Joel Brown and Eva Mutso in a modern dance performance in Vadodara, Gujarat
Joel Brown and Eva Mutso in a modern dance performance in Vadodara, Gujarat

A Pas de Deux par Excellence!

Vadodara, December 24, 2022

Just last week, Vadodara was treated to a powerful Modern Dance performance by Joel Brown and Eva Mutso, an American and Estonian by birth, but both from the UK. It was especially significant because Joel is bound to a wheelchair since he was in an accident when aged nine years and lost the use of his legs.

Yet, he pursued his passion for dance and emerged a winner -- Joel Brown currently dances with London-based dance company, Candoco, the UK’s leading company for disabled and non-disabled dancers. Eva is a freelance dancer and choreographer and former Principal Dancer of Scottish Ballet and lives in Glasgow and Estonia. She is also a trained yoga teacher and practitioner and believes there are many similarities between movements of ballet and yogasanas, including control of body parts and transferring of weight during the performance (of ballet) or practice (of yoga).

Organised under the aegis of Ghargharika, a non-profit devoted to the popularization of Dance and Performance Arts in Vadodara, the event was free and open to all, especially the differently abled community in the city. This was its first event after the pandemic.

The small group was invited to perform in India by The Pickle Factory Dance Foundation, Kolkata. 111 is being presented in 5 cities in India – Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Mumbai and Goa where they will be part of the Serendipity Arts Festival. They also did Workshops with dancers in Kolkata and Ahmedabad.

111 is a powerful duet between two exceptional dancers, which explores their strengths and vulnerabilities. It takes its name from the number of vertebrae that, hypothetically, they believe they have between them. Eve moves like she has a 100 and Joel’s spine is fused and jokes that he only has 11. Hence 111. (Note: there are 33 vertebrae in the human spine).

From the first time they danced together, there was an instant rapport and desire to test and challenge how far they could push each other to create something special. At the core of this dynamic collaboration is the element of trust, not just in their creative relationship but in what they demand of each other physically in the performance.

For example, Eve had to become an expert in aerial work that Joel wanted to explore in the piece. In doing so, she conquered her fear of heights (it still continues to be a challenge for her!) and learned how movement worked in the air rather than on the ground.

111 evolved and changed over a long period of time and development, with both dancers open and happy to share their journey with the audience. “We want people to be touched, to respond from their hearts,” is what both say.

Practicing together was not easy. Joel was based in London and Eve in Glasgow. But they corresponded over a year, with Joel making extensive notes and drawings of ideas, of what he found challenging in movements and sharing them with Eve for her response. Then they met for a week and more or less finalized the moves.

How did Joel think of the moves that lifted the dancers off the stage to explore space above the ground?

“As a little boy I always loved to climb trees. My father was a gymnast, my mother was a dancer and my older brother was training to be a dancer. So movement was very much part of the family, so to say. After my accident which broke my back, I was in a wheelchair and began playing wheelchair sports soon enough. It took me a couple of years to get enough strength in my arms to reach the lowest branch of a tree and do pull-ups which I loved.

"There is something unique, I think, about letting the whole body hang. While I love dancing on the wheelchair and on the floor, this gave me the opportunity to show the whole body – a moving structure within a stable structure on the stage.”

111 was greeted with a stunned, appreciative silence by the Vadodara audience, which included a handful of persons in wheelchairs. Post-performance, all of them gathered around Joel, while one even went up on the stage and tried, successfully, to hang from the bars that made up the square form within which the dancers performed, sometimes balancing themselves precariously on the top bars, swinging from them, moving close and away from each other, negotiating the space between them with cleverly and clearly articulated movements.

While disability certainly creates its own limitations, Joel feels that as a dancer, a lot of learning is on his own. Ultimately he knows his body best and it is his job to figure out the choreography. However, physical inaccessibility in the environment – to public transportation, toilets and so on is sometimes more disabling than the disability.

“Performances like these will open the hearts and minds of people both who are able and challenged to embrace each other and to make space for everyone,” says Tejal Amin, Trustee, Ghargharika and herself a trained Bharatanatyam dancer.

Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.


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