Candoco Dance Company, based in London, have just started a long term collaboration with the Laban school to increase the awareness of inclusive dance practice among dance students.
We spoke with Stine Nilsen, one of the company's artistic directors, about the project and what she hopes it will achieve in the future.
Article19: Can you tell us about the formalised connection that Candoco is making with Laban.
The overall goal can be separated into two things. In the long term it's about the opportunities for disabled people to train, so pathways into the profession. We also want to ensure that what Candoco Dance Company does in terms of the arts are enriched by the diversity of the dancers and the choreographers that we work with.
It seems to me that, in general, Laban's position, to be at the forefront of developing the art form, is an aspiration that we share.
Laban are committed to making sure that their training is open and inclusive and can cater for a variety of students and they are about enhancing the art form. So that is inline with our position of enhancing the art form through inclusion, of seeing that enrichment happening and about changing that perception of art and disability.
So that's the overall philosophical mission.
Then on a very practical level we will share knowledge and research with each other.
For example, [Candoco] did two performances at Laban, and invited all the first year students to come and join in. Before each of the shows I delivered a lecture on the different ways of seeing dance, introducing Candoco's work to them, then we had a post show talk and then the students did workshops with dancers from the company.This is something that all the first year students at Laban took part in. So it's a very practical way for them to learn about what we believe is an inclusive way of working and what the company is all about.
In addition to that our youth company "Cando 2" and [Laban's] youth company are going to do a project together and just a couple of weeks ago, Charlotte Derbyshire, one of Candoco's founding members, choreographed a piece on the third year students.
Also, two of our associate artists; Kimberley Harvey and Rick Rodgers, who's about to join the company in January, took part in this piece, the making and the performing and they will be they doing a five gig tour.
Again, it's a very practical exchange.
The partnership is about ongoing conversations, sharing knowledge, research, finding out about the issues and concerns a training organisation faces compared to a professional dance company.
In the future, when Laban are doing their auditions, they will be looking at the criteria for auditioning, looking at the practicality of auditioning and how to identify talent in disabled people.
Article19: How will you monitor the success or failure of the project?
Ideally we would like to see disabled students as part of the courses at the school. In an initial proposal we had to put a number to it, that, hopefully, in three years time there would be two students with disabilities that would have come into the course.
In terms of success though I think we would like to see increased numbers of disabled dancers coming out of Laban in years to come. I think it's a long term relationship so Candoco isn't going to say that at the end of next autumn they should take on, for example, two disabled dancers. It's a long process and it will take time to get results.
We will probably put some numbers to it eventually but we haven't thought in real practical terms how many. There is also an understanding that students may have to start from the very beginning, that's why we work with the youth company as well.
Both Candoco and Laban want to reach students before they get to vocational training, before getting into the audition because it can't be just for the sake of it. That's probably the most important thing.
Neither Candoco or Laban wants to say that there has to be one disabled or two disabled dancers there next year. If there aren't people with the talent to be there with the aptitude to deal [with the training] then the process will have to take longer, setting targets isn't helpful.
Article19: What misconceptions have you found the students have about dancers with disabilities and how do you propose to counter those misconceptions?
I was talking to Martin Hargreaves who runs the "Ways of Seeing" sessions for the first years [at Laban], he said they had some really good discussions after the performance. Some of the students stated that "they didn't even see any dancers with disabilities" and other students saying that they did.
They were having the discussion, that it's ok to see the disability, it's not about hiding it, it's about making use of the ability and the disability.
I haven't checked in with the dancers that were delivering the workshops last week, on the feedback they received but from the sessions that I observed there was a mixture of the students really looking at the choreography and the choreographers and how they were working with the dancers.
One of the students in a different workshop, not at Laban, said to Annie [Hanauer]; "oh, you were really good actually, you were as good as the others" and then Annie countering with "oh that's great, maybe that shows that you didn't have high expectations of me!" (Ms Hanauer has a prosthetic left arm).
I think the concept about the expectations of disabled dancers, disabled people dancing, that's something that I think the dancers counter all the time by just being there, by just being the teachers. They allow the students to express their thoughts and then think about what they have just said.
It would be interested to log the thoughts and feedback from Laban and see if the same questions come up in three years time.
I would imagine that the same questions will come up because Laban gets students from all over the world. So, especially with first years, you might have people who have never seen inclusive dance before.
What we're hoping is that by the time they get to their third year and then out into the profession to start working, that their attitudes and their concepts of inclusion have developed so the practice becomes something that is completely normal to them.
Article19: How do plan on getting dance companies to change their approach to dancers with disabilities?
I think we do that by working with a range of choreographers, so Emanuel [Gat] (who created a work with Candoco) goes back to his company and thinks "I really like working with Annie [Hanuaer], I could see myself working with her in my company!"
The choreographers have a very personal experience with the dancers, so how do you transfer that to the rest of the dance profession in the UK?
Our long term thinking is that at some point we might be able to have a "dancer exchange" with companies in the UK.
For example, doing the Paralympics (closing ceremony), which was very different in terms of aesthetics from what we would normally do as a company, there were twelve of our dancers who worked with twelve commercial dancers.
We were making duet work, one dancer from Candoco paired up with one of the commercial dancers, so on a very practical level one of their dancers had a very real experience of what it was like to work in an inclusive way.
I think it helped to shape the commercial dancers approach to other dancers with different physical abilities but no less skill as a dancer.
Those dancers we collaborated with didn't need any special training and they had not worked with dancers with disabilities before. Just by being professional and getting on with the job they realised that they were working with professional dancers, and the disability didn't matter.
Article19: The current coalition government in the UK has been heavily criticised for being "anti-disabled", how does Candoco play a part in advocating and lobbying for change at the political level?
On the one hand we continue to be a dance company, a contemporary dance company which is a niche in itself and we hope that by being this dance company and doing the work we do will will reach out to people in different ways.
Again, by being in the Paralympics, even though that wasn't our aesthetic, in terms of the work we were performing, people here the company name and they tell us; "that was great that you were there" and it gets seen by so many people.
We understand that paralympians can achieve the same excellence as everybody else and that also applies to dance. In one small way that's advocacy, in a very practical manner.
As for the practical problems with, for example, disability mobility allowance as in, are people going to lose it if they work with us? After they finish working with the company, or when they are on a contract break, they may not get it back again, they may not be eligible.
Candoco deal with this on a daily basis. So what we can do is relate these personal stories to government ministers when we come into contact with them. We can let them know how it really effects people, how their policies will translate into genuine problems and difficulties for people.
Article19: Five years from now, what do you hope has been achieved?
To put it as simply as possible, I would like to see more disabled people coming through professional training. We need to look at how that training happens and what is the most appropriate way for it to happen and, most importantly, I would like to see more dance companies interested in employing those dancers.
Here at Candoco, we also need more people, we need to be able to find more dancers to work with us.
I'm also really keen to collaborate with other companies, so that they can engage with our trained artists so they can learn from each other and the realisation of the possibilities can grow.
On a wider level I would like to see the artists that train with us have an influence on the mainstream dance world, that's already happening in certain ways, but it would be great to see it on a wider scale. All of that, along with so many other things, like advocacy and finding new opportunities for disabled people, takes a lot of time but we're not going anywhere, at least for a while.