The vexed question of disability-specific festivals

By David on July 5, 2018

What are the pros and cons of festivals that exclusively feature disabled artists? As we head into festival season, Bella Todd considers the relative merits of disability-specific arts festivals, from the perspective of international artists, programmers and funders.

Redo Ait Chitt & Jeroen van der Linden dance piece
Redo Ait Chitt & Jeroen van der Linden at DanceAble #2. Photograph: Sacha Grootjans

The topic of disability-specific arts festivals is as contentious as it is complex. Some see festivals that exclusively feature disabled artists as a necessary redress to ‘mainstream’ underrepresentation. Others think they reinforce division. Some welcome them as celebrations of diversity. Others think they homogenise and pigeonhole. Some hope such festivals will eventually do themselves out of business, while others resent their value being bound to impact on the ‘mainstream’. Platforms or ghettos? Safe spaces or prisons? If there’s one thing that unites people on the subject of disability-specific festivals, it’s the urgency and thoughtfulness of their responses.


When Ben Petit-Wade started Hijinx’s Unity Festival in 2008, it was all about being seen. “It was very difficult to get into ‘mainstream’ buildings,” recalls the artistic director of Hijinx, an inclusive theatre company that casts actors with and without learning disabilities. “So it was about giving companies like us more opportunity to put work on in these spaces”. A partnership with the Wales Millennium Centre gave the festival a high-profile location, and more recently it has branched into North Wales. It now attracts 20,000 visitors at each iteration.

Visibility is also a big driver for Martine van Dijk, director of outreach and education at Holland Dance. She programmes the inclusive dance festival, DanceAble, which held its second edition in Autumn 2017. “Visibility is important for two reasons,” she says. “People need to see the work to value it, and to understand that there is beauty and excellence. But it is also important in providing role models for other disabled people to see what is possible”. 

Van Dijk had planned to integrate the third edition of DanceAble within the main Holland Dance Festival. But she has decided to uphold DanceAble’s separate identity for the time being. “In an ideal world you don’t want the label,” she says. “But Holland is different to the UK – we have no tradition, it is very early days for us.”


Vesna Mackovic in building gear
Vesna Mackovic at the Watermill, New York. Photograph: Lovis Ostenrik

For Vesna Mackovic, a multi-disciplinary artist from Croatia, visibility is an illusion. “I escaped from it, I don’t want to be part of it,” she says of the inclusive scene in Croatia, where there are a small number of collectives focussed on artists with specific physical impairments. Mackovic made her dance debut with the Integrated Movement Research Collective. She thanks them for, “opening my mind to the fact I can dance, regardless of the amount of possible movement of my body”. But for her, there was nothing positive about taking the show to a disability-specific festival.

“Five countries, five days, big fantastic theatre space…” she says of her experience at Unlimited Access in Athens, 2015. “But the audience was 95 per cent friends and family. No one from the local dance scene, no TV reporters, no dance critics! I don’t find this inclusive, I call it a ghetto.”

Now Mackovic only performs in festivals without the inclusivity label. “I don’t have that many calls, but I like them because nobody puts a tag on my work,” she says. “Nobody promotes my disability. They say, ‘Vesna is an artist…’”


UK-based performance artist Noëmi Lakmaier, whose piece Cherophobia was staged at Sydney Opera House as part of the non-disability specific Antidote Festival last year, recalls feeling something similar.

“When I’d just finished my MA and I was 24 and I wanted to be a famous artist and win the Turner Prize, I was really like, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with disability arts’. All my tutors were discouraging, saying, ‘you’re just going to box yourself into this niche. It’s the worst thing you could ever do’.”

But in contrast to Croatia, the UK has a rich history of disability arts and activism. Gradually, Lakmaier got to know “the people and the politics – to understand that there is a cultural importance in having disability-specific events, that it’s not just some box-ticking exercise.” Cherophobia was originally funded by Unlimited and staged at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival.

“I still wonder, are we creating our own glass ceilings?” she considers. “On the other hand, where else does an artist have an opportunity to get almost £100,000 to realise a piece they’ve dreamt of for ten years? I feel sad for non-disabled artists that there isn’t anything similar to Unlimited for them. But then there’s always the danger that the mainstream will go, ‘They’ve got their own disability specific festivals, why should we bother?’ I think that’s a great risk actually. I tie myself in knots.”


James Leadbitter performs Ship of Fools
The Vacuum Cleaner’s Ship of Fools at No Limits Festival, Berlin, 2017. Photograph: Michelle Ettlin

Another UK artist ambivalent about the question is James Leadbitter, aka The Vacuum Cleaner. He performs at around 15 festivals a year – two or three of which are disability specific. For him, the way in which people are defined and categorised by the mental health system, and what he describes as the UK government’s “violent position on disability”, makes defining himself as a disabled artist feel deeply problematic.

Yet it is precisely the need for frank expression that leads Leadbitter to feel we need disability-specific festivals.

“For me, in the current times, it feels a necessity for disability arts to be confronting and resisting what’s happening. And I don’t think we can do that by just presenting a positive image of disability. A lot of disabled people are very angry and distressed. Having a disability-specific festival can provide a safe space for that to be experienced.”

The meeting of artists’ access needs, of course, also contributes to the sense of a safe space – and on the whole, Leadbitter finds disability-specific festivals better at anticipating, enquiring about and engaging with these.

The Vacuum Cleaner’s challenging output proves we shouldn’t make the mistake of equating a safe space with safe work. “In fact,” he says, “they are the exact opposite. But then there’s the question of, how can that anger – to use a generalised term – be socially useful? How can we transfer it out of the room?”


Press engagement can help do just that. But this relies on two things: journalists showing up, and journalists ‘getting it’. Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent, reckons it is still very difficult to get press for disability arts.

“Is mainstream press engagement a measure of Unlimited’s success? If it was, we would be doing appallingly! I think there is still fear [amongst ‘mainstream’ journalists] around ‘can I criticise, do I have the language right, am I going to be slated?’”

Critics may be more likely to attend non-disability-specific festivals. But is the criticism less clued-up? “You’re more likely to get clear ableist reviews of your work,” says Leadbitter. “I’ve had, ‘This person shouldn’t be making work, they’re a danger to themselves’, and I’ve also had ‘I want to give him a hug’.”

Lakmaier had an opportunity to observe the impact of a festival’s frame on critical response with the piece Undress/Redress. She staged it first in a disability-specific context, and then at In Between Time, Bristol’s festival of radical art and ideas. Original reviews focussed on the interplay between the disabled and the able bodies. At In Between Time, critics were more responsive to the currents of sexual power and violence.

Lakmaier doesn’t want her disability to be “the first thick layer smudged over everything, disguising some of the subtleties”. Disability may be a theme in her work, and thus a suitable topic for attendant press coverage – or it may not be. “But then, more political disabled artists might say that’s a mistake: that I’m missing an opportunity by being shown at an international arts festival and not talking about disability.”


Bondage Duell by Silke Schönfleisch and Dasniya Sommer
Bondage Duell by Silke Schönfleisch and Dasniya Sommer at Sophiensaele, 2017. Photograph: Brian Morrow

Is this dilemma amplified by a culture in which disabled artists are often only invited to respond to, and speak on, the subject of disability?

Berlin-based dance curator Anna Mülter believes disabled artists “should be as much a part of general programming as any artist” – but knows this is easier to achieve at some venues than others. At Tanzhaus NRW in Dusseldorf, she books disabled artists without fanfare or frame. Claire Cunningham is currently a resident artist. At the smaller Sophiensaele in Berlin, she has to be more strategic.

“We show 95% Berlin-based work, and we have very few disabled artists in Berlin. If visiting artists are invited into the programme without a frame, they will play to very few people. So, we have to create frames, to attract audiences and funding.”

But Sophiensaele’s ethos is rooted in intersectionality. Disabled artists are invited to participate in festivals with themes such as The Future is Feminist or Save Your Soul. “We include them, but not always for their perspective on disability. Disabled artists need to be included in all kinds of frames.”

For Nadja Dias, a dance producer who has worked with Candoco Dance Company and Claire Cunningham, artform specific festivals are key. “Candoco managed from the get-go to be programmed by ‘mainstream’ festivals,” she says. “But I think in the first years it was very much about novelty.” She is aware, she says, of  “something around the spectacle of disability – it’s a good selling point. But that’s rather sad.”

A turning point for Candoco came with their reworking of Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset as part of Dance Umbrella 2011. “That really brought the company to the forefront of conversations about dance. That’s why I think it’s important that work by disabled artists is programmed in artform-specific festivals. It challenges the arts, and the form, and then possibly brings discussions around disability forward, too.”


Why, then, do funders support disability-specific frames? “Good question,” says Abid Hussain, Director of Diversity at Arts Council England. “I’ve had this conversation again and again, whether you’re talking about Black History month or Refugee Week. As a policy maker, I think you can help create a sense of urgency and importance. We all increasingly work in a time-pressured environment. It’s about the power of the condensed moment.”

The Unlimited Festival is a fixed point in the calendar. People block out the time and attend with “a will to make things happen.” Thanks to social media, Hussain feels the buzz and the conversations generated by disability-specific festivals are increasingly far-reaching.  

The condensed moment also holds importance within the disability arts sector. Petit-Wade and van Dijk both value their festivals as meeting grounds: rare opportunities to see each other’s work, share practice, form partnerships and collaborations. The model for Hijinx’s training academies grew out of their friendship with Spanish company Danza Mobile – a connection formed and fostered through visiting each other’s festivals.


But Hussain is clear: disability-specific festivals must not be the only game in town. We need a multitude of platforms – ideally feeding each other. The purpose of Unlimited, Verrent concurs, is to raise the profile of disabled artists within the arts industry, so that more promoters and venues programme them as a matter of course.

“The one doesn’t exclude the other,” agrees van Dijk. Programming DanceAble has enabled her to improve her knowledge of the international disabled dance scene. This helps her recommend work to the main festival programmer. For the first time this year, the Holland Dance Festival featured inclusive work, by Stopgap Dance Company and Sweden’s Skånes Dansteater.

For Dias, it is about introducing disabled artists to gatekeepers who work artform-specifically. She cites Tanz! Heilbronn in Germany, which has programmed both Candoco and Claire Cunningham under non-disability-specific themes. Its programmer, “has been allowed to become a trusted friend to her audiences. Because of her, they will try something new.”

Hijinx, meanwhile, have now taken three shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, and played major puppetry festivals with Meet Fred, including a short run in mainstream venues in China. But they will still be pulling out all the stops for the tenth Unity Festival in 2019. “Each year, we assess whether there is still a need for this event that is a real monster for us to run” says Petit-Wade. “I think it’s getting closer to the point of having achieved what we set out to do.”

“You can’t tell if your intervention has worked if you’re still there,” says Verrent, asked about the future of Unlimited beyond 2020. But she has also been musing on an article for Disability Arts Online by Dr Nina Muehlemann, which called-out discussions of disability arts festivals for privileging their impact on the mainstream over their impact on disabled audiences.

“What Nina loved and valued about these festivals was the sense of community,” she says. This got Verrent thinking about the responsibility of local venues, as well as the role of the internet – the different ways in which people may access a sense of community.

“It just shows how we’re all so different,” she says, “and how hard it is to create a system and a structure that supports all of our needs – but how important it is to keep trying.”

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