This years Xposure Festival celebrated the European Year of Disabled People with a commitment to "provide accessible entertainment, foster new work and support artistic development while changing cultures and challenging attitudes". With a focus on education and professional development, Xposure aims to "further the reputation of exciting, challenging and entertaining work and break the barrier of disability in the arts." by promoting high quality arts and developing skills among disabled artists.
Dance companies in this field come in a number of guises, incorporating: non-disabled choreographers making work for disabled dancers, disabled choreographers making/performing their own dance work individually or with other disabled or non-disabled performers and non-disabled practitioners using disability as choreographic stimulus. Each disability dance company has developed a different ethos and way of working suited to their context, needs and ambitions.
Many people are aware of the stigmatism, obstacles and barriers of society when it comes to disability arts. Since the early 1980's key figures, both disabled and non-disabled have been paving the way for increased involvement in the arts by disabled people and there have been significant shifts in policy to support this. We have reached a point where disability arts organisations are using their stronger voice more collectively and making a greater impact, where most arts providers and organisations are aware of disability as an issue and some are seriously making attempts to reach out to and work with disabled people through clear policies and a genuine concern for increased physical and attitudinal access.
Issues of access and entitlement are still key features of the debate but the question is what happens after these have been addressed?
Xposure's focus on education and professional development raised the key issues of quality and parity. The first dance piece of the festival, Anjali's aptly named 'WYSIWYG' (What you see is what you get), indicates that we should take the work at face value. A refreshing concept as it leads us to look at the work as a piece of dance rather than a piece of disability dance. It is a concept I try to hold on to through out the festival. The piece does not shy away from subject matter such as cross dressing, feminism and extreme individuality. In the same way that 'mainstream' dance is aiming to address political thought, social concern and personal experience, Anjali uses sophisticated choreographic concepts to explore strong characters - cheeky, glamorous and professional. They use straightforward humour that the whole audience can enjoy - non-issue based humour that completely disregards any allusion to the fact that the dancers are learning disabled, which is relaxing and engaging.
The festival provided an opportunity to look at how to develop constructive approaches to give feedback that will lead companies to go on and generate professionally competent and confident work. The 'Changing Perspectives' event at Sadler's Well's Lilian Baylis Theatre featured UK based dance individuals and companies (Corali, AMICI, Touchdown Dance, High Spin) for whom disability dance is key. In this platform of works in progress we were given a pencil and paper on entering the auditorium to jot down our thoughts, feelings and reactions to use in the post-show discussion.
A number of questions arose from these discussions:
- What is accessible to audiences (disabled and non-disabled)?
- What is accessible to the performers and choreographers (disabled and non disabled)?
- Is the focus of disability/integrated dance on the process and practice as opposed to the final choreographic product?
- How can a focus on process be linked to a mainstream concert tradition that focuses on the exact opposite - the end product?
- Can disability dance find a balance between process and product?
The overriding question encompassing all of the above seems to be whether these judgements are made and questions answered compared with other disabled dance performances or by comparing the Xposure performances with any other mainstream dance event. In order to answer these questions, perhaps it is time to consider quality issues about the art so that it can be assessed alongside other contemporary dance in order that disabled dance performers feel that their work can be judged fairly by supporters and non-supporters alike.
Does there need to be a separate set of criteria by which we give feedback that is disability specific? For example: mainstream dance is often associated with a particular kind of technical virtuosity and athleticism that didn't feature in the dance on show at this festival. However, the work was authentic, challenging, confrontational and socially conscious, in the same way that most mainstream choreography is.
Today, the definition of what makes a dance artist is constantly shifting and boundaries are constantly expanding and widening within the dance theatre/live art/physical theatre genres. In this context of contemporary performance, where dancers don't dance and non-dancers do, the thought, intent, process and medium by which work is made, is paramount. It is rare to find a contemporary company that does not seek to challenge, intimidate, astonish, confront or inspire. Concepts of 'different' or 'not aesthetically pleasing' have been challenged - 'ideal bodies' are no longer seen as ideal, with short, tall, fat, thin, really old and really young performers perceived to be, at least in some circles, as artistically valid - the parameters of what dance is and who can be a dancer are almost liquid.
Patricia Place, Manager of The Xposure Festival says: "Xposure is a real innovation. It's about throwing new perspectives on the world, being challenging and thought provoking, and that's what the arts are all about."
Within the 'Changing perspectives' platform, AMICI Dance Company, a larger and more explicitly confrontational company, explore the darker aspects of disability - the grievances and frustrations of living with physical disability. The duet performed by Bill Robins and Hayley Arthur and choreographed by Bill and Colm Gallagher explored the nature of integrated choreography. The non-disabled dancer does what she is told, and the disabled performer choreographs. However, taking in to account that it is a work-in-progress, the 'dance' movement does not yet make for great watching and despite a powerful concept, the choreography is weak...
Surely a critic cannot say that!
Is this the way it goes with professional feedback for disabled/integrated dance companies - the critics do not criticise, they support? Is this necessarily the right way to approach professional artistic development? Not even the most caustic of critics would want to be scathing or controversial, and the idea of condemning a company of dancers who are working for recognition and empowerment, is abhorrent, even when faced with the fact that in principle, although the process is respected and supported, the product does not quite work artistically.
Is it best for a critic to hide in the shadows and remain politically correct, or look towards the next issue - genuine, wholehearted audience enjoyment and creative professional development? What about constructive criticism of the artistic quality that allows companies to gain confidence in work that is of a higher professional standard?
The best dance work succeeds by bringing the audience out of itself - in teaching them something new or making them realise something about themselves. Perhaps a blind dancer might make a joke about being blind that would otherwise never have occurred to you, just as a non-disabled performer might use an abandoned warehouse to climb around in, in a way that you had never thought possible. This is not necessarily disability specific; just that which uses dance/performance work in a way that you stop being aware of the surface value and become aware of a new train of thought.
Blue Eyed Soul's piece 'I do...' is a choreographically sophisticated work about marriage encompassing longing, loneliness, human nature, everlasting love, reality, and the institution of marriage. These are themes that are important to everyone in the audience. Although poignant to people with disabilities, this is not dwelt upon or over developed. They are explored using visual imagery such as a man in a wedding dress, or a wheel chair user leaving the security of her chair at the first available moment - the stimulus of the visual or movement ideas create new possibilities.
With regards to the final product, we can see from the works showcased in the Xposure festival that the criteria for judging seems to be on a par with mainstream dance; cutting edge virtuosity, innovation, confrontation. What is also apparent is the process, which merely augments the works - the combination of heart, body and brain - the concentration and focus, poignancy, tenderness and a very definite ownership of the movement. For Ben Pierre, (learning disabled choreographer of HIGH SPIN), to choreograph and manage the creation of an entire dance piece is a truly fantastic achievement, even if not all of it works choreographically. But! Even if the choreography is not succinct, the value and importance of the process that empowers the dancers to "be who they want to be" cannot be stressed enough.
Although there are many questions raised, perhaps we must wait for the answers with baited breath. We must take heed of the fact that disability dance is challenging art and the world by challenging who can dance and in doing so, we recognise the worth of the process of disability dance. However, what we must strive to do is register the quality as well as the value in order that equality remains paramount - equality of access, of entitlement and of judgement.
Katie Phillips is Artist Development Assistant at The Place and a freelance dance writer. She can be contacted on KatiePhillips@starmail.com