Matthew is arguably one of the most interesting emerging artists (dance) to spring out of nowhere in Australia. For the past two years I’ve had the opportunity to work with him through the Restless Dance Theatre Youth Ensemble and other independent projects both in New South Wales and South Australia. He is on a forward trajectory to success and I’m sure his investigation of his unique physical background will equip him with the difference between success and mediocrity. We exchanged emails back and forth for this interview.
Can you tell me a little about your family background?
I don’t know much at all about my family outside of me and my mum. I am an only child to a single mother, and I have always just accepted that. My mum and I are pretty close, she has seen me through a lot and sacrificed a lot to make sure I had more than she did. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the simple fact.
We’re not affectionate. We don’t kiss or hug or say “I love you”. We don’t exchange Christmas cards, probably because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was a child. If I was in some sort of trouble, I know my mum would be there to help me out and I would be there for her.
All I know about my father is this: one day, when I was a child, mum and I were shopping. She stopped to take a trashy magazine off the rack, which was very strange behaviour for her. I asked her what was so interesting about that magazine and she pointed to a smiling man on the cover and said, “this man, is your father!” That was the day I knew that I was destined for great things.
No, not really. Actually, the article in that magazine was about a man who was in jail, and in drug rehabilitation. He ended up getting married to the head nurse of the rehab centre, despite a huge age gap. I never bothered to learn any more of the details. I’m happy not knowing.
Blood makes you related, loyalty makes you family, and I find myself constantly surrounded by wonderful and loving people that I call family.
As a child you were in and out of hospital and you claim to have broken more bones than Jackie Chan. How has your body adapted over the years?
I live with a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, aka ‘brittle bone disease’. I have fractured or broken most of the bones in my body and continue to do so. I have been hospitalised more than 78 times for breaks and fractures; for minor injuries, like toes or fingers, I just treat myself. And I have a mildform of the condition.
I use this metaphor; imagine you had a crack in the wall and you put Gip Rock in the crack. Then the crack get a little bigger, so you put more Gip Rock on it. You end up with a lot of layers of Gip Rock covering cracks. That’s kind of like my skeleton. I have a lot of bumpy areas were I have calcifications over old cracks in the bone.
I also have curved limbs, where the bones have bowed under the pressure on my body weight. To counteract this, many bone in my joints have fused, to become less flexible but more structurally stable.
Coolest adaptive feature I’m sporting is calcifications down my left leg that have developed as an over protective response to some injuries. In my left thigh I have about four calcified ‘plates’ that sit amidst my quadriceps. They restrict my movement a bit, but have been useful acting as an amour plating for my knee and the pressure points in my thigh. These ‘plates’ first appeared in 2003, very close to the femur and took about an agonising six moths a year to grow out, between my thigh muscles in 2009, to where they sit now.
I have a similar calcification over my left Achilles tendon, as the result of a fall I took in 2011.
You have a background in martial arts. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how it is such a part of your life?
When I was a child, like most 90s kids, I wanted to be a Ninja. I wanted to have freaky mutant abilities and be special. I spent ten years in a wheelchair and at 15, I decided it was time to stop using a wheelchair. That worked out ok. I thought to myself, “well, I’ve got that down, so it’s time to become that Ninja I always wanted to be.” I did some research and found Ninjutsu to be the pathway to take, but I needed to be over 18. I decided to take Jujitsu classes as preparation.
The orthopaedic surgeons and their panel of med students were impressed at my progress. I had gone form being unable to handle my own body weight without breaking my legs, to walking unaided. When I mentioned my plans to take up martial arts they were dubious. When I announced I wanted to take up Jujitsu, the Japanese med student burst out laughing, then left the room embarrassed. Doctors cant tell you how to make life decisions, but they can advise against dangerous activities when they are even more dangerous to your fragile body. That just made my want to try it even more.
I just sat in and watched my first Jujitsu lesson, and even that intimidated me enough so that I didn’t step foot in another Dojo for seven years. I had a bad case of self doubt. But I eventually took the plunge, swallowed my fear and began Ninjitsu training. I have been training since 2010 and in that time, despite the higher level of risk in my lifestyle, have had less injuries that ever before. I now actively train in any martial art I can afford the time and money to.
I really enjoy discovering how my unique physicality can be a strength rather than a weakness. My bowed shins, hardened by so many fractures and regrowths are now lethal weapons that I am constantly finding now ways to utilise. The calcifications down my left leg, once a painful and cumbersome obstacle is now provide a fortified defence on my leading leg. My bowed arms and double jointed elbows make me resistant to a lot of wrist and arm locking techniques. Practising martial arts is empowering to me. Every belt I receive makes me feel less like a genetic defect and more… human Super human.
What interests you in developing a career in the arts and how has that come about?
I have always had a hidden passion for performing and always been involved in dramatic games groups throughout my schooling. I rediscovered this passion in 2009, after a five year break from it, when I joined No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability.
I really enjoy acting because I like playing games. I like exploring new imaginary worlds. Maybe because I never really grew up, or maybe I grew up too fast and I’m trying to reclaim childhood. I don’t feel like I need to psycho-analyse it, that’s just who I am.
After spending 18 months with No Strings Attached, I met Philip Channells at a party. He was, at the time, the Artistic Director of Restless Dance Theatre and he invited to join the Youth Ensemble. My debut production was Next of Kin in 2010. Wasn’t prepared for the commitment involved in becoming a professional artist. That changed once I felt the stage lights. Being on stage allows me to create and explore a world on my own, and even better, invite others to share that world with me.
Dance is such a new world to me and I want to see as much of it as I can and discover where my place lies in this new world. I will continue to chase this new dream wholeheartedly for as long as opportunities arise for me to do so. When I dance, my body becomes a landscape I can explore and discover. Self discovery and exploration, every project teaching me something about myself. I can’t think of a more enriching career.
Who are some of your biggest influences in your career so far and why?
Can you tell me about your new scoring system you’re developing and where you hope to go with that?
Dance is a challenging and exciting new venture for me. Not all of the challenges are ones I enjoy facing. I have difficulty learning and performing new choreography. I am often frustrated when I look over footage to find myself a step behind my fellow performers.
Dean Walsh helped me to identify that I’m attempting to parrot a language of movements that are unnatural to my body and we birthed the idea that I should create a scoring system of a catalogue of movements that are genuine to my body. I have a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic mutation that affects my body’s ability to produce proper bone material, which in turn has caused my skeleton to develop bowed and gnarled limbs, and an imbalance in weight distribution, as well as a wealth of breaks and fractures. By developing a scoring system based on movement organic to my body, I can successfully choreograph of myself.
That has led to the development of Osteogenuine, (credit to Dean Walsh for the title) a scoring system based on the development process used by Dean to create his scoring system Prime Orderly.
Osteogenuine is composed of four Primary Scores, or themes, and the movement techniques and modalities that comes from them. I don’t want to say too much, because I’m still working on this and it is likely to change form, as all things do. The four Primary Scores are:
Structure explores the alignment of bones to and the contractions and releases used to make balanced shapes with in the body, and with multiple bodies.
Impact explores internal and external forces (such as gravity, or body pressure) and how they effect the body’s structure both constructive and destructively.
Adaption is a look at individualised adaptions I’ve made, using resources and devices to meet my needs (for example a walking stick, or crutch). The score will draw on medical aids and devices used on me and historical medical ‘treatments’ for Osteogenesis Imperfecta. I will also be exploring medical model of my condition: “this is curved when it should be straight, it must be fixed!”
Adaptation focuses on the non-individualised adaptations made organically by a species to deal with mutations. Evolution. Through the adaptation score I will be exploring the human choreographically, on a cellular and biomechanical level, comparing the differences in my body and a physio-typical body and finding my unique strengths.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time? What do you hope to achieve?
There are many things that I still hope to achieve, preferably within the next five years.
I want to tour internationally as a dancer.
I want to walk the Kokoda trail.
I want to study Ninjitsu in Japan, under Soke Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, the 34th Grandmaster of Togakure-ryu Taijutsu.
I want to get at least black belts in the form of martial arts I’m studying.
If you could go back to a defining moment in your life where there was a significant shift in your direction, where were you and what happened?
There are so many significant shifts of direction in my life. I am a big fan of dramatic change. If I feel myself in a rut I abruptly turn face and head in another direction.
One such example is when I was fifteen. I had been using a wheelchair full-time for ten years, and I was frustrated at the impact it had on my life, compared to the seemly unburdened lives of my friends. Relying on a wheelchair limited my social life in a huge way. I couldn’t jump on a bus and go hang out with my friends, I couldn’t walk to my mates house and I didn’t have any friends that lived close enough for me to wheel over. I didn’t have a girlfriend, or was likely to have one. When I thought about everything in my life that I was unhappy about most of it stemmed from not walking. So one day I decided it was time to get out of the wheelchair for good. I had crutches, walking canes, all the tools I needed so I went to school without a wheelchair. It was a big adjustment, for myself and others, but I committed to it and it worked out.
Another example is the catalyst that got me into performing arts. At 21, I was an administrative member of the business development team in a large disability employment agency and was unhappy with my job. I also lived in a really trashy house with four of my best mates. I was bored with life, and not really achieving anything. I spent all of my time out of the office drinking and partying to distract myself from my disappointment. I didn’t have any goals, I was boring myself and I didn’t like where I was heading. I decided to drastically change everything that I felt was wrong. In the space of a week I quit my job, moved into an apartment by myself, stopped drinking alcohol for six months, became a vegetarian, took up martial arts and told a girl I loved her.
All of these things turned out drastically bad. My apartment was an expensive rundown hole that I could only just afford the rent and utilities for, now that I had no income, because I had quit my job. I kept fed (nourished) relying on the charity of people I wasn’t too proud to admit my situation to and dumpster diving out the back of supermarkets. That girl I mentioned was a close friend and things became awkward. We sometimes exchange Christmas cards. Things were really crap for about 8 months. In this time I tried to keep my morale up by doing things I enjoyed. I have always enjoyed acting, so when an opportunity arose to take part in a skills development course at No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, I leapt on it and over the next two years, it paved the pathway that led me to integrated dance.
Boys, girls….what’s your preference and why?
Any regrets in life?
None that I can think of. I’m not about to go on a rant about how I live on the edge with no regrets, because I don’t. Not everyday is a party or an adventure, but it doesn’t need to be. If I do anything that I regret, I quickly get over it and move on.
I wonder if people sometimes mistake my confidence for arrogance. I’m not in love with myself, but neither do I feel like I need to be ashamed of myself. I make mistakes, I’m human, I fart, I get tired, once I got drunk and made out with a dead pig, I don’t have a six pack or beautifully toned muscles. I don’t have a gorgeous tan. I don’t make apologies for my appearance because you have the choice to not look at me. I don’t make apologies for my actions, because I always have the best intentions at heart.
I think energy spent regretting and wishing things were different is energy better spent on making things closer to the way you want them.
Photo: Philip Channells