Whether in a wheelchair, on crutches or without any disability at all, performers from the Candoco company are giving London audiences a fresh twist on contemporary dance.
“It makes you very aware of your own body, as well as others, and how extraordinary that can be on the stage,” said David Clarke, a London silversmith who has come to Sadler’s Wells theatre for a double bill.
The first performance explores the individual style of the seven Candoco dancers, while the second wittily examines prejudices and physical differences.
“When you see movements with missing limbs, or shortened limbs, it makes you aware of how incredible the body is,” added Clarke.
Candoco was founded in 1991 by Celeste Dandeker, who wanted to focus on the artistic aspect of dance rather than the disabilities of some of the company’s performers.
Dandeker, herself a dancer, was left paralysed and using a wheelchair in 1973 after a fall during a performance.
“I didn’t think I could dance again. Things were so different back in those days, you really rarely saw people in a wheelchair outside, in shops or places of work,” she said.
In creating Candoco, Dandeker was determined to avoid a “patronising” company for disabled dancers.
“I wanted the company to be excellent dancers, I wanted the work we did to be excellent, exciting,” she said.
More than 25 years since its creation, Candoco has become renowned for contemporary dance rather than the disabilities of some of its members.
Along with performances in Britain, the troupe will also be performing in Croatia, France, Germany and the United States over the coming months.
The company has worked with some of the industry’s leading choreographers, including American Stephen Petronio, Venezuelan Javier de Frutos and Rachid Ouramdane from France.
Dandeker has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth II, who awarded her the Order of the British Empire (OBE) title in 2007.
She has now stepped aside from the company’s daily running, but the dancers are staying true to Candoco’s founding aims.
“The diversity of our physicalities is how we make something new,” said Joel Brown, a wheelchair user who is one of the group’s four disabled dancers.
He was paralysed from the chest down after a car crash at the age of nine and, as a result, finds it hard to keep his balance without the use of his stomach muscles.
“It makes a big difference; if I put my arm in front of me, I will fall,” he said.
“It affects my movements, but it’s also what shapes my aesthetics.”
Ben Wright, named artistic co-director in January, joined Candoco after a 30-year career including choreography credits at London’s Royal Opera House and the Washington National Opera.
“I feel like I’m having to unpick everything that I took for granted, everything I am beginning to kind of question,” he said, of his new role, describing it as an “enriching experience”.
“I think what the company does is really challenge perceptions of ability and disability.”
Despite the company’s success, French dancer Laura Patay is frustrated that disabled people are rarely visible in the cultural sphere.
“There’s been some progress, of course, but there is still a long way to go,” said Patay, who was born without the lower half of her left arm.
Trained in Lyon, France, Patay remembers always being the only disabled student and instead wants dance schools to be open to everyone.
“Dance progresses, but it remains highly codified by classical dance, by the image of the perfect body,” she said.