Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT), produced the Pathways to the Profession Symposium which took place in Dundee, Scotland between 19-20 January. Jo Verrent airs her views on what was learnt.
At the end of last week a rather strange event happened. Not quite the ‘conference to end all conferences’ as hoped for by keynote Jenny Sealey but the most progressive, honest and evidenced one I’ve been at, to date.
Pathways to the Profession was born out of the unlikely alliance between a mainstream dance company, Scottish Dance Theatre, and a disabled dancer, Caroline Bowdich. The journey they have been on for the past four years through Caroline’s role as Dance Agent for Change has raised questions and seen impact through out the dance sector in Scotland and far, far beyond.
This event, organized by Scottish Dance Theatre and developed through partnerships with Creative Scotland, Dundee Rep, Federation of Scottish Theatre, Glasgow Life and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – put the key question of just how can disabled people gain access to all of the myriad pathways into the dance and drama worlds.
This is not the prerogative of experts
Janet Smith and Caroline Bowditch opened by asking ‘What do we stand to lose or gain by diversifying the profession?’ – forcing us all to check our vested interests and assumptions. They explored their relationship and exposed their realisations concluding ‘this is not the prerogative of experts’ – we all, whatever our roles, our backgrounds and our positions, have a part to play in creating solutions.
Jenny Sealey passionately described her own pathway – of ‘following the one in front’ until she was suddenly out there on her own. She tackled the much asked question of excellence saying ‘our definition of excellence is rooted in our uniqueness’ and then evidencing it exquisitely by opening up her rehearsal process with actors from Dundee Rep and Graeae, showing us the additional dramatic layers that become available when given the gift of working with disabled performers.
She recognised that at present, ‘the dance world and the theatre world are gated communities for which we do not have the key’. And that to change this requires a shift in mindset – in all of us.
Those with power, those with influence
So who was there? Only two kinds of people, according to Robert Softley Gale in a panel discussion – those with power, and those who can influence those with power. He was right. The old divides around who is disabled and who is not seemed to just fall away. All our lives are diminished without equality, not just those of disabled people. We heard again and again non-disabled dancers, non-disabled students talking about the immense benefit to their practice from having disabled colleagues and students within their teams.
Two highlights for me both fell on the morning of the second day: Firstly a keynote by Jürg Koch, who has worked with Candoco and many other companies and is now based at the University of Washington.
He spoke ‘of Ghettos and Ivory Towers’ in a beautifully crafted presentation that illustrated the very concepts he was exploring. He explained how the study of dance (and particularly its studio practice) can be redesigned by using the recognized principles of Universal Design. How the resulting model can include everyone and simultaneously benefit from that inclusion.
The emphasis in accessible dance training is on the individual. Alongside individual study of specific forms, such as hip hop, wheelchair ballet or kathak, this formulation will also include the studying of joint technique classes within the program in an accessible way.
The emphasis is on the individuals own movement range and potential, rather than simply on a technical list of movement content to be replicated. Fascinating and practical in equal measure. And truly accessible to all.
A disabled dancer can’t cover for a non-disabled dancer in rep. Can they?
My other highlight was a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment delivered with Scottish Dance Theatre’s usual modesty as a tiny segment of the day but containing for me evidence of explosive potential.
Janet Smith just doesn’t stop when she comes to a perceived assumption – she instead tests it and prods it and generally puts it under a microscope. So ‘surely a disabled dancer can’t cover for a non-disabled dancer’ becomes what would happen if Caroline covered for an SDT dancer in a piece of their repertoire and a studio is booked. We saw – on split screen – an original duet choreographed by Joan Clevillé for the company, and also Caroline within that duet replacing one of the dancers.
The pieces weren’t the same – of course not. Caroline is small and uses a wheelchair and the other dancer isn’t and doesn’t. But there would have been differences in whoever had taken on the role – size, stature, strength, presence. This is simply an extension, and all involved commented on how surprisingly easy it had been once they had begun.
Joan was asked which piece he preferred. ‘How can you choose?’ he replied. ‘Which do you prefer, your mother or your father?’
Joining the dots to many destinations
With great creative chairing from Mat Fraser, panel chairing from Maggie Kinloch, vice principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (or ‘evolv-a-toire’ as she is thinking of calling it), Joyce McMillan (theatre critic for the Scotsman) and Luke Pell (Head of Learning and Development for Candoco), performances from Claire Cunningham, StopGAP, David Toole and Lucy Hind, Caro Parker, Sarah Caltieri, Sally Clay and Abnormally Funny People and a shed load of other fascinating people on panels, presenting in breakouts and even in sessions held within the breaks, the two days felt like a week.
But it felt like we are all moving in the same direction at last, and not only focusing on one destination. We want it all and can creatively contribute to all. This isn’t a battle for access, its about a critical contribution to culture. The main barrier has been identified – attitudes. The main solution too – inspiration.
And as Robert Softley Gale put it so succinctly, if people don’t sit up, take notice and join in then they will simply be left behind. And don’t say we didn’t warn you.