Hijinx Unity Festival swallow song

Zwaluwzang / A Swallow Song | Hijinx Unity Festival

Glenys Evans casts a critical eye over a performance from Theater Stap of Zwaluwzang / A Swallow Song at the Hijinx Unity Festival. 

Belgium-based Theater Stap believe in the capacity of their disabled artists to move an audience. In Zwaluwzang / A Swallow Song they place Jason Van Laere, a dancer and actor with Down’s syndrome, firmly centre-stage. The company’s mission is to offer collaborations with a range of practitioners to increase the visibility of performers with disabilities.

To create the piece Theater Stap employed the skills of choreographer Joke Laureyns. The audience for this performance at Wales Millennium Centre was a mix of delegates and ‘punters’. Some, like me, were experienced in seeing inclusive work – wanting to understand further and see best practice; while others would have been be new to inclusive or disability arts.

Zwaluwzang / A Swallow Song is a journey narrative, danced and voiced by two male actors. Silences and music by composer Jordi Savall shape the pace of their journey, while the ‘swallow song’ in question – sung originally by Joan & Mimi Baez – provides the underpinning theme of ‘no power like the freedom in their flight’.

The designer Kris Van Oudenhove establishes a world of sparse simplicity, with an expanse of sand and space, and uses lighting to convey sea, sky and horizons. The journey of the two men is expressed in visual terms, with stones, canvas and wood becoming the means of transportation for our two protagonists. They problem solve, making what they need: a cart, a fishing rod and a backpack.

Photo Courtesy of Kurt Van der Elst

The warmth of the response from the audience was evident throughout the performance. I was deeply moved by the uniqueness of the relationship that was drawn between Jason Van Laere and his partner Klint Manshoven. And also by the work of the choreographer who expressed the beauty of their relationship through dance.

What the collaborators had created in only twenty days working together was remarkable.  The relationship between the two dancers on stage was truthful, tender and dynamic. Woven into the journey narrative was an honest display of friendship. The work was unsentimental, almost understated but very much ‘in the present’. Both dancers communicated in a way that demonstrated a good understanding of each other. It was an excavation of friendship with all its nuances interrogated.

A map is produced, with river and mountains clear for the audience to see. We understand it guides the protagonists on their journey. Jason responds in the moment by drawing with charcoal all over the map. Both share a sigh recognizing their problem. Klint responds, he scoops sand, spreads it on the floor and toe traces his memory map. Then he draws the rest of the map on Jason’s back; problem solved. That, in essence, is how their reciprocation works, one person with a lifetime gift of being present ‘in the moment’, offers an opportunity for the other to be a resourceful and inventive problem solver – a perfect match.

What is so riveting and keeps you hooked are these moments of reciprocation. Klint mirrors Jason, both his unique qualities and ‘difference’. He reflects a spontaneity, an open heart and delight in touch and movement. There were occasions when Jason also seemed to mirror Klint. Jason Van Laere completely owned his choreographed moments and spoke to his audience in English as a skilled professional performer.

Only one moment sat awkwardly for me, when Jason sat alone and spoke directly to the audience stating, ‘I am different, I can’t help it’. It somehow broke the convention established by the piece, i.e. that we should think for ourselves. It came interestingly at a moment when the men were apart for once. Klint turned away, unavailable, moving through a dream; while Jason was separate and reflective, alone.

Zwaluwzang / A Swallow Song is a skillful, tender and honest work. See it if you can.

THEATER STAP:  Zwaluwzang / A Swallow Song

Unity Festival, Wales Millennium Centre

Glenys Evans is a playwright and theatre practitioner with extensive experience in inclusive and disability theatre. Her play ‘Snoutology for Beginners’ (directed by Ben Pettitt-Wade) is being performed as part of the Hijinx ‘Weekend on The Hayes’ events that are the climax of Unity festival 2015.