Breaking down barriers with an intimate dance duet

Roland Walter and Renae Shadler during a performance of SKIN in Germany
© Roland Spratte

Berlin-based performers Renae Shadler and Roland Walter are combining for two unique shows at opposite ends of Australia. The unfinished piece, entitled SKIN, aims to build audiences’ capacity for intimacy, environmental sensitivity and inclusiveness.

By André Leslie

On a dimly lit stage, a woman picks up a slender male under his arms and walks him across the room, as his feet tap lightly on the floor. The man is Roland Walter, a performer from Berlin with full-body spastic paralysis, the woman, Renae Shadler, is an experienced dancer and choreographer.
Welcome to SKIN – a developing piece exploring the poetics of the human body and the relationship to the surfaces we move across. Inspired by sea anemones, liquids and the earth’s skin, it’s sure to challenge audiences too, as it breaks down conventions around disability and intimacy.
"I already had the idea of working with the concept of skin, but I had never found someone who was suitable for the project," Walter explains, who speaks with the help of an assistant.
"This performance gives me the opportunity to show people how we can live with each other and what you can achieve when you work with each other."

Renae and Roland rehearse SKIN at Lucy Guerin Inc in Melbourne - Picture 2
Renae and Roland rehearse SKIN at Lucy Guerin Inc in Melbourne | © Beat Pix with Heart


Magdeburg-born Walter has been wheelchair-bound since childhood, but he doesn’t let that stop his varied work. He's a model, performer and writer, among other jobs, and became an official inclusion ambassador in 2015.
He first met Shadler on the sidelines of the performing arts festival in Berlin last year, where the Melbourne-raised dancer now also has a base. Walter proposed that the two of them work together, straight after watching one of her performances.
"I’ve been working a lot with changes, and noticing what’s around us, and relating the body to different situations," Shadler explains. "Recently, that’s been about exploring the issue of climate change."
"Here, it’s been quite interesting seeing how can I relate to Roland’s movement and how Roland can relate to mine."
Renae and Roland rehearse SKIN at Lucy Guerin Inc in Melbourne
Renae and Roland hope SKIN will be a finished, 1 hour performance by next year. | © Beat Pix with Heart


As part of his trip to Australia, Roland Walter has also been enjoying the thrill of some travel at "the other end of the world" too, including a trip to the Northern Territory, to see Uluru. 
"I really liked the nature there," he says. "I had the feeling, there's still a paradise on earth."
The 56-year-old says that Melbourne has been comparatively easy to move around in a wheelchair in comparison to Berlin and that he’s been greeted with open arms wherever he goes.
“There seems to be a ramp everywhere I go," he beams.
Roland Walter takes a tour of Uluru in central Australia
Roland Walter takes a tour of Uluru in central Australia | © Roland Walter


While initial versions of SKIN have already been performed in Hamburg and Berlin to select audiences, the piece has received new input in Australia and almost doubled in length.
The performances in Melbourne and in Bunbury in Western Australia - Shadler's home town - will also end with question and answer sessions. It gives the audience a chance to get to know the artists while promoting discussion on the interplay of disability and art.
"Roland is always given water, he never gives it to anyone else,” Shadler explains. "We have a part of the performance where he pours water into my mouth using a drink bottle.”
“So, we find these moments where we find what is possible and what’s not."
Walter says the feedback to the piece so far has been positive, especially when audiences see the harmony the two performers can achieve with their bodies, despite their physical differences. 
"So far, the audiences have been really touched by the closeness between Renae and I," he says.
Roland Walter and Renae Shadler are being supported in their Australian performances by the Goethe-Institut Australien.