Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'
Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.
June 2nd, 2016watch now
A recent seminar, part of which focused on professional dancers with disabilities, raised a question in our collective mind about just how those dancers might be able to integrate into mainstream, professional dance companies.
At the time it seemed unfair to ask the seminars participants because they couldn't possibly speak for the companies not in attendance. So we, here in TheLab™, thought we'd ask those companies directly about just how they approach, if at all, the question of integration.
Let's be clear that we're talking about bringing professional dancers, irrespective of physical differences, into a professional touring company. Education or special projects are not what we are discussing here.
Before we get started the word "disability" is a word we don't really like. It's far too general and indiscriminate and could relate to pretty much any physical condition. It also occurs to us that a highly skilled professional dancer with physical characteristics outside what many would perceive as "normal" is probably a hundred times more physically capable than 99% of the population of the UK.
Unfortunately when you're asking questions over the phone the phrase; "physical characteristics outside what many would perceive as normal" is a bit of a word jumble especially when you're talking to a slightly harassed press officer. So disability is the word we're stuck with, for the moment!
Article19 contacted, or attempted to contact, 20 different dance companies across the UK with a wide variety of creative backgrounds, funding levels and histories. Some of the companies are quite new and some of them have been around for a very long time.
In each case the questions were the same;
1.) Do you accept dancers with disabilities in your auditions and do you make it clear that you do?
2.) Has your company ever hired a dancer with a physical disability?
3.) If not are you taking any steps to change that or do you not see this as an issue affecting your company?
We managed to reach 17 of those companies and obtained responses from the vast majority of them. We're still waiting for the others to get back to us. There was a pretty tight deadline to meet so this piece will be updated as and when further responses come in.
To be honest that first question is a bit of a trick. It's against the law to discriminate against someone because of a disability and, thankfully, no company answered that question with "no".
As for making it clear that dancers would be welcome disability or not? No dance company told us that they made a specific effort to make it clear that all dancers of all physical types would be welcome.
You may wonder if not excluding someone is the same as openly inviting them?
Look at it this way. If you were a dancer with a physical disability just how likely is it that you would "rock up to the audition" (as one company put it) fully confident that you would be treated in exactly the same way as all the other participants?
Considering the disparity in the number of integrated professional companies vs non-integrated companies in the UK then, for the time being, if dance companies are genuinely open to looking at all kinds of dancers in their auditions then they really should make it clear that all dancers are welcome.
It's not about looking at them differently or giving them a job out of sympathy. The first hurdle to get over is making sure those dancers feel like they can come along and that they have a fair chance of getting the job.
With that in mind we come to our second question; "Has your company ever hired a dancer with a physical disability?"
The universal answer, with one exception, was "no". DV8 Physical Theatre were the only company to respond with "yes". The company are well know for their productions and films featuring dancer David Toole.
As far as auditions go DV8 told us;
"They are open, they're open to everyone, the thing is [though], they have to be, regardless of ability or disability, [the dancer's] have to be able to perform to a high standard and that's what we look for, that's the criteria."
It perhaps speaks volumes that of all of the companies asked, even though they maintain their auditions and their dance companies are open to everyone and with a collective history of more than 300 years, only one has ever hired a dancer with a physical disability.
DV8's response does emphasise one very important point; "regardless of ability or disability [the dancer's] have to be able to perform to a high standard".
To their credit nobody blamed training institutions (professional dance schools) for, perhaps, not providing adequate possibilities for dancers with disabilities to train. However, looking at it from another perspective, why would you spend three years training to a high standard if you have little or no chance of ever getting a job?
Finding work is hard enough in dance, imagine just how hard it is if a dance company doesn't see the dancer, all they see the is the disability!
Our questions gave us a mixed bag of responses. The first kind was along the lines of "that's not our thing", meaning dancers with disabilities, and we should probably speak to some other company about that issue. The company that used that as an excuse declined to answer our questions citing the company being on tour as a reason.
When we, somewhat sarcastically, pointed out that it was a shame the internet had not been invented or email or cell phones they eventually agreed to answer the questions. In a week!
However it is precisely because many dance companies do not see it as "their thing" that we should be asking them these questions.
Another common response was one of deflection. The actual company doesn't have, nor has it ever had, a dancer with a disability but they do run education projects that do involve those elements so that's ok, right?
One very curious response from a particular company was that the company administrators, to whom we were speaking, would not be told if there was a dancer in the company with any kind of disability. The company cited a dancer who was deaf as an example (this was a theoretical dancer since we know the company has no deaf dancers).
If a company did have a dancer who was deaf then it would probably be very important that everybody knew that just from a practical and safety point of view. We can only imagine that the press officer was trying to say that even if their company had ever had a dancer with any kind of disability they would never have known about it.
The Final Question
With the possible exception of DV8 the final question ("... are you taking any steps to change that or do you not see this as an issue affecting your company?) throws a big bright spotlight on as issue that isn't about to change anytime soon.
None of the companies we spoke to stated that this was an issue they were particularly interested in tackling.
It is surprising to learn that in a liberal, open-minded, progressive environment like the dance world there appears to be a general consensus that unless a dancer is fully "able bodied" then we're not going to make too much effort to employ you, if we make any effort at all.
During the seminar, mentioned at the start of this piece, part of the discussion related to how choreographers work with dancers with disabilities. The answer was that they don't approach it any differently at all, end of story.
One company responded to this particular question with the following;
"Much of the work in [the company's] repertoire is either from the company's history or brought to the company from outside, these have always been pieces choreographed for able bodied dancers"
In that response we might have the very core of the problem. How can a company possibly create work or re-create work if a dancer doesn't fit the pre-determined physical stereotype many people have in their minds of what a dancer looks like?
All dancers have different physical and mental characteristics. Some are tall, short, fast, slow, strong, weak, brave, tentative, thoughtful, loose, tight, uninterested, difficult, lazy, tough, resilient, etc, etc, etc. The key seems to be the differences we choose to focus on and perceive as potential negatives.
Perhaps the answers to the final question illustrates why we have seen so little stylistic change in the repertoire of so many dance companies over the years. Are they, especially the more established ones, unwilling to come out of their comfort zone and actually push the boundaries they say they have been pushing all along?
You might have noticed that we haven't mentioned Candoco Dance Company throughout this entire piece. The reason is very simple. Candoco crossed this bridge a long time ago (18 years ago to be precise) and as of now they are an internationally recognised dance company that can hold their own against any other company out there in the wide world of dance irrespective of the physical characteristics of the their dancers.
We can only wonder when everybody else will open up and become just as progressive.
Disclosure: Article19 is currently working with Candoco Dance Company, documenting the creation of their new programme. No Candoco Dance Company members were consulted about this piece and the opinions expressed here are those of Article19.