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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
A compelling combination
Celeste Dandeker OBE, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of CandoCo - the first professional dance company in the UK specialising in the integration of disabled and non-disabled dancers - talks with Scilla Dyke MBE. Winning critical acclaim worldwide, demand for the company's work spans 50 countries. At the heart of her artistic policy has been the commissioning of 30 new performance works from internationally renowned choreographers. Here she offers a personal view of this compelling combination
'People who do not come into contact with disabled people can sometimes find it difficult to find a connection - feel uncomfortable and afraid to ask questions. If you treat everyone with respect there is no reason to think that you should act in a different way. I do believe that attitudes have changed considerably over the years; after all, it was unimaginable that disabled dancers would work at this kind of professional level in dance.

'I've been disabled for 33 years and during that time there have been major changes in terms of seeing other disabled people - out on the street, in the shops and in the workplace. I remember years ago having to plan a visit with meticulous detail. Where could I use a loo, will there be steps, can I get through the door? Now I actually don't think about it - if I want to go somewhere then I'll just go and in new buildings there is generally reasonable access. Theatres too are much better since we started performing 16 years ago and with the advent of the National Lottery even more rehearsal and studio spaces are available. In fact, as a company we have performed in over 50 countries and I am often impressed with places that you wouldn't imagine that disability would have even been thought of in terms of access. Of course there are always exceptions. The issue is no longer purely about money as it was in the past - people are willing to make the changes if they are advised how it can be done.

'CandoCo has been a force of change and as a company has had a lot on its shoulders as a pioneer encouraging alternative thinking in the dance world - challenging what people's vision or idea of dance is, who can do it, sharing the kind of language we use and how trainers can assess people who have a disability. Now with the Disability Discrimination Act vocational training schools, conservatoires and colleges are having to open up - not only in terms of access issues but access to training. Over the last three years, CandoCo has been delivering a very successful One-year Foundation Course for disabled students. Imagine how wonderful it would be if this course was no longer needed because access to training was available for everybody.

'Having been immersed in a company with disabled and non-disabled dancers, I forget that other people have not had my experience and it is still new to them. For me it seems perfectly natural now but I really had thought after my accident in 1973 that as a wheelchair user, dance was not an option, as I couldn't dance as I did before. Also, in the early stages of recovery I didn't even want to think about it. It was Darshan Singh Bhuller that persuaded me to dance again in his film The Fall for BBC2's 10X10 series in1990. I must admit that it took me a while to feel confident that what we were doing was really 'dance'. It was about two years later when I really started to believe it!

'When Adam Benjamin and I started teaching in 1991 we never thought about making a company - it was never our intention - rather we were fortunate that the people whom we met on the early workshops throughout the UK were such an extraordinary group of people - it was serendipitous.

'From the outset the approach that Adam and I took aimed high and I was particularly aware that we could be seen as 'doing dance therapy' or 'disabled dancing'. I was just not interested in either of those things - having had a professional dance background and knowing what good and excellence is in performance from being a dancer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre I thought we either aspire to that or we needn't bother. CandoCo dancers were tenacious about the work that they made and once we had completed it, we rehearsed and rehearsed because we wanted to be taken seriously. The original core group in fact stayed with the company for eight years as we were evolving our practice all along the way. The response we hoped for was one of recognition and appreciation of the artistic quality, to make exciting dance that an audience could connect with and enjoy, be provocative too, challenging and all those things that make performance alive and exciting. That has been my mission ever since.

'The audiences and particularly the dance fraternity who come to our performances say that some of the choreographers we work with are inspired to create more challenging pieces. When choreographers work with us and ask how should they engage with disabled dancers I say, do as you would with any other dance company but don't be afraid to ask if you don't know. The dancers are not backward in coming forward in offering an opinion or guidance. We are not precious about disability - we are not trying to hide it - it's just part of a person - it's not the whole thing. Let's not forget that in the present company we have five dancers who are non- disabled. It can be a great responsibility at times for the disabled dancers to always have the spotlight on them specifically from the critics. When there are reviews in the media about the work I feel absolutely elated when the names of non-disabled dancers are also mentioned.

'Our 2007/2008 season's Double Bill with Rafael Bonachela and Arthur Pita will give the dancers an exciting opportunity to create and perform in completely different styles, and I think will provide a thrilling treat for the audience. Whilst Rafael's work is physical, dynamic and technical, Arthur leans more towards dance theatre and storytelling. Rafael's And who shall go to the ball? will be performed to a powerful new score by the iconic Scott Walker commissioned by the South Bank Centre that will be played live at Queen Elizabeth Hall in September 2007.

'Arthur on the other hand is using music by the renowned Violent Femmes and other country rock tracks so I think that this programme - both the music and dance - will be a huge draw. The theme of Arthur's work, The Stepfather, will evoke a theatrical world of dark humour - the dancers becoming an isolated close-knit dysfunctional family in an 'awkward situation'! Historically, we have always attempted to create contrasting work that has drawn people to want to join the company. In fact, we have had more than 200 people apply from all over the world for the last two auditions which is amazing.

'I think that one of the hardest parts of my job is to think so far ahead and identify who would be interesting for the dancers to work with and what would make an exciting programme. We have been fortuitous in choosing choreographers who have made diverse works. This results in dancers who are committed and because we try to be democratic, everyone's opinion is very much valued - there are chances for everyone to give feed back and talk about things. To some degree it has to be structured obviously but I think that the dancers feel that they are able to offer suggestions. We are an open, listening company and I think that's important, everybody is important.

'Because we are not choreographer led makes a difference to our approach. As an artistic director of a repertory company I do not put many stipulations on what I want from the choreographers. Only perhaps to say for instance I would like to use all the dancers, it to be a certain length or... for the designer to create a set or props that will fit into a suitcase to make touring easier! Apart from that it is a blank canvas. They are the experts.

'I have learnt from so many people - choreographers, administrators, designers. It has been a real learning curve over the years and hopefully I have grown with CandoCo. I never would have imagined being Artistic Director of a successful dance company and have also learnt a lot about people, teamwork and the power of listening. I'm very proud to have been a part of something that has opened up dance to so many people and pinch myself sometimes to realise how fortunate I am to have had another chance to be involved in dance with such extraordinary experiences. Obviously change will happen because I am leaving soon but I sincerely hope that the CandoCo ethos and company itself will continue to flourish for many years.

'And speaking of the future. Whenever I leave it's going to be difficult ... but there are things that I want to do and I think it's good to have a change of direction after 16 years. The company ethos resonates - we attract those who are inspired by this ethos because they feel part of CandoCo where everybody has an important role to play. It's symbiotic. I haven't made any firm plans as yet. I am sure it will take me some time to adjust to not having CandoCo on my mind 24/7. I shall very much miss working so closely with everyone and watching the dancers rehearse and perform. Somebody once said to me that 'CandoCo was my baby and that it would be difficult to let go'. But the baby has grown up and is leaving home and that's as it should be.

'I feel privileged to have been a part of the living history of dance from those early pioneering days of contemporary dance in Britain. The relationships we forged so strong. There really was something so special about growing up with London CDT because it was so new and exciting. The Place and the London School of Contemporary Dance under the direction of Robin Howard and Robert Cohan offered a fantastic 'alternative', the essence of which was the love of dance. It was a generous time - we as dancers - Richard Alston, Siobhan (Sue) Davies, Robert North, Micha Bergese, Christopher Bannerman and Darshan Singh Bhuller amongst others, performed works from Martha Graham's repertoire as well as those of choreographers such as Robert Cohan, William Louther, May O'Donell, Barry Mooreland, Alvin Ailey, Anna Sokolow, Lottie Gosler and Remy Charlip.

'Those of us who were interested in choreographing were encouraged to experiment through choreographic workshops to create pieces and present them either on stage or in different spaces in the building. Dancers such as Sue, Robert and Richard were exploring the notion of involving the dancer in the process of dance making. Many of the original members have gone on to have their own companies and become choreographers and directors, making their own distinct contribution to 21st Century dance making. We had powerful role models whom we tried to emulate. The Place was a fertile breeding ground for innovation and experimentation.

'Many choreographers inspired by this collaborative approach begun to involve dancers in the creative process - moving away from the prescriptive - laying the foundations for dancers to be more than a choreographer's instrument of expression. Of course, dancers today are so much a part of the process of making work - very rarely do choreographers dictate what they want. They may set a phrase of movement initially as a way of finding out what dancers are capable of and how each of their bodies work, but that would be just a starting point - the dancers can also improvise and develop material given tasks and ideas. I think that because they are so much a part of the process - it is much more collaborative. Importantly, they have ownership of the work and then can talk about the process.

'This way of working is fundamental to CandoCo's artistic approach because from the outset we have had a policy of inviting professional choreographers whose work we admire - our focus being dance - not disability. It has encouraged choreographers to think about disability not as a limitation but as a springboard to a whole new palette of dance and movement.

'Seeing is believing and dancers in action say so much more than words ever can but we still need to excite people with how we talk about it - to help them connect. Part of CandoCo's commitment to this is to encourage the dancer to find ways of articulating physical practice and because they are so much a part of the process they can talk about the repertoire with great honesty and knowledge and this is the spirit that resonates through all OUR practice, all OUR teaching...'

Celeste Dandeker is Artistic Director of CandoCo and can be contacted on

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Animated: Spring 2007