Wonders on wheels

Lai Ying-kit
Lai Ying-kit |

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Photo courtesy of Public Artistic Affairs

A group of Finnish performers refuse to let their disabilities get in the way of putting on a show, writes Lai Ying-kit

Paraplegic Eeva Simons is proof that a physical disability need not bar anyone from taking to the stage and dancing. With deft handling, she can put her wheelchair through elegant moves and win applause worldwide.

The 34-year-old is among a group of four Finns with different physical disabilities who staged the Asian premiere of an award-winning dance performance in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Bound to a wheelchair since jumping from a roof in a suicide attempt that ended her dancing career 16 years ago, Simons, of Finnish dance troupe Public Artistic Affairs, said for a long time she had been depressed, with no idea how to adapt to her changed circumstances.

'The accident had a big impact on me,' she said.

'I had never thought what it would be like to be a wheelchair user. It was difficult. I was unhappy at that time. I didn't know what I could do.'

But positive change came several years later when she met a group of disabled people at a community centre. Their interest in alternative ways of movement and dance therapy rekindled her passion for both dance and life.

Simons joined the PAA troupe, which experimented with new approaches to performing. Later, when the group heard news of an accident that prematurely ended the dancing career of Tomi Paasonen, they invited him to join and choreograph for them. In 2000, Paasonen and the group debuted the show Olotila.

'Everyone has their own difficulties. You will be happier if you try and do something about it. It won't help if you just sit at home,' Simons said.

Although leg splits, serial twirls and other professional dance moves are not possible, the show has been running for nine years in more than 10 countries in Europe and won the 'Theatre Event of the Year 2000' award in Finland.

The two-hour show features two professional dancers, two wheelchair users - Simons and 76-year-old Tuuli Helkky Helle - a woman with spinal rheumatism and a blind man.

Simons said her part required the upper part of her body to be strong, especially her arms, which had to perform everything from hand gestures to powering the wheelchair.

'It is a challenge and a constraint. We use our creativity to think of alternative ways to find beauty,' she said.

In one moving scene about her post-accident mental condition, a frustrated Simons sits on the floor, before crawling to a wheelchair and accepting her new tool.

Director and chorographer Paasonen said the dancers were sharing their life experiences, feelings, states and thoughts with audiences and that the show was very personal.

'They are people with bodies that have stories to tell,' he said. 'The show is about transformation, and how people deal with change, including how to deal with the transformation of our own body after it becomes disabled or diseased.'

Paasonen's professional dancing career prematurely ended when a piece of the ceiling in a Chicago theatre fell on him during a rehearsal in 1999.

'It was a disaster. But it was also a chance for me to explore new possibilities,' he said.

'When a person faces difficulties, it's about how he tackles them.'

Apart from dancing, Simons is a mother of two and a university student. She will start working at a publication in Finland later this year.

'Tomi has encouraged me to do many things,' she said.

Finnish troupe Public Artistic Affairs has six performers, four of them with disabilities. The dancers have conquered difficulties to stage successful performances