A company of disabled and non-disabled dancers, Candoco was never going to settle for sideshow status: it was main billing or nothing. And now, they’re players on the world stage.
In 1973, during a performance by London Contemporary Dance Theatre, a young dancer fell and broke her neck, leaving her partially paralysed and unable to dance again — or so she thought at the time. But in 1990, Celeste Dandeker was persuaded to dance, in her wheelchair, for a short film called The Fall, by choreographer and film-maker Darshan Singh Bhuller. Soon afterwards, she met Adam Benjamin, a painter and dancer interested in working with mixed groups of disabled and non-disabled dancers. In 1991, Dandeker and Benjamin founded Candoco, which went on to become a pioneer in the field of “integrated” dance.
The company may have been unusual, but Candoco’s goals were the same as any other’s: to create good quality work and engage audiences. With that in mind, Candoco developed in two directions. First, it began to invite acclaimed choreographers (including Siobhan Davies, Javier De Frutos and Stephen Petronio) to create its repertory. Second, it focused on developing training and performance opportunities for disabled dancers, through apprenticeships, courses, workshops and a youth dance group.
Benjamin left the company in 1998 and Dandeker stopped dancing in 1999, but she continued as artistic director and the company survived the upheaval. Performers have come and gone, but Candoco’s ideals remain steadfastly the same. Dandeker finally retired in 2007, and Candoco is now jointly led by two former dancers, Stine Nilsen and Pedro Machado.
If early Candoco works sometimes seemed tentative, even timid, the company and its choreographers soon gained assurance, relishing the opportunity to tackle challenging or taboo subjects — sexuality, power, anger, humour. They also became confident in leading audiences rather than chasing them.
Candoco’s pieces are, by necessity, tailored very closely to the performers; dancers and choreographers have to adapt to each other’s visions and capabilities — and, typically, stretch them too. This means that you can never quite predict how a Candoco piece will turn out: past performance is not an indicator of future results. Seeing the outcome of this process is one of the particular fascinations of watching a Candoco piece.
Despite being born without legs, David Toole has become the best known dancer to have emerged from Candoco; he went on to perform with DV8 Physical Theatre and appeared in Sally Potter’s film The Tango Lesson. Welly O’Brien is another of the company’s top dancers.
Candoco was once watched live by an audience of 91,000 people. It was part of the official handover of the Olympic torch from Beijing to London, alongside dancers from the Royal Ballet and Zoo Nation. Add in the worldwide television audience, and the number of viewers came to about 1.5bn.
In their own words
“I was particularly aware that we could be seen as ‘doing dance therapy’ or ‘disabled dancing’. I was just not interested in either of those things.” – Celeste Dandeker, Animated, 2007
“Dance naturally breaks down our defences — you have to allow people to touch and watch your body. It crosses barriers all the time, so it is a natural way of exploring ideas of integration in relation to disability.” – Celeste Dandeker, interview in the Independent, 1999
“I am proud of that work. It was not ‘nicey’ disabled dancing, it was hard-edged and wasn’t what you expected from a disabled dance group.” – David Toole, Animated, 2002
In other words
“[Candoco] presents dance-makers with a set of challenges which, as often as not, inspires them to tear up the rule book and create from scratch.” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2007
“We’re not asked to make allowances … Nor, crucially, are we asked to ignore the differences.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2006
“Together, these dancers and choreographers take us all out of our comfort zones.”
“Didn’t they do well?”
DV8 Physical Theatre’s Cost of Living
Graeae Theatre Company
Amici Dance Company
Now watch this
Interviews with the directors, dancers and choreographers from the past three years:
Current season (pieces by Hofesh Shechter and Nigel Charnock)
2007-8 season (works by Rafael Bonachela and Arthur Pita)
2005-6 season (works by Fin Walker and Athina Vahla)
Where to see them next
See the Candoco websitefor performance dates.