“A diagnosis is a release, but it is also a separation.” In a physical dialogue with her disability, Suzie Birchwood expresses her struggle with dystonia as she trained as a ballet dancer, depicting how violent spasms and an unpredictable locking of her body rebelled against her art form. Eight years after her first symptoms she was finally diagnosed with the disease which led her to explore the different ways of coping with her body’s unpredictability and the hope of returning to dance. Discovering that her body unlocks through movement, she has returned to dance, communicating with her condition through movement, a wheelchair and set, and working with young disabled dancers she’s arrived at A Conversation with Dystonia, a celebration of dancing through disability at Sadler’s Wells.
The piece expresses the many different layers of the pain and confusion around dystonia, as well as an artist’s persistence to continue their art. It was originally choreographed by Birchwood for her own performance, but as she’s heavily pregnant another dancer had to step in. She dances with passion and precision and depicts the struggle beautifully, however with a non-disabled dancer dancing a piece about the personal experience of dystonia, one can’t help but feel it slightly misses the point. Based in ballet with echoes by a contemporary dancer and an aerialist, the piece already seems beautifully constructed and a bit “distant” – so it would have added that extra layer if a dancer with dystonia had performed it and fully embraced the beauty in the spasms Birchwood later talks about.
Performers Peter Baldwin, Emily Edwards and Hazel Lam embrace the subject with great skill and understanding though. The metal scaffolding in the first piece designed by Michael Vale and Nick Blower supports the choreography well and highlights the frustration of being controlled by dystonia. It provides a chilling playground for the disease to unfold, and more play with aerial movement would therefore have taken the experience to another level.
The second half was Birchwood’s own performance, the conversation with dystonia from a place of acceptance – coming to terms with her body and how she responds to it. With subtle movements she shows us how she controls it, and by urging it to move she flies off into a dancer’s world, expressing the incredible journey she’s been on, sometimes with the help of her wheelchair, sometimes embracing a few seconds of freedom across the floor. Knowing her incredible story and persistence, you can’t help but admire the fluidity of her movement and see the beauty in the few spasms revealed to us so gracefully they don’t seem an obstacle at all. And being heavily pregnant and without her usual injections, Birchwood’s performance is truly inspirational. She performs in front of a big screen with a screen-saver-like display which distracts more than it illuminates but later provides us with an interview with neuroplasticity specialist Joaquin Farias, a key support of Birchwood’s treatment.
Finishing the evening we’re invited to a talk with Birchwood and another patient of Farias, journalist Federico Bitti, explaining the physical sensation of dystonia, how it started and affected their lives, and how the treatment liberated them beyond hope. With the insights of the disorder – and knowing Birchwood’s pregnancy helps her symptoms – you can’t help but see the performances in a completely different light. Feeling inspired, invigorated and strangely uplifted I wish I could go back and watch it again and understand all those layers of the performance illuminated by the facts of this inspiring woman and her journey back to dance.
A Conversation With Dystonia played at Sadler’s Wells on 19 October.