‘Welcome to our world’: CoMotion Festival brings deaf and disabled arts to Toronto

Something long overdue is coming to Toronto this month.

Starting on Wednesday, the city will host one of the largest deaf and disability performance festivals in the world.

“One of our artists just arrived to town this week and said to me, ‘This is the most affirming moment in my artistic career,’ and that made me so happy,” said Alex Bulmer, the Canadian playwright, actor and disability advocate who curated the international CoMotion Festival.

“For once, we get to say to an audience, ‘Welcome to our world.’”

The festival will host both in-person and digital music, visual art and other performances, installations, workshops and panel discussions at Harbourfront Centre.

Bulmer has been working as an artist for 32 years and she’s been blind for most of that time.

“I trained as an actor and then as a voice teacher, a decision I made when I learned I would become blind as an adult,” she said.

After a first encounter with deaf and disability arts in the United Kingdom by way of the renowned theater group Graeae (pronounced gray eye), Bulmer knew there was a way forward for her in the arts.

“That experience directed the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ve lived in the world of deaf and disability arts both in Canada and in the UK, working across television and radio and film.”

Bulmer moved back to Canada in 2017.

“I create work which puts blindness at the center,” she said. “I imagine work for my ears first; ideas come to me through sound or movement, or my feet. It’s blind-led, interdependent work.”

That idea of ​​interdependence shines through in CoMotion’s curation, itself an interdependent act with collaborators from around the world.

“I cured out of riches,” Bulmer said. “I was seeking to reflect the depth and diversity of this global artistic community.”

Much of the festival’s programming hinges upon ideas of connection, both within the deaf and disabled community and beyond. “Inose/Field Trip,” for instance, a Canadian collaboration between Anishinaabe leaders Yolanda Bonnell and Jesse Popp, uses Indigenous knowledge systems to scaffold a guided walk in which participants connect with each other and with the natural world around them. An international visual arts exhibit, curated by Bulmer and titled “Not Born Yesterday, Not Going Away,” also blends ideas of physical togetherness with collective memory and history.

“Deaf and disabled people have been performing for decades — no, forever,” Bulmer said of the exhibit. “As long as we’ve existed we’ve been expressing ourselves.”

For Bulmer, it’s notable that Harbourfront Center is the host of the 2022 CoMotion Festival.

“An organization like Harbourfront Centre, who’s one of Canada’s prime art and cultural institutions, they’ve been paying attention,” said Bulmer.

“They’re putting their energy and their resources and imaginations toward producing this festival. They said they wanted to bring deaf and disability arts more into focus at Harbourfront, they said they wanted to support deaf and disabled artists, and they’ve done it. It’s happening.”

Across Toronto, representation of deaf and disabled artists onstage seems to be on the rise: Theater Passe Muraille will produce Paul David Power’s “Crippled” as part of its #BeyondTO programming next month, and blind emerging actor Shayla Brown has a large role in George F. Walker’s “Orphans for the Czar” at Crow’s Theatre.

“We’re progressing when it comes to deaf and disability-led art and theater in the city,” said Bulmer. “It’s exciting that we can talk about Theater Passe Muraille, and we can talk about Harbourfront and we can talk about Crow’s. We’re centering ourselves inside established organizations and companies. It seems we have a choice. We can work with deaf and disability-led organizations and companies, or we can work with Harbourfront. That’s big news.”

There remains urgent work to be done when it comes to deaf and disability representation in Canada, according to Bulmer.

“What concerns me is beyond the arts. Canada has not yet done enough to support deaf and disabled people. I still think it’s hard for artists to do their work; so many of us require support in order to thrive. I’ve had that support elsewhere, in the UK: when we have it, when we don’t have to worry about the financial implications, that’s when we can make our most inspired work. Deaf and disabled artists could be thriving here with more support at the federal level.”

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