination syllabus for disabled ballet dancers.

“We need a big pool of dancers, but that training and those opportunities aren’t really there. It is beginning to change though, and the very fact that there is intention to change is very exciting.”

Birchwood’s Sadler’s Wells debut tonight, which sees two dance pieces, exploring her relationship with her condition, along with a conversation piece between Birchwood and the researchers who have worked with her on innovative ways of managing her Dystonia, is an example of the intention and change that Birchwood describes – and she welcomes it wholeheartedly.

“Sadler’s Wells have been tremendously supportive,” she says.

“They’ve really encouraged me. For the last couple of years I’ve been in conversation with them about potentially doing something, but I never expected it to be an entire evening. I’m very excited.”

The first dance piece is a trio, between a classical dancer, an aerial artist and a contemporary dancer, exploring Birchwood’s tempestuous historic relationship with her condition – her anger and frustration and the immensely violent nature of the spasms, and their impact on her body. The second reflects on where she is now, and her evolved relationship with Dystonia, following groundbreaking neuroplasticity sessions with the researchers.

“I walk very much hand in hand with my Dystonia now,” says Birchwood.

“We are part of each other and we inform each other in a funny sort of ways. I understand it much better now and I accept my body and how it works.”

Birchwood will perform in the second, solo piece, despite, in a happy turn of fate, being eight months pregnant.

“It’s rather a lovely outcome,” she says.

“It’s a full circle story, I couldn’t be in a more positive place now really, all in all.”

A Conversation with Dystonia is performed at the Lilian Baylis Studio on October 19. It is part of Sadler’s Wells’ Dance and Dialogue series, which marks its commitment to presenting work by deaf and disabled artists.

Image: Chris Porter