I've been asked if I know any learning disabled jazz musicians so I suggest a friend of mine, Jez Colborne and get some of my jazz associates to play with him. It's 11.30 on the night of the show and people look like they are ready for bed when he's finally announced. The audience smile with tolerance and condescension, this evening is to raise money for people with learning disabilities after all. Jez opens with a uniquely slow soulful version of Ain't Misbehaving. Jaws drop; Kenny Ball asks me if I felt Jez would be happy if he joined him – not something Kenny Ball does often. Jez finishes his set with John Dankworth, Kenny Ball and Terry Lightfoot on stage with him. He closes the night to a standing ovation. This is no longer a "didn't he do well considering" moment, Jez has reached into their souls and done what great art does. A few months later, on the back of this, his self-penned song Dumptruck Baby was chosen as a Desert Island Disc.
(photo Andy Birchwood)
Some years later, Freefall Dance Company are doing one of their shows at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I capture some of the audience's comments after the show.
Amazing – loved it! Another wonderful show. Always makes us laugh. Can't wait for the next one. Beautiful. This was my first trip to the theatre and a most enjoyable one. Freefall – absolutely ACE!! Fabulous, fabulous and brilliant Freefall. Freefall – fantastic. So enjoyable.
It's clear that this company has a following and it's not limited to family and friends but people who come to see them because they know they are going to have a great time. The members of the Freefall dance ensemble are not the most articulate people verbally, but when they perform it's not just their individuality as dancers that makes people come. It's largely because of how and what they communicate to their audience that makes watching them such a pleasure.
(photo Chris Keenan)
So what's happening here is that people are deeply engaged and, I believe, are consciously or unconsciously reassessing what performance is about and what they as audience members are about. It goes beyond us and them, it's a human connection.
I'll finish with some words from Chris Pavia, a dancer with the internationally acclaimed Stopgap Dance Company. Over the 14 years I've known him, I've seen Chris grow and develop physically into a dancer with enormous skill and a commanding stage presence.
"Growing up I always enjoyed dancing but never imagined it would be my job! I started dancing with Stopgap Dance Company as an apprentice when I was sixteen years old and I have been dancing professionally with Stopgap since 2000. Being a professional dancer is great fun, I get to learn new things and travel the world with my dance friends. When I performed Artificial Things with Stopgap, I felt like I had developed as a dancer because I played a really a strong, powerful character.
"In 2014 I choreographed a piece that toured the UK called The Awakening. So now I am a choreographer too. I have learnt to create my movement on other dancers. It is amazing to watch a piece that you have made. The dancers clearly understood my interpretation of light and dark, which was the central theme. I think art has changed me because I used to be in the background and keep quiet. Now I think that dancing has made me really confident and I am happy to express myself. I definitely think everyone should be creative. Art helped me follow my dreams."
(Chris Pavia, The Awakening. Image: Chris Parkes)
Gus Garside, national coordinator for Creative Minds (a Carousel initiative)