We have MS and danced ballet at the Royal Opera House | Theatre | Entertainment
MS Society dancers Carly and Ekow with choreographer Bim (Image: ROH )
It was a day of cheers and tears as a group from the MS Society performed in the Paul Hamlyn Hall at the Royal Opera House, the culmination of a 12-week dance residency with The Royal Ballet. Each had their own personal journey to that point, and their own different yet shared experiences of living with multiple sclerosis.
They danced to choreographer Bim Malcomson’s interpretation of the Royal Ballet’s own work The Cellist, about Jacqueline du Pré relationship with her husband, her cello and losing her music to MS. However, Bim also encouraged everyone to contribute their own stories and experiences, notably Ekow and Carly, the only two using wheelchairs.
Like everyone, I sat in awe throughout. Beautiful shapings and expressive movements were created by everyone, lives expressed without words. Yet, it was a moment of stillness that captured me as Ekow and Carly leaned in to each other and let us share, for a moment, in their love.
A tender moment, they explain, that actually all started with a pretty girl on the street and a “kidnapping.” Rather than dress it all up, I wanted to let them tell their story in their own words below.
MS Society Carly and Ekow presented their own romance in the dance (Image: ROH )
I’m Ekow Otoo, 32, from London and I have relapse remitting MS. Even though my symptoms started when I was about 14 it took eight years to be diagnosed. For those first eight years, I knew something is wrong with me, but not what it actually was. I had the doctors telling me I grew too quickly. I told myself I just forgot how to walk. A really big relapse in 2014 brought the diagnosis and forced me to start using a wheelchair.
We’re both actors. And ambassadors for a group called DANC (The Disabled Artists Networking Community) who work to help the industry understand that disability stories deserve to be told and they deserve to be told honestly, you know. It’s not just about having a guy in a wheelchair in an EastEnders episode about how depressing his life is in. We have far more interesting experiences in life than what our disability is. We’re trying to change the narrative of disability in the arts, from actors to directors to writers.
MS Society dancers Carly and Ekow rehearse with choreographer Bim (Image: ROH )
We’ve been together for four and a half years and are engaged. We met when I went up to Manchester to an event and I couldn’t find the entrance. I saw Carly on the road and I was instantly struck by her. She showed me where to go and when we got inside, she kind of kidnapped me! She kept me to herself and the rest is history.
Bim’s choreography tells that story and adds in a bit of a separation for some drama! We didn’t actually know what the Cellist was about, and then it was explained to us. Which was almost super perfect. I used to play the double bass when I was young. I had a real talent for it, even though my instructor wouldn’t let me play the blues and I had a strop!
I know movement is movement, but I had never considered ballet in a chair. We are the only ones in a chair and Carly can’t really move her arms and legs, so I was wondering how it would work, would the instructor even understand or know what to do?
Bim, the epic woman that she is, took it on as a challenge. She taught Carly how to move her head in beautiful ways, I don’t even know how. It’s taught us new ways to move in our chairs. She has been amazing, integrating us into the dance. She’s made it very beautiful.
MS Society dancers Carly and Ekow say the experience has been ‘eye-popping’ (Image: ROH )
Dancing is almost like meditation. It’s like you only focus on your movements and the music and your timing. And the fact that we get our own little duet together, just makes it all very romantic. It’s not a bad date night, taking your girl to the ballet, right?
I’m Carly Houston, I’m 36 and based in London. My experience with MS has been very weird. In the beginning, I was able to walk, and then I’ve just gone straight to a chair and I can’t even use my hands. So, it’s very frustrating.
I find being part of this project amazing. I love the fact that my partner and I can have our own little dance. I think it’s really cool.
I totally agree with what he said. I know, I know, he talks a lot! When we dance, everything else disappears, it’s just us. I love it.
MS Society dancers Carly and Ekow share an intimate moment (Image: ROH )
Bim Malcomson is a dance artist, choreographer and educator: Disease and disability can make people feel very isolated. Having watched my husband going from an able-bodied successful man to a wheelchair user, I feel I am able to create this piece. I wouldn’t feel able to ask otherwise.
More projects and spaces where you can be accepted, nourished and around people sharing a similar experience are very, very important. Able-bodied people don’t understand that. They can’t.
What I love about The Cellist is that (choreographer) Cathy Marston creates a love affair with Jacqueline and the cello, and her husband. So we have explored cello shapes and curves, then I asked the dancers to make up their own expression of that. It’s a collaboration.
I’ve done a lot of research into ballet and I’ve boiled it down to mapping, which is three-dimensional geometry in time and space. I use that as a framework. Carly, for example, can only move her head. Her movement can still be informed by these ideas.
What I love about people living with MS is that they may feel terrible but they show up. They are an extraordinary group of people. They are amazing. I have high expectations. I want you to do the best you can do, but it’s really important to get the balance of their needs and the performance level. So I try to create an environment where it’s a conversational space as well as creative. I feel so honoured to be with them. It’s a reciprocal growing, joyous experience.
Something I’ve really noticed working with people with multiple sclerosis is it’s really, really unpredictable. So that was one of my thoughts creating this piece. And with the ending, I just wanted to give the space to see that each and every one of these dancers is a beautiful human being.