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Michelle SmithDecember 09, 2022
Joe Powell-Main in ‘Sleepwalker’ (Royal Ballet)Joe Powell-Main in ‘Sleepwalker’ (Royal Ballet)

In a new Royal Ballet piece titled “Sleepwalker,” Kristen McNally portrays a sleepwalking woman dancing with her dreams and nightmares, all of which are portrayed by fellow dancer Joe Powell-Main. And Powell-Main does all of this while in a wheelchair.

In his gospel, the evangelist Mark imagines people making room for the differently abled.

“A few days later,” he writes, “when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, no even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was laying on” (Mk 2:1-4).

Rather than give up Joe Powell-Main found a way to include the wheelchair and crutches in his dancing,

Today around 10 percent of the world population, or roughly 650 million people, are differently abled, and we need to ensure that we are making room for them. Powell-Main and Alexander Campbell provide one example of how to accomplish this.

Powell-Main has been dancing since he was five years old. He trained for four years at the Royal Ballet School. But after a knee injury followed by a major car accident, he thought his dancing days were over. In his daily life he has used either crutches or a wheelchair ever since.

But rather than give up he found a way to include the wheelchair and crutches in his dancing, and went on to perform with the Ballet Cymru in Wales. In 2021 he performed with Royal Ballet dancers in the welcome home ceremony for the paralympic athletes, in a piece choreographed by McNally.

And there he was seen by Alexander Campbell, a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. Campbell invited Powell-Main to join his new piece, “Sleepwalker,” which is inspired by “La Sonnambula” for the Royal Ballet’s Draft Work series. “Sleepwalker” is a contemporary duet inspired by the short ballet in which a party guest is entranced by a beautiful sleepwalker.

Like the unnamed paralyzed man determined to get to Jesus, Powell-Main persevered in pursuit of his goal. And like his Biblical parallel, he had allies who helped make space for him. The ballet world, like Jesus’ home, is a crowded place with many dancers vying for attention and limited spaces. To create a new role, especially a principal role, for a differently abled dancer is truly as bold and unexpected as making a hole in a house’s roof.

Fortunately, Powell-Main, Campbell and McNally are not alone. Parable Dance also aims to give everyone access to art. The company, which has operations in England and New York, provides inclusive dance training and workshops to provide spaces for creativity for people with disabilities through dance.

Claire Kretzschmar, a Catholic and a dancer from New York, told Catholic Artist Connection that “the Church could welcome more artists by creating more events to showcase the talents within their parishes and to foster artist/patron relationships. “ Given the ubiquity of differently abled people in the world, this could open more opportunities for differently abled dancers.

For now, Campbell hopes to develop “Sleepwalker” into part of a triple bill or a full evening. Meanwhile, Powell-Main has taught seat friendly classes, for dancers in wheelchairs or with mobility concerns, on dance brand Capezio’s Live platform and hopes more choreographers will include differently abled dancers. He told journalist Avichai Scher, “Many companies aren’t ready to work with a dancer like me yet, but I want to show them that it’s possible.”

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