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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Beyond a Sympathetic Response
Animated, Autumn 2000. Nicole Thomson, artistic director of Anjali Dance Company, talks about her life and aspirations
It is peculiar how some themes seem to come up again and again in our lives. There I was - excited and apprehensive at the same time - in the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) on a hot Monday afternoon in August, as a participant in Beyond a Sympathetic Response. This was a debate on learning-disabled dance hosted by Anjali Dance Co. as part of the RFH's Blazing 2000 Dance Festival. The speakers (who included academics, choreographers, critics and funders) were all agreeing that current work by high-quality learning-disabled dance companies such as Anjali is leading us into new and unexplored territory. But was not this the kind of slightly scary exploring of the uncharted which I enjoyed most as a little girl, swimming off the Dorset coast, climbing trees and making dens, and later on, when I travelled in India and elsewhere?

Back to the present, and the RFH debate! Choreographer Claire Russ was pointing out that the most obvious 'difference' of dance performances by the learning-disabled is their unguardedness. Is this open, unapologetic, unselfconscious pleasure in performance (I wondered) why I so much love to work with Anjali's dancers? They have total involvement when dancing, are comfortable with their own bodies and love being the centre of attention, yet are not at all narcissistic. Seasoned with humour and emotional engagement, the result leads to comments such as those made by Gus Garside of MENCAP: "You will not see integrity greater than this" and, wonderfully, "their direct contact with the audience." (Which is something else that I love about working with Anjali, since I have always liked audiences to feel they are part of a process of questioning, rather than just sitting back and being entertained.)

This notion of the value of the unguarded, free from layers of cover and cynicism, featured strongly in one of the debate's central conclusions: the need for a new aesthetic for the new wave of disability dance. We all agreed on the need for a fresh set of concepts, and the language to go with them, to better evaluate dance by the learning disabled. Josephine Leask (editor of Dance UK News) pointed out that socially and culturally, people with learning disabilities have usually been represented as dependent, animalistic, asexual and close-to-pitiful. The experience of many disabled people is ignored, and so is effectively invisible to much of society. This includes performance-related experience. Consequently, audiences, critics, potential funders and promoters can only evaluate learning-disabled dance in terms of sympathy for the dancers, or by falling back on the classical ballet aesthetic criteria; and can only compare the dancers with stereotypically perfect 'dance bodies'. The need is for learning-disabled dance to be seen as a new kind of performance genre, with its own standards and aesthetic, which embraces 'difference', does not focus solely on the therapeutic aspects, and has horizons wider than those of a Day Centre. And professional companies must generate a more glamorous image! This is possible: for example, Josephine Leask described Anjali's RFH performance in The Guardian as "about visibility, confidence and glamour" (1).

These are bold aims! (But no less bold - thought I, going off to the past again - than Anjali's progression from an integrated dance class at Banbury's Mill Arts Centre', to performances at London venues and reviews in national papers in five years:
"Whatever you can do or dream you can -
Begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now.") (2)

The second of the debate's main conclusions was the need for learning-disabled dance to aim high, in terms of performance, visibility and marketing. This will mean different things for different flavours of group. For companies which aim to be professional - and we need more of these, not least as an inspiration - this means high production values, including working with prestigious Choreographers, designers, etc. and producing top-quality publicity. But learning-disabled dance groups in the community ''also have their magic moments, and are equally as valid: we need both" (Jasmine Pasch, freelance dance teacher.) For one thing, there should be a route by which talented learning-disabled dancers in community groups can have the opportunity to further their training. In addition, all flavours of learning-disabled dance companies must strive harder in networking and collaborating with other disabled and non-disabled companies. Seeing how other companies work, and what they have achieved, can only help in widening the experience and horizons of all learning-disabled dancers.

Increased visibility and media exposure are essential for learning-disabled dance groups. Professional companies must be seen in a variety of places, from high-profile dance venues to site-specific contexts. There is also a need to expose critics, funders, and promoters: "National thinking is what we need", said Julia Carruthers (dance programmer, the South Bank).

"Marketing learning-disabled dance requires a quantum leap. A more imaginative approach is required." Dance marketing tends to be trapped by the luggage of the past: learning-disabled dance is an element of the dance world that could well develop and nurture a wider dance audience. In selling disability dance, it is essential to focus on what it is it that is uniquely attractive about its 'different' aesthetic, ie. its unguardedness and its direct contact with the audience. "Some contemporary dance performances, even by leading dance companies, are so obscure and self referential that they almost seem to happen in spite of their audiences rather than because of them. When I see high quality disability dance, one of the most thrilling aspects is that I feel the dancers really want me to be there - need me to be there; they are really performing. We're on a knife -edge together and at the end, their triumph, if it comes, is my triumph too. It's a truly social experience", Shan Maclennan (head of education, Royal Festival Hall).

The third of the debate's main conclusions concerned the infrastructure and continuity of learning-disabled dance. If we are to develop more ongoing professional-quality learning-disabled dance companies, then we need to be able to identify and recruit those who possess the potential to dance at a professional standard; to nurture their development; and finally, if they wish, to provide opportunities for them to join a professional company. Though all this will of course take time and hard work, some progress would be made by setting up training courses to enable learning-disabled dancers to develop their skills in technique and creativity; or some kind of 'apprenticeship' scheme. As Dick Matchett (dance consultant, Blazing 2000) said: "We need to research into other art forms, which may already have in place these kind of structures for training people with learning disabilities".

Another requirement is to encourage high-profile dance teachers and choreographers to work with people with learning disabilities. The benefits here are cumulative!

Professional-standard learning-disabled dance companies themselves need reliable funding in order to progress along their 'life cycle', just as Anjali has moved from being primarily educational/recreational to professional, in part as a result of an Arts for Everyone award. One immediate need is for a change in UK legislation to enable us to pay learning disabled dancers for the work that they do: at present we cannot do this because it interferes with any benefits which they already receive.

The RFH debate ended with a summing-up from the chair, Jeanette Siddall (acting dance officer, Arts Council of England and interim director, Dance UK): "Refreshing, and opening-up of the mind." It is clear that there is a lot still to do, but it is work worth doing, not least because - as Professor Alan Reed of Roehampton Institute had pointed out earlier in the afternoon - if we take the multi-faceted beauty [of dance] seriously, we take life seriously (and vice-versa).

If you would like to comment on any aspect of dance by the learning-disabled, then please do so via the online forum at Anjali Dance Company's websiteAnjali

1 Leask, Josephine, Motion to mesmerise, The Guardian, 11 August 2000
2 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, source unknown

Lives in dance


  • The learning disabled dancers with whom I have had the privilege to work and to learn

  • Teachers who supported my vision, especially Wolfgang Stange. I will never forget first seeing his way of engaging profoundly-disabled students

  • The dedication and sheer hard work of the people who started Strathcona Theatre Company and other disabled companies. They paved the way!

  • Collaborations with other artists and choreographers, especially Claire Russ for her uncompromising stance and shared enthusiasm

  • Artists who are able to use wit and humour in their work

  • Vipassana meditation

  • Travel, to India and elsewhere (this article was written in hotel rooms in southern Spain ). It is important to make connections throughout the worId, a shared ideology helps us to articulate our aesthetic

  • My mum, who used to turn the TV off each Sunday evening and make us dance!

  • Future factors

    • What I really would like to see is nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way we view dancers such as those from Anjali. We are just now beginning to see them as differently-abled rather than dis-abled, in the future, I would like to see a group of learning-disabled dancers given the opportunity to really work on their unique spontaneous and self-created realisations of choreographic sequences, so that they are perceived not primarily as learning-disabled dancers, but just as dancers

    • Dancers valued for the quality of their performance!

    • I would go further. Only 25 years or so ago, in the western world people with learning disabilities were usually confined to institutions. Yet we have seen in our experiences with the Anjali dancers that they cannot only perform sensitive and uniquely-creative dance, but (given the right opportunity, advocacy, training and nurturing) lead dance workshops in their own way! Where, I wonder, could the future learning-disabled 'boldly go'...?

    • Better funding for learning-disabled dancers.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001