In the latest of Disability Arts International's country profiles, UK-based disabled journalist and theatre-maker, Kate Lovell, explores the landscape of disability arts in Sweden, finding that there is much to learn from.

Group of people make music on tablets

Elefantöra ensemble perform as part of Bits & Pieces. Photograph: Tilo Stengel

In a country known for its proud history of and continuing appetite for innovation in technology, it is apt that this cultural feature of Sweden is also prominent in the nation’s disability arts scene.

Training and education

ShareMusic and Performing Arts are a frontrunner of the disability arts world in Sweden, pioneering on the creation of music technology for use by disabled musicians. Most recently, ShareMusic have been collaborating with Gageego! on a project called Bits & Pieces, which sits as part of a wider project called 'Digital technology in cross-border artistic processes', funded by both the Swedish Arts Council and a regional funding body.

CEO and artistic director of ShareMusic, Sophia Alexandersson, was a keynote speaker at the Inclusive Creativity symposium held in Dublin at the end of November 2018, sharing the company’s practice with other cultural leaders from across Europe. Of their practice, Alexandersson notes that, “ShareMusic & Performing Arts has a unique profile, not only in Sweden, but also in a global context. We are not a traditional company with a fixed ensemble, but rather a development platform where we explore new artistic expressions. We are for anyone interested in developing their skills, regardless of their background, training or profession.”

“We have initiated training programs to enhance opportunities for people who have experience but not formal training. In focus right now is a mentoring program with a special focus on supporting disabled people interested in creating art works professionally. We are currently in the transition of becoming a national knowledge centre for artistic development and inclusion which is very exciting.”

Alexandersson also acknowledges that the disability arts world in Sweden is “fairly small” and that during recent years, “advocacy has been an important part of our work.” Dance training at mainstream academies in Sweden remains tough to access for disabled performers. In the biography of wheelchair dancer Emilia Wärff, of Danskompaniet Spinn, it is stated frankly that: “Emilia has no formal dance training, seeing that as a wheelchair user she has not had access to the dance education available in Sweden.”

Group of people make music on tablets

Danskompaniet Spinn's 'Skirtpower'. Photograph: Chrisander Brun

Veera Suvalo Grimberg, artistic director of Danskompaniet Spinn, asserts that “the education is getting better. Stockholm University of Arts (DOCH) is offering a course called ‘Variations of Functions and Choreography’” which is aimed at disabled and non-disabled dancers. This initiative, says Grimberg, is “a good start for more inclusive thinking.” 

“The Cultural Schools (for children and young people up to 19 years) that exist all over Sweden are also more aware now and want to open up their courses for a wider group, they also educate the teachers to make the education more accessible.

Not that many private schools are accessible in their thinking, or the physical accessibility, but there are exceptions. Sometimes all you need is one student or one teacher to get the ball rolling.”

Grimberg was inspired to start Spinn in 2010 by the UK’s Candoco Dance, and believes that in the field of dance, disability entered the arena in Sweden just a decade ago:

“From almost nothing we have gone to awareness, curiosity and a more open attitude. Also, the official cultural planning in municipalities, regions and on the state level includes new words and talks about creativity and inclusive ways of working as important values. This paves the way to more disability-focused projects and activities.”

Funding

The Swedish Arts Council, the Kulturrådet, clearly has a role in the apparent upsurge in awareness and interest in inclusive practice that Grimberg describes.

Karin Westling, from the Kulturrådet, describes how “during the period of 2011-2016 we worked more closely with a few targets alongside the basic mission to support the culture sector with information and knowledge on how to work more accessibly and inclusively. These targets included requirements on regional cultural institutions which are receiving state funding:  they needed to establish action plans for their overall work with accessibility and inclusion, have accessible websites which include information on what services and accessibility the visitor can expect.

They also had to ensure that they would uphold a minimum level of law-enforced standard of accessibility in their buildings/venues. These targets have also been integrated as requirements to the state grants that all Swedish regions receive from us, as well as to certain other grants available for institutions, organisations, and ensembles. 

Since 2013 we also have initiated a formal consultation process with national NGOs of disabled persons. They give us input on the needs they see within the sector and on our strategic work, which of course is very important for us.”

Other strands of funding do exist, but none are disability arts specific at present. An intriguing funding innovation is key, as Westling explains that “a very important financier on a national level is Allmänna arvsfonden (the Swedish Inheritance Fund) which is a Swedish State fund, established in 1928.

When a person in Sweden dies without a written will and no living spouse or close family, his or her property is transferred to the fund; the fund also receives money from gifts and wills. The purpose of the fund is to support non-profit organisations and other voluntary associations to help improve conditions for children, young people and disabled persons. A lot of culture organisations and projects receive funding for projects directed specifically to, or by people with disabilities.”

Clearly an important potential source of funding for many disability arts organisations. Some companies, though, are eager to draw a line between disability and the arts. They want to ensure that the art is never eclipsed by impairment.

Key companies

In addition to ShareMusic and Performing Arts and Danskompaniet Spinn, there a several key companies working with disabled artists. Moomsteatern is a performing arts company committed to providing acting opportunities for learning disabled artists. They are based in Malmö and are one of three leading partners on the Crossing the Line Festival, launched in 2017, which connects learning disabled performing arts companies across Europe to share best practice and showcase their work on a high profile platform.

Actors sitting round a desk

Moomsteatern's 'MAKT'. Photograph: Bodil Johansson

What makes Moomsteatern stand out within the Swedish disability arts scene is their rigorous commitment to being led by their art form, rather than by the disability status of their actors. They have a strong focus on producing classical texts, from Strindberg to Shakespeare. Their belief is that to have learning disabled performers tackling these canonical texts is the most powerful way to smash any audience misconceptions as to the skills of learning disabled actors. Their upcoming show does allow the learning disability context to enter the frame: The Simple-Minded Murderer follows the story of Sven, a man who many in his community consider to be an ‘idiot’, and the life he is thrown into after his mother’s death. The show will premiere in Sweden in March 2019.

Skånes Dansteater, Sweden’s largest independent dance organisation, is also based in Malmö. Skånes has an unusual ownership model, in that is owned by Municipality of Skåne and The City of Malmö. As such, the organisation has a big focus on increasing participation and accessibility within contemporary dance in Sweden, whilst always striving for work of high artistic quality. It has its own venue in the Västra hamnen area of Malmö, but also tours productions nationally and internationally. Since 2011, the organisation has produced a programme of work opening up dance to disabled people, hosting the DansFunk (2012) and DansFunk 2.0 (2015) festivals with the aim of sparking a national debate on who has the right to be on stage, with an emphasis on increasing disability representation. This has led to disabled dancers being integrated into its repertory company on a regular basis since 2014. Skånes Dansteater is one of seven partners on the pan-European collaboration Europe Beyond Access, funded by Creative Europe, which aims to help disabled performing artists smash through the glass ceiling into the mainstream.  

Another key theatrical player is Sweden’s Tyst Teater, the National Silent Theatre. The company is led by Deaf CEO Mindy Drapsa, alongside UK-born artistic director Josette Bushell-Mingo. The company began life in 1970 in conjunction with a course at Västanvik Folk High School. In 1977, the Swedish government invited the Silent Theater's ensemble to become part of the National Theater. Tyst Theater’s influence on the arts scene has been significant, including the Theater Academy in Stockholm examining D/deaf students on their three-year acting programme who perform in Swedish sign language.

As well as being a professional theatre company for D/deaf performing artists, Tyst Theater are committed to touring performances in Swedish sign language to audiences both nationally and internationally, with a focus on bringing work to D/deaf children and young people.

Their work is overtly political and aims to create cultural and societal change. Their current production is called Hem (Home) and is based on the real stories of Deaf refugees in Sweden. This is a particularly urgent topic, as Spinn artistic director testifies that, like many European countries at present, whilst “many people believe in equal values, at the same time there are scary radical political opinions that wish to lower the rights of disabled people and other minorities in the society.”

Delving into another nation’s disability arts scene is an important chance to reflect upon the state of play in home territory. It feeds ideas and throws into sharp relief unexplored areas of potential progression.

Crossing the Line is an exemplary idea, brilliant in its simplicity of bringing together learning disability specific arts organisations from across Europe. Sweden bumps against similar problems to many others when trying to progress the arts, and rights, of disabled people.  There is, though, evidently much to learn from the Swedish disability arts scene: a disabled-led company resident in the national theatre is certainly one resoundingly clear benchmark to aspire to.