Europe Beyond Access is a four-year pan-European project aimed at supporting disabled artists to break the glass ceilings of the contemporary theatre and dance sectors, initiated by a consortium of seven leading culture organisations and co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. As the project celebrates its first milestone event, an experimental skills-exchange laboratory followed by a public sharing on 16 February at Kampnagel in Hamburg, Joe Turnbull speaks to key project partners about this crucial intervention into Europe’s arts sector.

Group of disabled dancers in a workshop

An i-Dance workshop at Onassis Stegi. Photograph: V. Lainas

Although many of the partner organisations have been on even longer journeys with regards to working with disabled artists, the roots of Europe Beyond Access stretch back to 2012. The British Council, Onassis Stegi, Vo'Arte and Croatian Institute for Movement and Dance collaborated on Unlimited Access, an international initiative profiling disabled performing artists, which was funded by the EU Culture Programme.

Christos Carras Executive Director of Onassis Stegi, reflects on the significance of that project:

“Unlimited Access was really important for us as an institution and as individuals working within it. Being involved in a more structured and continuous way with disabled artists and within the framework of a network, helped us share knowledge, enthusiasm and best practice. It was a way to build something over a duration and develop a core group of practitioners and bringing communities together. Many of those are still with us today, working through the whole process. We’ve continued to work on access and with disabled artists throughout different areas of our programming but it’s important to have a continuity and trajectory for this work: from Unlimited Access bringing it centre stage as an issue; through i-Dance which is about training; and now with Europe Beyond Access which really is about mainstreaming.”

Joining Onassis Stegi and the British Council this time around are five new core partners: Kampnagel (Germany), Per Art (Serbia), Skånes Dansteater (Sweden), Holland Dance Festival (Netherlands) and Oriente Occidente (Italy). This consortium consists of varying types of organisation including festivals, major venues and producing companies, but they all share a long-term commitment to working with disabled practitioners and a desire to shake up the sector across Europe to make it more inclusive.

Group of learning disabled performers dancing

Per.Art, Little Party of Missed Dance (2016) photograph: Aleksandar Ramadanovic

“What’s exciting is this is artistic-led but also it follows up with access for audiences, building capacity and communicating to the wider sector,” enthuses Ben Evans, Head of Arts & Disability EU Region at the British Council. “Each partner is interested in the experimentation and innovation disabled artists bring to the artform. They want to improve the cultural ecosystem across Europe and have a much bigger debate about why cultural infrastructures devalue the work of disabled artists and continue to be inaccessible to disabled audiences. We are hugely indebted to Creative Europe for investing €2million to make this happen. But it’s really important to say that the partners are investing €2million of their own money – and it’s not coming out of education programmes or outreach money – it’s coming from core artistic programming funds.”

The creative driving force of Europe Beyond Access will be five ‘laboratories’ taking place across the four years, each hosted by a different partner. The laboratories bring together artists from different countries to share different cultural practices. They are not orientated towards tangible outcomes of work, but about genuine experimentation in order to push the wider debate within European disability arts to the next level. Each laboratory will confront an issue which all of the partners have agreed is pertinent. Kampnagel, Germany’s largest production centre for contemporary performing arts, hosted the first of these laboratories 11-16 February, in partnership with Serbia’s Per Art. The provocation is around dance history and how disabled artists have been erased from it, and is led by three learning-disabled artists.

“It’s important we launch the project with something difficult, innovative, questioning and experimental,” says Evans. “The project isn’t just about showing the best, it’s really about supporting transnational experimentation and collaboration.”

Saša Asentić is Artistic Director of Per Art, which has been working with learning-disabled performing artists for over two decades, despite a very challenging domestic political environment. Asentić believes having the first laboratory led by learning-disabled artists is hugely significant:

Group of artists sit around a table

Artists at the laboratory at Kampnagel. Photograph: Canal180

“I think it shows how serious all of the partners are with our aim to change the situation for disabled artists in the contemporary dance scene in Europe. The first laboratory addresses one of the biggest problems, which is the fact that learning-disabled artists are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in contemporary dance, but also in wider society. There are still many obstacles that prevent them making work, meeting their disabled and non-disabled colleagues from different contexts, learning about actual dance production, training and knowledge and presenting their work outside of their local environment.”

“All of this is due to the very rigid representational structures and ableist aesthetics and logic which dominate the contemporary dance world. Curators and critics lack knowledge about dance work by artists with learning disabilities, and have difficulties in articulating discourse around this innovative and progressive work because of both professional and social prejudice. This laboratory gives voice to dance artists with learning disabilities to develop language about their work, and creates space in which project partners, curators, fellow artists and visitors are able to learn about and from these artists and their unique aesthetics.”

For its part, host partner Kampnagel have taken the bold step of programming the Europe Beyond Access activities within the context of Fokus Tanz, its annual contemporary dance festival, rather than relegating them to the fringes. This year’s edition, entitled BOYS * BOYS * BOYS * interrogates white, male normative privilege in contemporary dance. Amelie Deuflhard, Kampnagel’s Artistic Director sees the concerns of Europe Beyond Access fitting into the organisation’s broader approach.

“Kampnagel works artistically and discursively on various topics against social exclusion – sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Kampnagel hopes to overcome categories of merely social concerns and embark both its audience and cultural institutions throughout Germany on an aesthetic inclusion offensive. Especially in dance, it is indispensable to promote the discourse around dancers' bodies that breaks with the established norms and to create research spaces for a lively exchange.”

The programme will include five different productions led by disabled practitioners. “Two of the five artists are explicitly working with physical and learning disability,” explains Melanie Zimmermann Dance Curator at Kampnagel. “The other three are more working on a redefinition of gender, national and aesthetic norms which is fundamental to the discourse about disability and access.”

Besides performances there is also an audio-description workshop and a roundtable on inclusion in theatre. All of which has been integrated into the broader themes of the week. Zimmermann expands:

Four dancers sit legs apart, heads thrown back

Michael Turinsky's My Body Your Pleasure. Photograph courtesy of the artist

“Europe Beyond Access was definitely an inspiration for the programme, but we did not want to focus on inclusion explicitly. Fokus Tanz is now in its fifth edition and it generally aims to open dance to a wider mainstream public, attempting to dismantle the barriers for those who fear that it is not understandable. Inclusive dance productions confront political matters of our time in a very interesting way and therefore represent a kind of avant-garde position. In the coming seasons, our curational work will be nourished by this approach, both on stage and in a critical analysis of how we produce art at Kampnagel. The partners’ exchange within the network about obstacles and strategies concerning inclusion in the performing arts sector is substantial for our own practice. But this is only the beginning. In the coming 3.5 years, we are planning a more structural implementation of mechanisms which respond to the variety of demands of our disabled audiences, artists and colleagues.”

Evidently, each of the partners is keen to effect institutional change within their own organisations and networks. But Europe Beyond Access has much bigger ambitions than that. “It’s also about transforming how we see the art,” reflects Onassis Stegi’s Head of Educational Programmes, Myrto Lavda, “This work offers new aesthetics and new modes which are just as valuable as any other practice – fundamentally challenging what contemporary performance is, and who it is for.”

“At the end of 4 years, we feel we need to have contributed to creating a market for disabled artists,” explains Evans of the British Council. “That means challenging perceptions around the quality of disabled artists. It means expanding knowledge and skills of the art sector in general in Europe, so that more people feel confident booking, commissioning and working with disabled artists.”

To help with maximising the impact, Europe Beyond Access has a series of ‘dissemination partners’ which are some of the largest arts professional networks in the continent, including: IETM, the International Network for contemporary performing arts; ISPA, a global network of more than 500 performing arts leaders; EEPAP, East European Performing Arts Platform; ONDA, the French office for contemporary performing arts circulation; Acesso Cultura, Portugal’s national organisation widening access to culture, Instytut Teatralny, Polish Theatre Institute; IMiT, Polish Institute of Music and Dance; and, EUCREA, an organisation supporting disabled artists in the German-speaking area. These partners will share the project’s tools and strategies far and wide.

“Yes, this is a vital four-year project that will see wonderful work by artists and see careers developed,” says Evans. “But it is also an intervention into a European cultural environment which currently excludes disabled artists and also does a disservice to audiences by not presenting some of this radical, experimental and excellent work.”