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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Learning on the job
Dawn Prentice, CandoCo's administrative director, talks about some of the ways in which the company approaches professional development and the artistic training needs of its disabled artists
One of the most common telephone enquiries at CandoCo, apart from the offers of cheap stationary and a lifetime supply of filtered water, is on the subject of training. 'Where can I study dance?' It should not be the most difficult question we have to face during an average day at the CandoCo office but, when the person asking it is disabled, its not so easy to reel off a list of schools, colleges or universities where they might find what they are looking for.

So if access to professional training has been limited for disabled students, how do we find dancers for CandoCo and how do they reach a point where they can work for us? The dancers we employ work with choreographers such as Fin Walker, Javier de Frutos, Jamie Watton and later this year, Stephen Petronio. As company members, they tour all over the world, often performing in 1000+ seat venues, accompanied by a media interest that both amazes and perplexes us at times. They are also responsible for delivering a rigorous education and professional development programme to the dance sector and the community at large. What other company would ask dancers with little or no formal training to take on such expectations and what can we do to support them? How can we contribute to making sure they have the skills necessary to practise their craft?

I think we would be the first to admit that what we provide at CandoCo in terms of internal training can be quite ad hoc and is very much focussed on the needs of the company. We are a touring dance company, not a dance college.

That said, the ever-present issue of whether all our dancers can access professional training does perhaps make us more aware of the vital importance of continuous professional development for all company members.

The idea of developing people 'inside' the company - as opposed to the opportunities delivered to participants and groups as part of the education programme - first came up in 1994 but it started even earlier than that without being given a title. The original members of CandoCo were young, fearless and totally committed to the company's ethos. Even so, neither Jon French nor David Toole had any formal training when they joined CandoCo. The pace at which the company's work developed in those early years almost precluded anything more than on-the-job training but even at that point it was obvious to both Celeste Dandeker and Adam Benjamin (joint founders of the company) that it was not enough.

A discussion with Alysoun Tomkins, course leader at Laban, led to David Toole taking the Professional Diploma in Community Dance Studies whilst he was working with the company. Laban were very open about the fact that they could not offer technique- based training suitable for David and that this part of his education as a dancer would be delivered by CandoCo. However, its difficult to attend an outside course when touring as much as CandoCo does and it became obvious we had to develop training for company members in-house. This, coupled with a need to find new dancers and teachers for the company, led to an informal series of 'traineeships' being set up.

The training we offer is specific for each individual but all have in common an opportunity to observe and participate, moving on to demonstrating and assisting in workshops before becoming associate teachers with the company. The work is real - the trainees take part in projects that the company is leading. These are not mere exercises. The downside to this is that it is only available when the company is delivering projects or resident in the studio. The scope is broad - from workshops both here and abroad to performing in the recent 'CandoCo Dancers Project' at Greenwich Dance Agency, directed by Jasmine Vardimon. It requires a huge commitment from the trainees - we cover their expenses but we can not pay them until they become fully-fledged associates.

The development of the youth company - Cando2 - has created another training route within the company. Although much younger (currently, the group has members from nine through to 15 years old), they are just as determined as their older counterparts. Talking to Pippa Stock, who runs the group, it becomes apparent that more than one of these young people has indicated that they not only want her job but also to join the main company eventually. Through CandoCo, they have access to choreographers such as Doug Elkins, Jamie Watton and the team from STOMP!, all of whom have made pieces for them. It is also interesting that they see Cando2 as a stepping-stone to dance school - this generation already expects access to further and higher education and will be in a good position to demand it when they are ready.

Of the current main company, three members have taken slightly different routes but all have developed their skills and experience within the opportunities provided by the company.

Kate Marsh was invited to join the main company in May 2000. She has performed and taught with the company since then and can currently be seen in Javier de Frutos' 'Sour Milk'. Kate trained at Chichester Institute of Higher Ed between 1993-96 and gained a BA in Dance. She characterises her course as experimental and less focussed on traditional technical training.

'I never thought that a serious vocational training would be open to me and I wanted to be in a flexible environment so I chose to go to Chichester. I didn't want to be a guinea pig for an institution that waits until they get the students and then attempts to make changes. They should be prepared to make the changes and then welcome disabled students'.

Kate applied for an Arts Council Traineeship funded by the Dance Department and hosted by CandoCo in 1996.

'It was a bit of everything really. I learned to teach and I performed in pieces choreographed by Adam Benjamin and Janet Smith. I went abroad and assisted Adam on teaching projects in Senegal and Germany. I also did some administration and tour management. It was a full-time training programme for a year.

'I saw CandoCo as a real opportunity. Even just having CandoCo as a role model makes a difference. When I saw the company perform for the first time it made me realise that I could have a career as a professional dancer. I don't feel that I started a proper technical training until I started at CandoCo. I'm leaving the company later this year and I feel I have so much knowledge to share now. I have the skills to teach others and I want to continue to work in a mainstream environment. I want to improve access into HE and FE for students with disabilities who want to pursue a career in dance, just as I did.

'One of the most important things about the traineeship was how involved I was in it, in its shape and scope. It was also invaluable in terms of what has been required of me since joining the company as a performer. Wherever we are, whether it's on stage or teaching a workshop or just checking in at an airport abroad, we can't not be seen, not be noticed. It's impossible. That's a big pressure. The training protected me from that. I'd observed it all before and I knew what to expect.

'One thing I always get asked is if I had to audition for the company or did I get the job because I'm disabled. And I always reply that yes, I had a three year audition'.

If Kate had a three year audition, Welly O'Brien's started in 1994 when she participated in a workshop with Adam Benjamin, David Toole and Lea Parkinson at a rehabilitation centre in Brighton. She had just lost her leg in an accident and was encouraged by her physiotherapist to join the session.

The fact that she immediately went on to develop her own group at the centre does, in hindsight, hint at her subsequent success. It also underlines the point that all the trainees we work with have a fierce drive to succeed despite the difficulties in accessing training.

A year later, CandoCo returned to Brighton and Adam was so impressed he asked Welly to join him on teaching projects. She became our first 'official' unofficial trainee, working with Adam and the rest of the company, assisting at our International Summer School, performing in Adam's work 'Stare Cases' at the Royal Festival Hall and in Sue Smith's 'Tonic', as part of CandoCo's performance programme for small venues.

Six years later, Celeste asked Welly to join the main company and she can be seen in the current season of work by Fin Walker, Javier de Frutos and Jamie Watton.

'It was really good to start out as a participant. It meant I could take the time to find out what I liked, what I was good at, how it all worked. I spent a long time just observing, watching the company working, taking lots of notes, asking lots of questions! It was good to be able to just sit in a range of sessions, watching the company teach, how they structured a class. That time was so important.

'Having the opportunity to perform that early on was also amazing. When Sue Smith made 'Tonic', it was a very intense experience - there were just two of us in the piece, so Sue could spend a lot of time on class, on technique, and one-on-one tuition. That's very important when you haven't had any formal training.

'The traineeship was very sporadic even though each project I worked on was well structured. This suited me because I wasn't working and so didn't have to negotiate time off but it would have been very difficult if I had been. When I've talked to other trainees, it seems that can sometimes demotivate them - they want to give up because they don't feel its going anywhere fast enough for them.'

This is a fair point. We have always been very clear with trainees that any work they undertake with us is not an automatic route into a job performing with the main company but, in my experience, that is what most of them aspire to. But then, no dance student is guaranteed a job, so in that sense, it is a realistic indicator of what they are letting themselves in for if they choose a career in dance.

David Lock has been performing with CandoCo for 18 months. All David's dance training has been with the company and most of it on the job but his first experience of CandoCo was as a participant at the company's workshops and summer school.

'It takes a long time to take it all in, to feel ready. I'd love to be in a position to have gone to dance school or trained for professional work in the same way as my non-disabled peers at CandoCo. I really appreciated the training I got from people like Charlotte Derbyshire, Jon French and Sue Smith. To work for CandoCo, you have to really be able to think quickly and experience is absolutely necessary for that. People who have had formal dance training are better equipped to do it, its obvious really. That kind of training is not available to disabled students. For instance, I still wouldn't feel comfortable going along to a professional level class with other dancers outside of CandoCo.'

'All the extra time for training that is available to us is great. The teachers and choreographers who come in to work with us on a regular basis allow me to learn what my skills really are. If you train at a college, you find out those things during the course. We miss out on that whole chunk of experience. Training and working with CandoCo provided me with that.'

The future? Part of me wants to believe that more integrated courses at HE and FE level will negate the need for CandoCo to train its own dancers. Certainly, courses such as those at NewVIc in east London provide high quality training and will also provide the independent dance sector with trained disabled performers. Until that happens, we will carry on, hopefully finding a way to better resource the people we work with. The last couple of months have seen the company leading open professional level classes at Greenwich Dance Agency. These technique classes are taught by company members in an integrated way. It is not impossible. Earlier this week, Laban's Alysoun Tomkins complained to me that her students could not get into the CandoCo class at the new centre because it was packed with BA students: -

'Ten years ago, the BA students at Laban wouldn't have dreamed of signing up for an integrated technique class. Now they don't bat an eyelid. Attitudes have changed. Working in partnership with companies is the only way forward.' We could not agree more.

Dawn Prentice, administrative director, CandoCo, email or by visiting

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Animated: Spring 2003