Unlimited: Making the Right Moves was a six-year programme run by the British Council, in partnership with Candoco Dance Company across Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. It included a series of performances, workshops and research aimed at shifting perceptions of disability within the arts and beyond. British Council Ukraine’s Iľja Rákoš shares some highlights of the programme.
In 2013, UK-based Candoco Dance Company spearheaded a new movement in inclusivity in the arts in the post-Soviet space. They did it with a ground-breaking performance in Yerevan, Armenia supported by the British Council involving both disabled and non-disabled people. As interest grew, a programme developed out of this initial event, aiming to encourage the development of public policy addressing inclusivity in the arts and, vitally, to confront commonly-held misperceptions about disabled people. We called the programme Unlimited: Making the Right Moves and now, with audiences in the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine having witnessed visually and emotionally stunning performances by those involved, we are optimistic that change once thought impossible has begun.
Yes, I am deaf, but I sing. Deaf people can dance. The worst thing you can do is stop, sit at home and lock yourself in your deafness.– Vusala Babayeva, participant from Azerbaijan
In implementing the programme, the British Council mixed educational events, research and consultancy, and crucial support for professional productions in disability performing arts. As one example, the Unlimited Laboratory held in Kyiv in January 2018 brought together professional performers and disabled people from around the country. The group then continued to meet, working together from the following February to May on professional techniques across a range of disciplines in the performance arts including theatre, dance and physical improvisation. Artists from Candoco Dance Company worked with Marina Lymar, a Ukrainian disabled-arts activist and performer.
In the post-Soviet space, disabled people are still trying to be inconspicuous in order not to inconvenience anyone by their existence. It’s as if they need to apologise for taking up space. But here on the stage everything comes into harmony, and you understand: I have come, this is my place, I’ve claimed it and I won’t give it away to anyone.– Marina Lymar, Ukraine
What has this meant in practice for the countries involved? In Armenia, disabled performers have begun to work in the theatre, in positions previously closed to them. The nation’s first inclusive dance group was created and is staging performances in collaboration with the professional Small Theatre. In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation (an analogue of Arts Council England), with consultancy support from the British Council, has launched an inclusivity arts grant programme. In Azerbaijan, inclusive theatre techniques are now empowering core changes in the disability arts scene. And in Georgia, national policy-makers have begun shaping an inclusivity module for the Georgian National Culture 2025 Strategy.
Independent UK-based programme evaluator Juliet Schofield has validated these seminal effects of the programme on official public policy but makes particular note of its personal impact on the lives of the performers, writing: not unsurprisingly, the most immediate and profound impact … has been at the individual level, i.e. among those who participated in Candoco dance labs and interactive theatre workshops, regardless of whether the participant was disabled or non-disabled. First and foremost, there was an impact on the emotional/psychological level, with participants indicating they experienced emotional transformation thanks to Candoco’s method.
Armenian actor Mher Zalinyan from the Small Theatre agrees, citing the work done by the British Council and Candoco as the key that unlocked the door to theatre and to life:
I have a disability–cerebral palsy—and I am an open person, on stage I feel confident and inspired. But it was not always so. Now, the theatre has changed my life…and inclusive theatre is changing the lives of the audience. They leave the hall after the show with completely new attitudes about what is possible.
In 2019, Candoco worked together with artists from the UK’s Lost Dog dance company and a troupe of ten disabled and non-disabled artists assembled from the four programme nations to develop and produce a wholly original dance performance, The Argonauts. The 20-minute production re-examined the ancient Greek myth of Jason and Medea with words, music and movement, addressing how we build our sense of individual and collective identity through the telling and re-telling of stories. The show was developed in a series of workshops over four months in Kyiv, Ukraine and staged its debut in Tbilisi, Georgia during the UK/Georgia 2019: New Horizons festival in September. Following the Tbilisi performance, The Argonauts moved on to national festival circuits, appearing in September in Baku, Azerbaijan at the Nasimi National Festival and in October in Yerevan, Armenia at the HighFest International Performing Arts Festival.
Much work remains to be done in the realm of inclusive arts, and on inclusivity in general, in this part of the world, but Unlimited: Making the Right Moves has made a good beginning. It has made a strong case for local governments to invest in disability arts, spurring interest in the necessary development of disabled-led arts. Yet needs remain: to address insufficient, outdated architecture and infrastructure; to provide access and education for disabled people throughout each of the countries, not limiting opportunities to the main cities; to foster cultural and social acceptance of the valuable contribution of disabled people, leading to sustainable opportunities and, importantly, altered perceptions of disability among both disabled and non-disabled people. Unlimited: Making the Right Moves was about more than just the arts. It was about people among us who happen to be disabled, about their lives, their dreams, and their invaluable contribution.
– Viktoria Kliushyna, participant from Ukraine (a wheelchair user with no previous dance experience)
“In the Unlimited project I was introduced to myself, expressing myself through movement. Words are not enough to express the emotional and physical contentment and the happiness that resulted from this. Our mentors drew something unexpected out of us. It was like an explosion of artistic creativity and warmth.”
Lost Dog is the multi-award winning dance theatre company headed by Olivier Award-nominated director/choreographer Ben Duke. The company works with text, live music and movement and blends these elements to create work in which dance is framed by stories and characters.“We began with an idea and we continue to wrestle with it, to say what needs to be said and dance the rest.”.
Candoco Dance Company is a company of disabled and non-disabled dancers. They create excellent and profound experiences for audiences and participants that excite, change and broaden perceptions of art and ability, that are bold and unpredictable, and place people and collaboration at the heart. They commission productions, created by world-class choreographers for national and international touring and deliver an extensive learning and development programme to provide broad access to the highest quality of dance.
UvіMknenі is an independent art community of young Ukrainian performers, formed in Ukraine within 2011 – 2014 and led by Maryna Lymar, performer and art-director. The community’s artistic interests are physical theatre, contemporary performing practices and improvisation.