© 2016 by No Mean Feat

In Search of Integrity

By Adam Benjamin

Dance Theatre Journal. Vol 10, No 4, Autumn 1993

 

 

“We offer places to students without prejudice”.   “ Unfortunately our premises are not accessible for people with severe physical disabilities” As this situation exists virtually throughout the country, it is no great surprise to discover that most schools  “have never had an application from a disabled person, let alone anyone who uses a wheelchair.”  

 

It would have been inconceivable two years ago to think that CandoCo, a dance company of five able bodied dancers and three dancers with physical disabilities, would have  opened Dance 93 at the Nottingham Playhouse and the Spring Loaded festival at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, having  picked up a Time Out award en route as well as being selected for Dance for Camera. The company in 1991 was a small experimental dance class meeting once a week at the Mike Heaffey centre in Stanmore. It begs the question “Why should the company’s work have been so readily and enthusiastically recognized by both audiences and the dance community alike, and why, if the work of the company is being taken seriously, is there not better provision for dancers, able bodied and disabled, to train together?”

 

Through Celeste Dandeker’s training at London Contemporary Dance Theatre and my own training in the visual arts, we  shared a belief that if we were to produce work for performance it should meet the same criteria that we would demand of any other contemporary company, given that all choreography works within limitations and that we were to explore and maximize the potential interactions of dancers, ambulant and non ambulant, with and without wheelchairs. This formed the explorative material of all our early work in the class. “Given this limitation, where are your strengths? How can you connect? What can you do?” These were the questions we asked each other and which lead to the name Celeste eventually chose for the company.......Can-do-Co.....a company  based on our individual and collective abilities. Our greatest desire was to avoid the kind of responses we had seen when attending performances of some integrated groups where, on the basis of what we had seen on the stage, the audience seemed to be applauding the disabled rather than the work produced.

 

The belief that dance might embrace more than just the highly trained and super fit is not new; Wolfgang Stange and Amici, Fergus Early and Green Candle, Common Ground (to name but a few.) have preceded us making inroads into dance provision  in the community, and creating dance performance with and for those with disabilities. What was evident from our contact with these groups was that they had each defined and were continuing to evolve their own particular approach to teaching and performing, and it was clear that we too would have to discover and elaborate our own style and ethos.  

 

The early  experimental work, and the work in the class was strongly influenced by the respect all of us have for Celeste’s experience as a dancer with LCDT, and as a woman whose life was changed through the effects of spinal injury. Her ability to challenge herself and others through her re-involvement in dance engaged my own delight in teaching and conveying ideas through words. It was this combination that took us teaching and  leading workshops across the UK  during  the whole of 1992. The company’s work has touched many people who have not previously been interested, or even seen dance before.....it has, it should also be noted, left some more formal dance critics cold, and indeed we continue to tread this deliciously uncertain ground between innovation and offense. Just as Celeste has had to re- find her own dance so too the company has begun to redefine dance itself and is demanding a new language and appraisal of language to accompany that process.

 

We are  for example still constantly asked if we “Do dance workshops for the disabled” Dancing with the company and in workshops has always been as enjoyable  and meaningful to the able bodied dancers as it has been for  those with disabilities, for two graduating students who joined workshops in Leeds and Leicester, it proved to be a pivotal experience; Sue Smith and Kuldip Singh-Barmi, both from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance now perform with the company. Being brought in to teach this kind of hybrid ‘disability dance’ to groups solely of disabled students was not a true reflection of our experience as a group of artists nor did it do anything to dispel the kind of institutionalization against which we were so firmly set. It was not long before we instituted a policy of encouraging venues to ensure places for both disabled students and non-disabled students. Non-disabled participants are often surprised at how much they are pushed physically and mentally in these workshops, and it is just this element that is so sadly missing in the ‘caring’ environments generated around disability dance and which allies it forever with dance therapy  rather than with the performing arts. (Dance therapists know that excessive ‘caring’ amounts to the stifling of the clients creativity and growth). We are fortunate  to have very talented disabled dancers in the company, this is unusual and will remain so until real training opportunities are provided for students with disabilities, and until the young disabled are a) given inspiring examples to emulate and  b) given the right encouragement from an early age to develop their skills.

 

The fear that  performing arts  (particularly dance) courses will have to be reduced to the slowest common denominator (a fear born out of ignorance and an absence of good teaching practice) is one of the major factors outside of accessibility that operates against  disabled students . Producing work that reinforces this notion is one of the greatest disservices that is continually perpetrated  by well meaning people in the arts and education....  it is just this issue that we aim to address through our performance work. We have seen work for example in which highly trained dancers ‘dance circles round’ those  with disabilities who share the stage but little else, in which  there has been no real attempt on the part of the choreographer to enable the performers to communicate with each other and it is then this gulf, this shared inability which is  communicated to the audience. Worst still, dances in which trained, non-disabled dancers drift about inconsequentially, as if embarrassed by their own skills,  used instead, merely to ferry about the bemused occupants of wheelchairs. This kind of work will never succeed in motivating theatre or school administrators to make  the changes necessary to accommodate disabled performers; those who clap enthusiastically at the end of such  productions only serve to blur the issues.

 

It is literally a starting point for us that anyone can participate, enjoy and learn from the activity of dance, and gain confidence from the opportunity to  perform through community and educational projects...but that the professional performer requires training, discipline, determination and above all .... talent. To suffice with less is to patronize and eventually hinder the real and lasting involvement of artists with disabilities in the performing arts.  All the above however remains entirely academic until there is the will to translate the equality of opportunity which exists in the policies of all schools and colleges into a practical reality. This means actively pursuing funding to convert and design new buildings rather than relying on the fact that no one in a wheelchair is ever going to make it into the building for an interview.

 

The arts, including dance, we are constantly being reminded, are in crisis. Mainstream dance we are told (and often witness) is losing its way. Art therapy, Drama therapy and Dance therapy seem however to be undergoing a renaissance  perhaps because they are returning  to their roots; the role of the arts after all, is to allow into our lives and into society those vital yet non rational parts of what it means to be fully alive, fully human. In this sense the arts are all about making us whole; allowing us access to our gods and our demons, our capacity to rejoice and celebrate, to experiment and destroy, to express our fears and of course our visions.

 

If however, we have separated art therapy from art, drama therapy from drama and dance therapy from dance then there can be little wonder that  the mainstream is in crisis for it implies that art, drama and dance have been alleviated of their requirement to heal or make whole. (Wholeness emphasizes the expression of all that it means to be human.) And that the arts the rest of us enjoy are at best entertainment, at worst distractions that the government  may chose to fund or not.... unrelated to the health and well being  of society.

 

Before  continuing, I need to acknowledge the specific and non theatrical role of the above therapies in which a healing and usually confidential relationship is established, and  make it clear that I am not suggesting the therapeutic process be transported to the stage, but that the arts reclaim their ability to heal, to move, and to make us whole.

 

Despite  opening the Dance 93 festival at the Nottingham Playhouse the CandoCo entry in the Dance 93 brochure was in the back under ‘Disability Dance’. The other one assumes, ‘proper’ contemporary companies being listed  together at the front. This is not to detract from disability arts but to say quite clearly that CandoCo is not  producing work specifically about disability. Our focus is, and always has been - how do we, as a group of tremendously different people living in society, produce dances together? Our focus is on the dialogue necessary to create compelling performance.

 

We are at times asked “ Why is it you Adam, a non-disabled (white) man, who does most of the teaching? Wouldn’t it be more empowering for  Celeste, a disabled woman to be leading?” Celeste  of course leads in many other ways, particularly through  her performance work, and unseen to many, through her administration and  direction of the company. I  teach  workshops because that is where my skills  lie and our responsibility when leading workshops is to teach well and informatively and not to demonstrate how “right on” we are. It is an ailment that besets integrated projects, that so much time is spent demonstrating an awareness of everyone’s special needs and tip-toeing around the mine field of politically correct terminology that no work of any note is actually produced.... again it is important to be clear whether the focus is on producing work or resolving/exploring issues on disability. In reality these two things go hand in hand, but in practice, and without  clear direction, it is easy for work to be produced that has more in common with the Social Services than anything arising from the world of contemporary art or dance.

 

I recently ejected two young people from a workshop, not because of their learning difficulties, but because, to use common parlance, they were at the time behaving like a “pair of little shits.” Some of the other workshop leaders on  hearing of this, were surprised that I had effectively refused to work with these two difficult young men, and confessed that they thought , because it was a workshop for people with disabilities that they had to work with everyone; seeing it as some kind of failure if they didn’t manage this particular minor miracle. In the group I was leading there were also three visually impaired participants who needed to be able to hear what was being said and who weren’t able to because of the constant interruptions. As these three had made a choice to be in the workshop and the two young men had simply been brought along, I made a decision to send them back to the course organizers so that I could facilitate the learning of those who had chosen to take part. Integrated workshops are a nonsense without this sense of  focus and shared pursuit. They are not  about massing groups of people with disabilities together; this ironically is segregation. They are at there best when all involved have chosen to explore the central integrating theme or subject, without this shared sense of participation, the unifying principle becomes disability. Without choice, without the discriminative ability to chose to participate, the medium crosses so deeply into the realm of therapy that I would feel very uneasy about the use of such work for the stage. 

Using dance as a medium to enable an individual to ‘perform’ better in their life and to experience new avenues of creativity and growth is different to using dance as a means of presenting performance on stage. Dance itself refuses to be so neatly categorised, but for those of us who teach, such distinctions may at times help to make sense of dance projects rendered chaotic by the indiscriminate use of the principle of integration.

 

In time, through our educational work we will produce teachers, performers and choreographers, some with disabilities some without. The one thing these  people will have in common is that they will feel that it is entirely natural to work together.  They will be able to learn from each other and train on courses that have opened up precisely because we were clear that although attitudes need to change, standards in performance, teaching and choreography must if anything rise to meet this emergent movement in the performing arts.

 

Thrusting people with disabilities into dance teaching roles in the community without such preparation is a cosmetic act that should not be confused with real changes in dance education. This means we cannot allow ourselves to be satisfied with community provision, no matter how good, if it side tracks us from the job of providing full-time courses where choreography, accessible technique, teaching skills, dance politics, anatomy, etc are taught; in other words, all the subjects necessary to equip students with disabilities to the same standard as the dance animateurs already working in the field. 

 

There is no reason why one of the great choreographers of the future should not be someone with  a severe physical disability, as long as they are given the opportunity to study and experiment and as long as the educational establishments take their wish to study seriously. This may require a degree of listening and integration on the part of the FE colleges and universities that they are not yet  prepared for . Were they to rise to meet this challenge it might result in choreography as astonishing to the dance world as Christopher Nolan’s poetry and prose was to the literary world.

 

Teachers who are unprepared/untrained  for the demands of teaching across a range of physical abilities (Or more likely constrained by the demands of the national curriculum.) may see it as some kind of imposed moralism that dictates that they should ‘integrate’ their classes. Sometimes if one scratches the surface of these mild protestations one uncovers the attitude, that when all is said and done, this act of integration is after all to help those in need because, yes, everyone deserves equal opportunities, but wont we, the teachers  of able bodied students be better off if we could continue unimpeded and leave Special Needs to mop up the rest? Time and again one sees the use, or misuse of this word ‘integration”  to describe a group or activity that has opened itself up to include disabled people. To integrate a group of people in this way of course implies a norm into which they need to be fitted. If however, you’re using that word, integrate, from the Latin integratus, it forces you to acknowledge that they are already an integral part of the whole, even if you haven’t found them a place yet. It also forces you to reassess that norm because although it may have felt like ‘normality’, it evidently wasn’t as a vital constituent part was missing. Thus the norm lacked integrity, from the Latin integratas,  the condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting.

 

There can still be found a self congratulatory element in some of  those institutions that are making themselves accessible, responding to a new moral climate, responding to  changes in planning provision, responding to funding initiatives, but how many are responding to the desire to make themselves whole, to make themselves complete? How many administrators have this vision when they install their first  ramp or their first  accessible loo? Even with these changes made, attitudes are often slower  to alter, and may be revealed in the most unlikely places.  In promoting the alterations at the Theatre Royal Stratford  East, where the auditorium, bars and box office have all been made accessible, a delightful photo in the April issue of Equity  shows Equity Council member Frederick Pyne, Sue Timothy from the London Arts Disablement  group and Sue Brown from the London Borough Grants Unit “joining” Priscilla Meredith, former Equity organizer ( and wheel chair user)  as she “tries out the new disabled facilities”. All four are pictured smiling nervously in the WC with Priscilla washing her hands at the sink. Obviously  the developments at the theatre are excellent, particularly those plans (yet to be realized) to improve backstage access for performers. Yes loos are important, but with all these new changes to the theatre, why chose to photograph these people in the toilet?

 

There is sometimes a feeling that in the rush to support and promote the company’s work that  funding bodies, arts administrators and particularly journalists are quick to disregard the contributions of the able bodied  people involved. This is galling to all who share in the company’s work, not only because of the very real contributions of the able-bodied dancers but also because it aligns us with a ‘faction’,  disability arts or disabled dance or this new all purpose category ‘integrated dance’, all of which categorizations we are uneasy with, wishing instead to maintain our identity as a group of artists and our integrity as individuals, able-bodied and disabled.

 

If contemporary arts and contemporary dance in particular is to reflect contemporary society, it must , just as it did when black dancers first appeared on stage in this country, open it’s doors and its eyes to perceive beauty and worth where it had hither-to been unable. If  it fails to do this, it will in a sad and blissfully ignorant way, be continuing to support an apartheid as ugly in its fashion as any this country has ever known.

 

Integration then is to do with integrity, of being not compromised and yet being included. It does not , leave us in the position of saying that every dance company that seeks to be whole and entire must therefore include a dancer with a disability,any more than it must include a black,  a gay or a Jewish dancer. What it does mean is that our perceptions of who can dance/study/work/live together may and must always be stretched. The need to describe the company as integrated is a reflection that we live in a society that has grown accustomed to an inherent dislocation, in which the arts have been disassociated from people and people from each other .  I sometimes think when I watch the company perform and see an audience respond, that we have not so much added  a new element to contemporary dance as much as we have inadvertently reinvented folk dance. Certainly  our language is inherited from contemporary and new dance vocabulary, but our dances are accessible to all those who enter the theatre; no one is left sitting on the side. This is contemporary dance given back to folk, to society, to people, and danced with integrity.