By bringing disabled and non-disabled dancers together, Candoco has shown how dance can be different. Words by Jemima Hodkinson; photographs by Samuel Bradley.
A series of dance workshops at a spinal injury centre in London in 1991 was the first step. It quickly led to the foundation of Candoco, a professional dance company integrating disabled and non-disabled dancers. In the years since then, Candoco has consistently pushed at the boundaries of what dance can be, what it can look like and who can do it.
There were challenges at first. Attitudes to their early work were mixed, and they often faced opinions that what they were doing was a therapeutic exercise rather than part of mainstream contemporary dance. But the priority of Candoco’s founder, Celeste Dandeker, was precisely the opposite: she wanted to be judged as a dance company, nothing else. Her aim was to “show the ability of any dancer, not their disability”, and so she commissioned ambitious work from highly regarded choreographers to overcome the preconceptions.
Today, Candoco commands widespread respect within the world of contemporary dance, working with iconic choreographers and reaching audiences of 18,000 a year. They perform to audiences around the world, provide workshops and training to thousands of dancers – and help to change attitudes towards disability in dance.
But Stine Nilsen, one of Candoco’s current artistic directors, knows there is more to be done.
Their tours have ranged from a performance in Brazil attended by the entire town to the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing for the Olympic Games handover ceremony. They have seen stark differences in attitudes towards disability in different countries. Candoco was recently involved in establishing a dance company in Armenia, where Nilsen found attitudes “much harsher” than in the UK. Equally, in countries that are generally much more aware of disability and practical access – such as Sweden and Norway – inclusivity in the arts world still lags far behind.
So how can diversity in dance be developed further? Nilsen believes that increasing accessibility to training is key, to allow talented disabled dancers to build their skills and enable collaboration with more diverse choreographers. And she wants to reach a wider audience by complementing performances in traditional arts venues with performances in more unusual locations.
But this needs support, and recent government funding cuts have had a significant impact on some disabled artists. One Candoco dancer who is deaf can no longer afford to employ the interpreter she needs.
Perhaps this is an area where Candoco – with a record of integration in the arts – can have an influence. Their work speaks for itself as an example of what can be achieved through greater diversity and integration but, Stine admits, “We have to try to shout about it more.”
Candoco’s next performance, CounterActs, is at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, 2–3 October 2015.