South East Wales

London 2012: Nick Phillips back on stage in wheelchair

Dancer Nick Phillips is one of six disabled members of a National Theatre Wales' performance commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad, In Water I'm Weightless. Here he explains how he became involved after nearly 15 years avoiding the dance world.

Image caption Nick Phillips trained at the Laban contemporary dance centre in London in the mid 90s

"I'm a Swansea boy. I still live there now.

"My mother took me along to tap dancing with my sister when I was a very little boy. I said, 'I don't like it, it's all girls' but I joined in. But then I got older and thought, 'Oh, it's all girls...." and I got into it.

"I started doing ballet but found it constrictive - if your arms aren't exactly right, it's wrong, so then I went to contemporary dance.

"I went to Penlan Comprehensive then did a Btec in dance at Swansea College. I trained in Laban [Contemporary Dance Centre in London] from 1992 and after training I came back to Swansea to earn some money.

"I was the assistant manager at the Singleton Hotel pub. One night about 18 months after I left London I was at a party and drank what now appears to have been too much. I fell out of a window and broke my back. It resulted in a wheelchair. I had many years of physiotherapy and treatment but I lost the use of my legs.

"I suffered from chronic pain from the waist down. I had an integral spinal chord stimulator put in, which is like a TENS machine [intended to ease pain] but it's all internal and sends messages from my back to my legs to control the pain.

"My life was dancing; it was my hobby, my dream. In school, I had let the rest kind of slip by as I was going to be a dancer.

"It took years and years to just to get over the shock of the accident, not just what it meant for me as a dancer but what it meant for me.

"For the past 14 or 15 years I have shied away from performing. The image of myself in a wheelchair didn't feel beautiful or elegant. It wasn't the image I was used to projecting. Then about a year ago a went to see a rehearsal by a dance company I used to be with called Dynion.

"I literally went to watch and found myself in the performance, in my wheelchair. I got myself through that, still feeling very self-conscious. I was then involved in The Passion in Port Talbot, just in chorus parts. From that, someone gave my name to the National Theatre of Wales.

Image caption Nick and some of the cast in rehearsal

"In Water I'm Weightless deals with the extraordinariness of the body whatever disability you have. Before getting involved, the only thing disabled I considered about myself was my blue badge. I just got on with my life, but doing this I had to consider my disability.

"For the performance, 90% of the time I'm in the wheelchair but I do some of the dance on the floor.

"One of the other performers, David, doesn't have legs, but he walks on his hands. The journey of this piece has been us all finding ways to do set pieces. We'll be told to come forward and kick, and some will kick with a leg, some will do it with an arm, and some will roll forward.

"I literally threw myself into it. It's a very physical and emotional piece about the life of a disabled person whether the physical life or the emotional and imagined life. There is a culture and community around disability and part of that is disability in the arts.

"I have come to realise that when I'm performing, I'm still me. It hasn't changed the way I feel on the stage, I just happen to have a wheelchair.

"It's been a epiphany moment actually. I'm ok with that.

"I have been helped along the rest of the cast seeing that they're ok with their disability, not just on stage but in real life.

"Life is a performance. I have facial piercings and a mohican and the way I am, if someone hasn't looked at me, I'm wondering why."

In Water I'm Weightless runs at the Wales Millennium Centre from 26 July to 4 August and at London's Southbank Centre on 31 August and 1 September.

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