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Ballet dancer diagnosed with MS explores life and fears in return to the stage

Michelle Ryan dances with Vincent Crowley in a performance called Intimacy.
Image Source: ABC News (Natalie Whiting)

A ballet dancer with MS is confronting her performance fears with a return to the stage in Adelaide.

When Michelle Ryan received her diagnosis at the age of 30 it threw her life, both personally and professionally, into turmoil.

Despite her physical limitations, Ryan is back in the spotlight with a performance called Intimacy, which challenges the audience to think differently about disability.

"It was a really interesting creative process because I don't have the muscle memory any more in my legs, so we had to really come up with a way of how we would create the work," she said.

"I remember standing in first position, which is when your heels are together, and I could remember that I couldn't feel my calf muscles touching and then there was another weird sensation that when I put my head down, my fingers would tingle — and so I thought I needed to get that checked out."

Ryan was in Berlin and at the peak of her dance career when she got her diagnosis.

"I cannot tell you how scary it was because you're in a different country, everyone's speaking different language so you're not quite sure what exactly is happening," she said.

"Then as a dancer to be told that you have this multiple sclerosis ... it felt quite cruel at the time."

Ryan went a decade without performing until she got a call from renowned Belgian choreographer, Alain Platel, asking her to do a guest solo performance.

"I wrote to him saying 'Do you know I've got a walking stick now?' and he wrote back saying 'Doesn't worry me'," she said.

"It was kind of a chance encounter that really changed my life."

Performance explores dancer's limitations

The show Intimacy explores Ryan's fears, her life with MS and the human need to connect.

The performance was created by Torque Show, a group featuring two people Ryan previously danced with.

Ingrid Weisfelt devised the piece and Vincent Crowley dances with Ryan in the Adelaide show.

"We started very much in terms of the physical vocabulary, just looking at really simple things like weight shifting, what she can do on her own, what she can do with Vincent and what she can do totally that Vincent manipulates her body," Weisfelt said.

"From a dance and movement perspective, it was really interesting to be able to explore within such a tight constraint of her abilities."

Crowley said the piece captured Ryan's struggles in dealing with her diagnosis.

"Most of what is said on stage is kind of verbatim, from Michelle ... talking about the dreams she was having as she was dealing with MS," he said.

"So that text is placed in a world that's kind of like a cabaret bar, could be, and because it's a dream world it shifts a little bit.

"But it's this idea of a live music venue where we're watching this struggle unfold. Someone trying to, if you like, in a way, keep up appearances, but how that is tricky to do."

Ryan touched by positive response to show

The audience is involved throughout the performance and the work challenges how society deals with people with a disability.

But Weisfelt said it was not intended to lecture.

"It really came from a much more personal thing about personal relationship with Michelle and Vince and myself," Weisfelt said.

"So, but I think in a way, by doing that, it's made it quite a strong and affecting work that will maybe change people's attitude."

Ryan said the response to the show in other cities has been incredible.

"Some people who knew me back in the day find it a little bit confronting because I move quite differently to the way I used to move," she said.

"But I've had really beautiful responses from a lot of people sort of thanking me for going on to stage, because very rarely do you see someone on stage who has a disability."

Intimacy has been awarded the 2015 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by ABC
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length


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