Starweek Magazine

Dance? Yes, they can!

- Susan Arcega -
Celeste Dandeker is a dancer–or was, because in 1999, she stopped. Age, she says, was catching up on her body (she’s now 49) and besides, she "needed to do one job, not two" and focus on her responsibilities as director. Suzanne Cowan is also a dancer–and still is, having joined the group last year after auditioning by video and upping sticks from New Zealand.

They are members of CandoCo, the company from Bristol, England which the British Council and the MCO Foundation are presenting in a unique dance showcase on July 26 (4 and 8 pm) at the AFP Theater in celebration of National Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Month.

CandoCo was founded by Dandeker and Adam Benjamin ten years ago. Since then, the performers have changed, but the remarkable ideology remains.

The multi-nationalism is ordinary enough. But less ordinary are Dandeker and Cowan, who both trained as dancers and then suffered accidents that confined them to wheelchairs. Andrew McLay is also in a wheelchair. Kate Marsh is minus one hand. Welly O’Brien’s balances celebrate the fact that she has one leg. Jurg Koch, Pedro Machado and Stine Nilsen–by contrast–are able-bodied, making CandoCo an "integrated" company.

Most notable is that CandoCo has always set out to be part of the mainstream, not for them a ghetto slot relying on specialist disability choreographers. Their present repertoire is by renowned New Yorker Doug Elkins and the Britain-based Venezuelan Javier de Frutos.

is typical Elkins, a zapper’s colorful paradise that chops from one movement to another–breakdance, capoeira, ballet–to a similarly pick‘n’mix soundtrack of The Beach Boys, David Byrne and Talking Heads.

De Frutos’ I Hastened Through My Death Scene to Catch Your Last Act forms a complete anti-thesis–very dark, with a lot of anxiety, longing and desire. The title is a quote from Sarah Bernhardt, who had a leg amputated near the end of her life. The inspiration comes from Tennessee Williams, on whose visceral elements the choreographer is currently focusing through a two-year fellowship. It is a story about a one-armed man Williams equates to Apollo; De Frutos made one of the able-bodied dancers experience being the broken Apollo.

All the choreographers they have worked with approach CandoCo as an artistic company that happens to have people of mixed ability, each being extraordinary in his own right. The model is not the able-bodied dancer but the dancer with individuality.

De Frutos, for instance, subjected them to what he calls "method dancing", believing that if a dancer’s brain is equipped with enough information his body language will follow. He made them read plays, scripts and poetry by Tennessee Williams, so much so that the group began thinking they’d joined a book circle instead of a dance group. Then he told them what imagery he wanted and asked them to explore their possibilities to the fullest; i.e., how far they could push their legs, etc. The dancers realized they could go much farther than they had imagined.

CandoCo, after all, is a story of imagination and of will winning over tragedy. Dandeker was with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre when in 1973, while performing a handspring, she overbalanced and broke her neck. First, she tried costume design. Then, the choreographer and filmmaker Darsan Singh Bhuller persuaded her to take part in a film he was making called The Fall, which got her thinking about performing again. Then she met Adam Benjamin, a painter and dancer who was interested in exploring dance as an activity for the diabled. He bullied Dandeker into joining him to organize workshops, from which CandoCo emerged.

Benjamin is now choreographing and teaching around the world, but continues to spread the attitudes developed by CandoCo. David Toole, who was born without legs and became the company’s best known performer, has gone on to appear in film and with DV8 Physical Theatre.

CandoCo devotes much of its energy to education–holding workshops and residencies for students and teachers all over the world. It says a lot about this education mission that CandoCo has been able to find enough disabled trained dancers to restock. Although they were not the first integrated dance company, they were the first to be so visible, so their example has inspired the formation of other companies worldwide. They have toured the Far East, America, Australia and just returned from their first trip to Russia.

They rehearse in their own purpose-built studio theater in the Association for Spinal Injury, Research, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (aspire) Training Centre in Middlesex. Able-bodied members of the local community are encouraged to use the center’s gym facilities–because apartheid is bad for everyone.

That is what CandoCo proclaim on their very public stage, which attracts not a segregated audience of the disabled and their relatives but one you would see for any good dance performance. They have made themselves a theatrical mirror of an ideal society, where being disabled doesn’t mean that you can’t be a conspicuous part of the colorful fabric of life.

Ticket and other inquiries about CandoCo’s concerts should be directed to the British Council at tel. 914-1011 or the MCO Foundation, tel. 818-1403.

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