The title of Candoco Dance Company’s show, Let’s Talk About Dis, might as well be the strapline for Manchester’s Sick! festival. The three-week series of events themed around mental and physical health frames itself as a public conversation. It’s an opportunity, through art, to talk about illness, disability and death – things that usually languish in agonised or embarrassed silence.
Candoco want to talk about what it is to be a company of disabled and non-disabled dancers. What does it mean when we’re invited to look at this range of different bodies on stage, and how can we discuss that? Made with Hetain Patel in 2014 and reiterated with different groups of dancers, Let’s Talk About Dis plays humorously with candour, awkwardness and polite concealment. In a short series of sketches, the show scratches away at assumptions and identity, while the performers confound typical expectations of what dancing bodies can or should do. A wheelchair gracefully spins, pivots and tilts; a pair of crutches become surprisingly agile extra limbs.
In An Irresponsible Father’s Guide to Parenting, comedian Laurence Clark addresses the neglected subject of disability and parenting. Before he become a parent, Clark never saw dads with cerebral palsy. His show fills that gap in representation, confronting perceptions of what fatherhood looks like. Taking on the offensive comments left under YouTube videos of a BBC documentary he and his family appeared in, he wittily prods at society’s ideas of responsibility and irresponsibility. If not quite revelatory, it’s a warm and funny hour of assumption smashing, complete with hilarious video appearances from Clark’s two no-nonsense sons.
If disability as a topic is skirted around politely, death tends to be outright avoided. Sick! festival is challenging that, with a series of art works designed to get us talking about the end of life. At the Whitworth Gallery, the video installation Death & Birth in My Life shares intimate discussions about the bookends of life. Artist Mats Staub begins with a question: what makes a good conversation? Inspired by Staub’s own grief and the lack of space in which to unpack it, this project brings pairs of people together to talk about birth and death.
Showing speaker and listener simultaneously on two screens, the installation inserts us at the heart of these deeply personal conversations, creating an absorbing oasis of reflection.
Arts company Fevered Sleep similarly invites audiences to make room for grief. This Grief Thing takes the form of an unassuming shop in the city centre, inserting death and loss into the familiar landscape of the high street. It’s somewhere visitors can buy things – clothing, tote bags, cards printed with phrases about grief – but also somewhere they can start conversations. Small printed cards prompt us to consider those we’ve lost, while one wall is plastered with the thoughts of visitors, from the pained to the profound. Primed by Staub’s installation, personal grief rises to the surface as I move quietly around the space.
We like to think that we’re beyond taboos, that nothing is off bounds any more. But, when it comes to the health of our bodies and minds and the universal, inescapable experience of death, we’re still pretty tight-lipped. In attempting to break the silence and confront the unspoken – often with humour and imagination – Sick! festival has a vital role to play.