Why we need more disabled choreographers

By Disability Arts International on November 14, 2019

Co-founder of Candoco Dance Company (the first professional company for disabled and non-disabled dancers), Adam Benjamin co-led the third Europe Beyond Access artist laboratory in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Hosted by Holland Dance Festival, the lab provided artists from across Europe the opportunity to collaborate, create duets and group work, and develop their own choreographic voices.

Workshop leader Adam Benjamin in the studio
Workshop leader Adam Benjamin in the studio

With every workshop or lab I guide, there is this moment where I feel blessed I can do this work. A moment where I find myself dancing joyfully with other people. Where the space feels open and the dancers are equal. Such a moment came yesterday, quite by surprise, on the first day of the Artistic Lab in Maastricht, organised by Holland Dance Festival. I realised once again: dance can connect people in extraordinary ways.

One lab, six languages
The Artistic Lab started with a seemingly impossible challenge: a very diverse, international group with six nationalities who spoke no English. It felt really difficult for a while: how on earth is this going to work? How are we going to communicate? How can I keep everyone sane? Then we started moving and in a matter of minutes I was looking at a group that was in complete harmony with one another.

Suddenly only one language remained. A language that everyone understood: dance.

The right environment
Naturally, in this international group, it was essential to keep communication as simple as possible: showing instead of speaking and pointing towards good practice when I see it in the group. But mostly, it was about creating a safe environment where all of these different people, with their own language and physicality, felt free to start their choreographic exploration. A place where people feel sufficiently relaxed, so that creative challenge can be welcomed.

Sparking dancers’ creativity
True creativity lies in those moments where dancers surprise me. Where something comes up that I just wasn’t expecting. Something that makes me see the world in a different way. But creativity can’t be controlled or forced; on the contrary, it arises when you do less. It’s about knowing what not to do, what not to say, knowing how to step back and learning to give your dancers space.

If you give too many instructions, these can just get in the way and you’ll just see dancers trying to please the choreographer. But why would I want someone to move, exactly how they’ve been told? What is so special about me, that I want other people to move exactly like me? My interest doesn’t lie in this hidden form of control; I don’t want people copying me. Instead I’m interested in what the diversity of my dancers brings to the table. That’s why I watch dancers during their coffee breaks. These are the best opportunities to see people do the craziest things! They are not trying too hard, they are just messing around.

If you can create that same playful elasticity in your studio space, you will see your dancers grow tremendously. Dancers can have all the training and technique in the world, but in my eyes the true magic happens when they are in touch with their creativity.

Choreography: product vs. methodology
We tend to think of choreography as the creation of a product, an end result, that people ‘buy’ in theatres, watch and throw away. Although, as a maker, I am obviously concerned about the result I am presenting, I am equally concerned about the time I spend with people making that product. In this way choreography becomes a methodology. I want to justify my product, by treating the dancers in a way that makes them feel happy, relaxed and creative.

I want to work with them because I value their creativity, not for them to just perform my ideas.

Consequently, even if the product isn’t appreciated by the public in the end, the time you have spent together – and that can be a long time – was valuable and productive. This joy, connection and creativity can also spread into the world through the practice of those dancers you have worked with.

Shaping an inclusive culture
Historically, the role of a choreographer was one of power and sometimes of enablement. But if that rests solely in the hands of non-disabled artists, we are not moving forward. It’s not enough to have inclusive companies, whose work is always made by non-disabled people. In the UK there are lots of examples now of disabled choreographers who are making wonderful work. And it’s important that this emphasis begins to spread. Initiatives like the Artistic Lab give more people the tools to shape their own future.”

Adam Benjamin
Choreographer, improviser and movement artist

Article first published on holland-dance.com

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