During a 25-year international career, British conductor Charles Hazlewood has led many of the world’s top orchestras. A few years ago, it struck him that he had never seen musicians with a disability among their ranks. So, in 2012 he co-founded The British Paraorchestra – a large-scale professional ensemble for musicians with a disability.

The Nature of Why at Perth Festival. Photo © Toni Wilkinson

Based in Bristol, The British Paraorchestra made a triumphant debut at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics. Its many performances since then have included an appearance at the 2016 Glastonbury Festival. It has now made its Australian debut at the Perth Festival with a unique, immersive concert called The Nature of Why.

Presented in the Heath Ledger Theatre of the State Theatre Centre of WA, the Perth performances featured eight roving musicians from The British Paraorchestra, accompanied by 10 string players from the Perth Symphony Orchestra, two sopranos and four dancers, with the audience joining them on stage rather than sitting in the auditorium.

The Nature of Why at Perth Festival. Photo © Toni Wilkinson

Co-directed by Hazlewood and Melbourne-based performance artist Caroline Bowditch, who choreographed the performance, The Nature of Why is a 60-minute concert quite unlike any other, offering wheelchair accessibility, assistive listening Audio description, tactile tour and Auslan interpreting.

Before the start of the performance, the audience was taken into a room and given information by Hazlewood and Bowditch about how the event would operate, with Hazlewood asking us to take part in it as “revered accomplices”. In a magical moment, Bowditch – who was speaking from her wheelchair – explained that we would be moving around the performance space, so we should be aware of those around us and try not to block the view of people sitting down or in wheelchairs. Immediately the crowd moved as one to open up a space so that two ladies in wheelchairs at the back of the room had a clear view of Bowditch. It was a wonderful sign of things to come.

The Nature of Why at Perth Festival. Photo © Toni Wilkinson

The Nature of Why, which premiered in 2018, features a specially commissioned score by Will Gregory from the electronic-pop duo Goldfrapp. Gregory had the idea of using excerpts from an interview by the late Richard Feynman, the Noble Prize-winning theoretical physicist, which act as breakers between the various sections of the score. Asked why magnets repel each other, Feynman shows how one question simply leads to another and another, with one ‘why?’ triggering another ‘why?’ He also uses the example of a woman falling on the ice and breaking her wrist to show the unfolding nature of the question ‘why?’

Gregory’s score has a cinematic feel with lilting melodies, infectious rhythms and percussive drive, which creates an uplifting soundscape that draws you in and gets you tapping your feet and swaying along.

The Nature of Why at Perth Festival. Photo © Toni Wilkinson

The string players were placed at the front of the stage with their backs to the empty auditorium, facing Hazlewood’s podium. At the back of the stage there was a large percussion section. The other musicians, singers and dancers performed across the space, with the audience free to move between them as they liked. The breaks in the music for the Feynman extracts proved a good time to change position and watch things from another perspective – and everyone would have seen something a bit different. As the voices of the two sopranos soared to the pulsing sound, the dancers made sinuous shapes, weaving and flowing through the crowd as they lifted each other and worked on the floor. They also interacted with the musicians and singers, and at one point formed a long line, which audience members were invited to join – as Hazlewood also did – and follow the simple, integrated arm movements.

Some people hung quietly at the back, others immediately moved to the centre, but as the music built to an ecstatic climax, almost everyone joined in the communal dancing at the centre of the stage in a joyous end to an uplifting night.

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