At the moment I am curious about dance. This is because the last two projects I have been involved in have both included an integration of live music and dance. I have never been in the audience of a contemporary dance performance and so last night decided to put this right, by going to Salisbury Arts Centre in Wiltshire (www.salisburyartscentre.co.uk). I went to see ‘Artificial Things’ by the Stopgap dance company, non-disabled and disabled dancers together through collaborative work. I went with an open mind and open curiosity.
The first thing that struck me was that it was rather beautiful, the dancers looked beautiful, the space looked beautiful. What seemed so attractive was the intimacy of watching people move together, their bodies interweaving around each other. The setting of Salisbury Arts Centre, enhanced this beauty. The arts centre is based in a converted church, and a high roof space and stone pillars framed the performance. The seating was stacked at a high angle with around 80 people in the audience, but gave the illusion of intimacy. Being in this space gave the feeling that the dancers were dancing only for you, or looking only at you. The intimate feeling was rather like when someone sings a song only for you, its such a direct communication, that its hard to look them in the eye and keep intimate contact (well it is as a culturally British person). Being a novice audience member, I was also stuck by how silent the dancers were. They made no sounds, I am so used to seeing people perform and making sounds and music. These people only moved, and I couldn’t even hear their footsteps. The music used was pre-composed/recorded and filled the space, making full use of effects like panning. It had been written by three composers who specialise in dance music (Christopher Benstead, Jim Pinchen and Andy Higgs) often it seemed to involve the building up of textures and sounds which were reflected in the movements of the dancers. I wondered if the movements had come first or the music, it was difficult to know.
The second thing that stuck me was, ‘relationship through movement’. I am so used to seeing and hearing musicians express relationship through the interplay of sounds and movements (the movements that musicians make in playing and singing). However, in watching the dance, the movers expressed the interplay of relationships through-out all of their bodies and using the whole space of the floor stage. It reminding me of ‘The dance of wellbeing’ the title of the paper by psychologists Trevarthan and Malloch(2000) who describe the inherent musicality in the movements and sounds of the interaction between a baby and mother. What the dancers seemed to be tapping into was this expression, that is inherent in all of us, the dance of life between us, how we are together, how we dwell together, how we be together. They seemed to be communicating, that this is what is important, being together, being human, being in relationship. The dance seemed to strip back things that are unnecessary and communicate what is really at the heart of our beings, which is how we relate to ourselves and to others.
Stopgap is a dance company that integrates both able and disabled dancers. This meant that on stage there were a variety of body shapes and some were in wheelchairs. Laura Jones was one of the dancers in a wheelchair, her movements were so fluid and flowing incorporating the chair into the dance, so at times it looked like part of her body. The wheelchair in the performance seemed to represent freedom and ease of movement, rather than restriction and control. I have worked with many young people in wheelchairs, and have often perceived the chair as a difficult obstacle that represents the persons disability. Working in special needs schools, the chairs of children and young people have been heavy, or have parts which are not working, or are not technically up to date, often hindering the developmental progress and movement of the person using it. Here in the dance, was an example of someone embracing their chair, and it becoming part of being able to move with flexibility and freedom. Also dancing was Dave Toole, a remarkable dancer whose physical presence challenges conceptions of what a body should look like. He moved across the stage with such grace, and his facial expressions were so direct, I felt captivated and drawn into his world.
In our society we love to label people and put them into categories. The word disabled seems such a wrong label to use to describe these dancers. These people were able to communicate, to perform, to dance. I recently ran a music therapy group for people with learning disabilities. A large part of the work was dealing with how being treated as ‘disabled’ people in society had effected the group members (many had been in large institutions for most of their lives). Many of these people acted more disabled than they actually were. Over the years they had been treated like the ones in need, and had not been allowed to make choices for themselves, or reach their true potential. I felt that some of the group members had so much to give to society, and felt frustrated that the system of ‘disabled’ and ‘care staff’ put limits on people, and kept them in a role which they could never break out of. What was so inspiring about this dance performance, was it breaking this system down, and demonstrating to society that people with all kinds of disability labels have so much more to offer, and to give. If only we could get away from thinking that if someone has a disability that they need to be given to and have nothing to give.
This was my first experience of being in the audience at a dance performance and it was both inspiring and challenging. The roots of the stopgap company are based in community dance, and they were the first company in the UK to integrate dancers with learning disabled and non-disabled dancers. If you have the opportunity to see them I would highly recommend it, details of their forthcoming shows can be found at http://www.stopgap.uk.com
Trevarthen, C. and Malloch, S, N. (2000) The dance of wellbeing: defining the musical therapeutic effect. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, Vol 9 (2), pp, 3-17.