Peter Rowe

Author, Artist, Illustrator, Presenter, Motivational Speaker

Wataboshi: the seeds grow

In Japanese, wataboshi means seed of the dandelion flower. The image of the wind scattering these seeds across the world inspired the vision of the Asia-Pacific Wataboshi Music Festival. Hosted by Access Arts, the first Australian manifestation of this festival, Living the Dream was presented at Brisbane Powerhouse in November 2003. Retaining its original focus on music, Wataboshi has expanded its vision to include theatre, visual art, literature, comedy, cabaret and workshops.

Founded in Japan in 1975, Wataboshi was conceived as an educational festival focused on realising and harnessing the creative potential of people with disabilities, primarily through musical expression and performance. Promoted as a multi-layered cultural experience celebrating the lives and experiences of people with a disability, audiences are invited to celebrate art by “doing.”

The usual festival hustle and bustle was largely absent at Wataboshi, although the audience increased and the energy intensified as the week progressed. This was a deliberate strategy—the 8-day program was designed to progress from the local to the global, culminating in a traditional gala concert showcasing the musical talents of 14 Asia-Pacific countries. An unfortunate consequence of this programming, however, was that many international participants did not get to see the work of local performers. With its meagre budget, festival funding rarely extended to supporting the artists, thus some of the more prominent companies and artists may not have attended. Nevertheless it had the look and feel of a generous festival with all the trimmings.

In keeping with community development principles, the festival allowed all those expressing an interest to perform. Primarily motivated by a concern with identity, self-expression, participation and community development, the festival’s strength lies in the process of participation and in the subjective experiences of participants.

Wataboshi 2003 was the largest disability arts festival in the world, according to its public relations director, John Michael Swinbank. The public program included 81 events, varying in maturity and stage of development. More than 40 Indigenous participants were among the 420 artists performing at the festival (240 of these from Queensland). Many shows, activities and exhibitions were free to the public in the open spaces of the Powerhouse while the ticketed events were usually reserved for theatre spaces, loosely reflecting the distinction between professional and community based work. An unexpected treat was the post-gala performance in the Spark Bar by the festival’s international ambassador, well-known pianist David Helfgott. Workshops included The Tutti Ensemble from South Australia, storytelling with Aunty Maureen Watson, Delmae Barton and Vi McDermott, members of the Butterflies Theatre Group including directors Wolfgang Stange and Rohana Deva Perera from Sri Lanka, musicians from WA band LooseTooth and Melbourne rock and blues group the BiPolar Bears.

Theatre-based events included Mouse Matters, David Shortland’s musical dealing with visual impairment issues and The Unknown Sister by Brisbane stand-up comedian and performer Liz Navratil, a work-in-progress exploring her fascination with Elizabeth, the unknown sister of Marlene Dietrich. In Confessions of a Trainspotter, local jazz musician Jeff Usher wove a tale about his passion for trains and their sounds in a work using narrative, video-sound recordings and live piano. Usher’s use of visual material left many perplexed because it didn’t seem to fit within the context of a work by a blind artist demonstrating an embodied account of senses that excluded sight. New Zealand comedian Philip Patston entertained with his usual captivating charm, beginning his show by translating Wataboshi into the “wash your bottie” festival and asking us to imagine what such a performance might entail. Also from New Zealand was the young concert pianist Zeb Wulff.

Music theatre included Horse to Water by Gold Coast’s PAKTI (Power of Art: Key to Inclusion) and A Garden on the Moon by Brisbane’s Cascade Place. Both made use of the mediums of facilitated voice communication. In fact, the development of live improvised prose, communicated through interpreters was an interesting feature of the festival and a communication innovation within the theatre setting.

In A Garden on the Moon, written primarily from the ideas of Shane Macfarlane (known in character as Finbar) we get a slice of real life intermingled with musings and imaginings about the moon from someone whose world transforms once given access to communication. The fast and furious narrative spills out throughout the production, countering the pejorative labels and assumptions so readily applied to people like Finbar in certain discourses. Although the multimedia techniques were simple, the lighting, music and puppetry maintained integrity and offered many moments of seditious humor and sensory stimulation. A Garden on the Moon is a work with enormous potential if allowed the space and time to develop further.

Horse to Water is similarly evocative in terms of new communication techniques but with a serious tone. Combining improvised narratives derived through facilitated communication from poet Glen Sheppard and Peter Rowe, translated by song through the voices of Terri Delany and Florence Teillet and brought to life by the music of Linsey Pollak, Horse to Water is both intelligent and emotionally engaging.

While the profundity of the stories evoked in A Garden on the Moon and Horse to Water cannot be denied, there is a tendency to draw from disability experience and deploy it as core subject matter. This kind of work is intriguing in the first instance but risks distancing its audience if the focus remains quasi-didactic. Moving beyond the personal narrative to more fully use the nuances and alternate tropes of meaning that disability can generate demonstrates artistic maturity.

Wataboshi 2003 continued the healthy debate amongst artists attending disability art festivals over whether to set boundaries between professional and community arts or to eclipse the notion of disability and be absorbed into the mainstream. The debate will no doubt continue at the next international Wataboshi festival in Shanghai in 2005.

Asia Pacific Wataboshi Music Festival, executive producer Neal Price, executive director Lesley McLennan, festival director Ludmila Doneman, executive committee Vaughn Bennison, Michael Pini, Ken Stegeman, production manager Malcolm Prendeville; Nov 16-23, 2003

Lalita McHenry is a Brisbane-based doctoral student at the University of Queensland and has worked in the disability sector for many years. Her current project explores disability across a range of cultural sites, including the arts.

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