“The real disability always lay with the teaching. Always. With the right teaching method, people will learn.”
The Sally Dance Company studio at AINSI in Maastricht is buzzing with activity. The twenty-six participants in the DanceAble Artistic Lab are dancing in groups of three, or, as the teacher puts it, in duets of three people: with one leader, one follower (the duet) and one soloist. The duet forms the heart of their improvised choreography, the soloist can mostly go his or her own way, but has to remain in the couple’s orbit. Similarly, there is no need for the two dancers in the duet to be glued to each other, as the teacher shows them. As long as there is a visible connection between the two dancers – eye contact counts as well – we are watching a duet.
One small Polish woman (Katarzyna), with a light blond crewcut, catches the eye. She dances a duet with a woman in a wheelchair (Tatiana), moving her, pushing her with her head, at one point even nudging her out of her wheelchair and onto the floor. Their combined movements are mesmerizing to watch, the way they organically evolve, the shared trust emanating from both dancers.
The DanceAble Artistic Lab is a joint initiative of Holland Dance Festival, Sally Dance Company Maastricht and the Dutch Dance Festival (the artistic lab was held during the latter). Three couples working here will go on to DanceAble #3 to perform their ‘mixed’ doubles – premiering November 29 – at Theater aan het Spui in The Hague.
The artistic lab is led by none other than Adam Benjamin, co-founder of Candoco Dance Company, a British company with disabled and non-disabled dancers. In the early 1990s Benjamin was one of the founding fathers of integrated dance in the UK. It was not something he sought out to do, he tells me after an intensive day of training. ‘It was something I stumbled upon. When I finished my dance degree – I studied dance and visual arts – I got an invitation, as a painter, to become an artist in residence at a rehabilitation center.’ There he met Celeste Dandeker-Arnold, a former professional dancer who had become wheelchair-bound after a spinal injury. ‘I first laid eyes on her during a tai chi class for disabled and non-disabled people. She was such an amazing mover. I immediately felt that we should do something together in the dance studio. When we did, we just started playing around, until at one point I asked her: “Can you take weight on your legs?” During a moment of improvisation, she carried me, cradled in her lap. It was one of those lightbulb moments, where you realized that, unwittingly, you’d turned the world of dance etiquette on its head. That not only you have a duet where it is not just a woman supporting a man, but a disabled woman supporting a non-disabled man.’
They decided to share their revelation with the rest of the world (or at least, the United Kingdom), and started teaching mixed dance classes. Their first bona fide choreographies soon followed. Benjamin: ‘We knew we wanted to make work that could confidently co-exist with other contemporary work. And we both had a solid background in dance to back it up.’ In 1991 they founded Candoco Dance Company. Then things really took off. ‘Before we knew it we were breaking box-office records.’
Slowly but surely, integrated dance is becoming more widely known and more mainstream, especially in the United Kingdom. But there is still a lot of ground to be covered, says Benjamin. Especially with regards to giving disabled artists opportunities to not only dance, but also to create work themselves. And that is where this particular artistic lab comes in. ‘The main focus is on choreography and particularly, on imparting choreographic knowledge and skills to disabled artists. Again, because of the nature of these things, in the early inclusive groups all choreographies were made by non-disabled artists. While that made sense at the time – the non-disabled people were the ones that held the skills – lately in the UK we have seen more disabled artists leading their own work, holding their own as artists. Which is as it should be. Giving disabled artists the necessary tools is part of this ongoing process of empowerment.’
One of the disabled artists also present today is Chris Pavia, who has been dancing for over twenty years. Benjamin and Pavia go way back. ‘I have known him almost since the start of his dancing career. At the time, he was one of the first professional dancers with Down Syndrome. He is such a beautiful dancer. People see him and are amazed that anyone with Down Syndrome could be so articulate, so sensitive, so skilled. Thirty years ago, we called people like Chris people with learning disabilities, but, in my opinion, the real disability always lay with the teaching. Always. With the right teaching method, people will learn. Chris is now a choreographer. When other people with Down Syndrome see someone like Chris, they see what they can reach for. When the expectations of people with Down Syndrome are so low, how can they possibly progress?’
Improvisation is one of the most important tools in Benjamin’s choreography workshop. ‘If you use it well, it is extremely accessible. It is not reliant on any shape or form. It offers you a way into movement, into creation, where people don’t feel that what they are doing is wrong. It allows everybody to discover themselves and their relationship to others.’ Dance is an ideal vehicle for crossing barriers. The first day of the artistic lab made that crystal clear. ‘The organizers from Holland Dance Festival were making their opening speech, which was simultaneously being translated into Greek, Serbian and Polish. It was chaos! You could feel everybody tensing up. But then, when we started dancing, within two minutes everyone was speaking the same language. And all was quiet and harmonious and everybody was connected to everybody else.’
Integrated dance is more important than ever, especially now, says Benjamin. ‘I’m English, and we are about to cut ourselves adrift from Europe. We have political leaders whose main objective is to make us fear foreigners. In America they are building walls to keep out women and children. We are living in a world that is tipping dangerously towards xenophoby, isolationism and populism. But when we do this, when we have a gathering of people from eleven different nationalities here in one studio, we can show that all of these very, very different people can co-inhabit the same space, supporting one another, making room for one another, valuing one another, enjoying each other’s differences. We are making a statement through our artform about diversity, about tolerance and about acceptance. I don’t think there is any other message that art should be spreading right now.’
DanceAble #3. 29 November, Theater aan het Spui, Den Haag.