Dancing and drumming with a disability

Performer Duncan Armstrong has been drumming since he was 10.
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Performer Duncan Armstrong has been drumming since he was 10.

Duncan Armstrong feels at his best performing before an audience: it's when he finds the voice he's often denied in day-to-day life.

Playing the drums, performing contemporary dance or acting, those who work with the 28-year-old Wellingtonian, who has Down Syndrome, describe him as the most dedicated performer they've met.

Armstrong is just back from Sydney, where his short film, Drumming is Like Thunder, screened at the Sydney Film Festival. Sipping a cappuccino in a Wellington cafe, he says: "I was stoked. Performing makes me happy."

SARAH CATHARALL/Stuff.co.nz

Duncan Armstrong hopes to be on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Drumming is an appropriately energetic gig for Armstrong, whose CV is stacked with acting and dancing roles, along with seats on councils and committees to advocate the rights of people with disabilities.

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Wiping chocolate froth off his mouth, Armstrong talks a lot about the barriers he and others face and the difficulty of building a career in the arts. At times, people treat him like a child. How does that make him feel? "Stink," he says. "But it's not just arts. It's the wider society.

"People who don't have disabilities treat people who have disabilities as kids. I'm trying to change that. Sometimes it doesn't work, but I'll keep trying."

Prompted by Catherine Chappell, the founder of New Zealand's only professional inclusive dance company, Touch Compass, of which he is a member, Armstrong wrote the film script, which is inspired by his own experiences of being disabled.

Growing up in Wellington and attending Northland school and Onslow College, he says he was discriminated against by a system which barred him from studying certain subjects - a barrier that has continued as he has tried to study performing arts at tertiary level but faced closed doors. While he studied music and drumming at Whitireia Polytechnic, he hoped to study dance, film, music and acting at tertiary level but has been forced to Australia to do inclusive courses.

"It's not just about me but it's about breaking down barriers for all of us."

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Drumming is Like Thunder has already been judged best original film script in Australia's Sit Down, Shut Up and Watch film festival.

A film about the inspiration of music, it shows Armstrong playing on a drum kit, only to have the drums removed one by one, until he is left with just the sticks. When these are pulled away, all he has is his hands. He keeps on drumming - on the floor, the walls, and will not be stopped, until he is joined by one, then many, in a vigorous scene of energy and hope.

"It's for people with disabilities and without disabilities. My goal is for disabled and non-disabled people to perform together."

​A big part of his success has been the support and backing of his parents, and also inclusive arts groups to which he belongs. In a typical month, he will head to Auckland to dance with Touch Compass, while he also performs with the Wellington interactive theatre group, Everybody Cool Lives Here.

Asked if Down syndrome is an extra challenge to overcome, or an essential component of who he is and his dancing, he says: "I don't know what that means, I am a person." At times, he needs a bit more sleep than other company dancers. "People with Down syndrome or disabilities can do anything."

His father, Ian and mother, Maxwell Riddle, have backed him all the way, encouraging his many performing arts interests, along with his advocacy roles on different disability and youth groups.

Ian bought Duncan a set of drums when he was just 10. His parents would wake at 5am and hear their son already banging the drum kit in his bedroom. Ian plays the guitar and formed a band, Mr Handsome, which debuted at an inclusive education conference in 2009. Since then, Duncan has played the drums at gigs around Wellington. Two members have moved, so the band has temporarily disbanded. "Dad would play the guitar and I would drum. I reacted to it," smiles Armstrong. "I want a band but with no Dad in it."

The arts are in the blood for Armstrong, whose uncle, Dave Armstrong, is a playwright and a trumpet player, while another uncle, Donald Armstrong, is the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's first violinist and Associate Concertmaster.

Says Ian Armstrong: "Duncan has wanted to be a performer since he was in primary school. As parents, it's good when your child has a goal and knows what he has wanted to do.

"The main barriers have been education. It's been very difficult to get professional development for Duncan in dance, theatre or film, because the tertiary system is very competitive and there are no dedicated places for someone like Duncan. That's been a challenge."

For the past five years, Armstrong has performed regularly with Everybody Cool Lives Here, run by thespians Rose Kirkup and Nic Lane. Kirkup talks affectionately about Armstrong, describing him as the most dedicated artist she's ever worked with.

"He'll show up half an hour early, and he's always so professional and just lovely to work with," says Kirkup. "The thing about Duncan is he's a really great performer and he sets himself personal goals for his work. For the last work, he decided he wanted to be more emotional and also more natural, and at one point, he had everybody in the audience crying."

Kirkup is about to develop a solo show for Duncan, which she thinks he is ready for, which she and Lane will produce and direct. Through their company, they aim to change people's perceptions about artists with disabilities. "But Duncan is a true performer, he really is. He's talented. He's already a role model for others with disabilities."

And for wider society, Kirkup says people like Duncan can act as a mirror. "He shows us that you can come up against stuff and be great."

Early next month, Armstrong will go to Parliament to receive his Highly Commended citation in the Arts Access Artistic Achievement Award 2017, for his many artistic achievements as a dancer, musician and actor, and his contribution to the arts and disability sectors.

Off screen and stage, he still lives at home, in Northland, with his parents, although they are striving to make as independent as possible, and hope he will leave home this year. Working two days a week as a cleaner at Whitirea Performing Arts, he plays basketball once a week, and goes to the gym. Along with his regular performances with Touch Compass, he attends weekend dance classes with Wellington Integrated Dance Company.

Armstrong joined Touch Compass when he was 25 years old. That was the same year that Chappell conceived of the idea for a film celebrating his multiple talents, and worked with him on Drumming is Like Thunder. "I knew that Duncan was incredibly talented and I wanted to showcase all his talents," she recalls.

In his time with Touch Compass, Chappell has watched him improve. He has attended dance workshops here and in also in Australia, and been self-motivated to do so. "If you give someone the opportunity, they can grow. By having lots of opportunities over the last four or five years, with all the different groups he works with, and the training he did at school, he has really started to grow."

"He's moving differently. When he started with us, he could be a bit stiff, but he has definitely improved as a dancer."

"Duncan puts 100 per cent into everything he does. He brings an amazing, infectious energy to the group."

Through her group, disabled and non-disabled dancers perform together to raise awareness of people with disabilities. And she wants to celebrate Duncan's talents, rather than raving in a sentimental way that someone like him is "so clever".

"We don't want people to come out and say, "That's nice what you do for those people", and to put them into a category, suggesting that "they need to be fixed". It's a two-way process," says Chappell. "I get more out of this than what I put in."​​

 - Stuff

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