Dance across borders

From Set and Reset/Reset

The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has always aimed to build an audience for contemporary dance in the UAE – “giving exposure to world class companies, providing training for local artists, and opening the doors for larger conversations through the art form,” as The Arts Center’s Bill Bragin puts it. Every year the Center’s schedule finds space for dance, and it’s always an interesting pick – highlights have included Aparna Ramaswamy back in 2015 and Ragamala in 2018, 2016’s dabke/hiphop mashup Badke, epoch-marking contemporary American dance with visits from the Trisha Brown Dance Company in 2017 and Lucinda Childs the following year, Aakash Odera’s company in 2018 and his solo pieces in February this year, CNDC and Camille A Brown in 2019 …

That’s already an impressive collection. The Arts Center should be able to maintain the impetus via a new partnership with Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels, a specialised sponsorship arm of the luxury goods company that will be contributing to four visits by dance companies to Abu Dhabi this year.

Van Cleef & Arpels actually has a century-long history of supporting dance one way or another, so there seems to be a natural synergy here. Serge Laurent, Director of the Dance and Culture Programme at Van Cleef & Arpels, noted The Arts Center’s role in the promotion of contemporary dance in the UAE and said “it is through such prestigious partnerships that we are able to contribute to the development of choreographic art on an international scale and to share the culture of the Maison Van Cleef & Arpels with as many people as possible”. Obviously there’s a calculated element of branding here, but the company’s Dance Reflections involvements have been many and beneficial.

The first fruits of the partnership come this weekend with a performance by Candoco Dance Company from London. The first thing to say about Candoco is that the company has a mix of abled and disabled performances; the second is that this really doesn’t matter – or rather, that the presence of dancers with different ways of moving adds significantly to the dancing.

From Set and Reset/Reset

Candoco was founded in 1991 by Celeste Dandeker and Adam Benjamin. Dandeker had been a promising young dancer until a misjudged move on stage in the 1970s left her partially paralysed; unable to dance conventionally, she went on to study costume design and subsequently designed for many dance productions. Her involvement in a one-off TV film required her to dance from her wheelchair, and that in turn led to an invitation from Benjamin to teach dance to people with disabilities.

Those classes developed into Candoco, which went on to become a pioneer in the field of ‘integrated’ dance – though right from the start Dandeker and Benjamin were determined that Candoco wouldn’t be asking the audiences to make allowances for the presence of wheelchairs, prosthetics and sign language. Crucially, though, the audience is not asked to ignore the differences either.

As Dandeker put it: “I was particularly aware that we could be seen as ‘doing dance therapy’ or ‘disabled dancing’. I was just not interested in either of those things”. And later she pointed to the way dance naturally breaks down our defences — “you have to allow people to touch and watch your body. It crosses barriers all the time, so it is a natural way of exploring ideas of integration in relation to disability”.

By all accounts it took a few tries before Candoco hit its stride. As the Guardian’s Sanjoy Roy noted a few years ago: “if early Candoco works sometimes seemed tentative, even timid, the company and its choreographers soon gained assurance, relishing the opportunity to tackle challenging or taboo subjects — sexuality, power, anger, humour. They also became confident in leading audiences rather than chasing them.”

Equally important, it’s clear that choreographers have come to relish the chance to work with Candoco, to find the opportunities in the particular skills of the company’s dancers. “There is obviously something amazingly stimulating for a choreographer to work with different types of people, bodies and lived experience,” said Candoco’s Artistic Director Charlotte Darbyshire (right). “We have found that many of the very best choreographers are attracted to the challenges as much as the opportunities when working with Candoco. We pride ourselves on offering them an intelligent skilled arena to interrogate their choreographic ideas thoroughly. Often a choreographer can create work which surprises even them and very often makers are keen to return to work with us again.

“Ultimately the joy of Candoco remains the fact that we are a genuinely integrated company and a company which rarely stands still, evolving on a regular basis in terms of our dancers and the potential they offer to a choreographer.

“From the start Candoco wanted to be seen in the mainstream by making exciting, innovative and professional artistic work with high production values. We pushed against conventional boundaries.” Candoco obviously treats everyone in the company as equals in terms of their strength, dexterity, talent, skills and artistic expression. They certainly don’t play safe: their programmes are always full of demanding performances, combining athleticism, strength and endurance that speaks of a punishing training schedule. At the same time their performances are distinguished by a lightness of movement and a commitment to the art.

If you think that sounds like a combination of art-speak and PR fluff, try getting a ticket to the performance by Candoco on Saturday. The programme comprises two contrasting pieces – Set and Reset/Reset and Last Shelter – which manage to summarise who and what the company are.

Set and Reset/Reset has become a signature piece for Candoco, and has been recreated in 2011, 2016, and now 2021. It’s a restaging by Abigail Yager of Trisha Brown’s landmark Set and Reset – Abigail Yager danced with the Trisha Brown Company from 1995–2002 and has directed several reworkings of Trisha Brown dances. The original, which made waves back in 1983, very definitely wasn’t aimed at inclusive dance; but it was in a characteristic Trisha Brown style (dancers move to Brown’s original set of instructions with the piece evolving in response to them) that definitely suits Candoco.

Abigail Yager is just one of the people responsible for Set and Reset/Reset. Charlotte Darbyshire told us that previous Candoco artistic co-director Stine Nielson and Pedro Machado actually had the idea of Candoco restaging seminal works through an inclusive lens and were really passionate about expanding the technical ability of the company. She also credits Jamie Scott from Trisha Brown Dance Company, who worked alongside Abigail Yager to restage the latest version for Candodo; and Eva Karczag, a founder member of Trisha Brown Dance Company who collaborated with Trisha on the making of Set and Reset originally. And “the Candoco dancers themselves in the various iterations of the piece must also be credited for its success. Each generation of Candoco dancers has embraced the challenge and learning opportunity of working with this wonderful material.”

When it was first seen in 2011 as part of Candoco’s 20th anniversary tour it must have seemed a brave choice, for Set and Reset is one of those seminal dance pieces that people tend to remember seeing for the first time. Laurie Anderson’s score has been retained for Candoco but otherwise this version does not try to repeat the original; so the set and costumes are similar but different, the slideshow has disappeared, the choreography has been amended. But the principles remain, and Brown’s impeccable composition is so good that it allows for all the characteristics of her approach – pairing everyday gesture with rhythms and fluid movements, with released yet controlled limb movements, sudden rushes of energy, inserts of humour – while leaving enough room for individual variety and adaptation.

One reviewer summarised the result: “Rather than adapt the choreography to the performers, here the performers can happily adapt themselves to the choreography, and no matter whether they’re spinning a wheelchair, swinging a crutch or just extending an arm, it all just works – beautifully”.

The other piece, Jeanine Durning’s Last Shelter, makes for a good companion. It too mixes order, chance and change; working with precise materials within variable scores, the piece unfolds uniquely for each performance – “somewhere between individual agency and collective will” as the description has it.

From Last Shelter

Last Shelter is one of Charlotte Darbyshire’s personal favourites from Candco’s repertoire, and she feel it compliments Set and Reset/Reset “wonderfully”. She says “It is equally intense, and virtuosic but in a very different way, particularly as it is completely unset and manifests differently each and every time that it is performed. Watching the dancers navigate uncertainty collectively really speaks to me of the times we are living in right now”.

Durning’s choreography is based around the concept of ‘nonstopping’, a tool that uncensors movement and speech to allow dancers to make movements from a more subconscious, intuitive, or even essential level rather than from a learned or trained way. The results highlight the precision of each dancer’s decision-making.

In Last Shelter the dancers arrange and rearrange furniture and other items into small sets through which they move, repeatedly reconfiguring the space; it’s a dance that is built on actions rather than acting, with an unobtrusive score by Tian Rotteveel that also reflects a pattern of different scenarios and occasional monologues from the dancers. They surrender to and grapple with time, place, and chance, finding temporary balance in provisional structures and makeshift meanings.

Both pieces will be performed by Candoco company regulars Ben Ash, Megan Armishaw, Ihsaan de Banya, Joel Brown, Olivia Edginton, Anna Seymour, and Markéta Stránská.

Set and Reset/Reset and Last Shelter show in The Arts Center’s Red Theatre at 7.30pm on Saturday 17 September, with a Q&A to follow featuring dancer Joel Brown and Candoco’s Artistic Director Charlotte Darbyshire. Tickets are AED 105, but when last we looked they were selling fast …

While they’re here, Candoco Dance will also be taking part a variety of workshops, artist talks, and other activities, both on campus and public. On 19 September there’s a practical workshop for teachers from any discipline who wish to develop their inclusive practice and ensure that their teaching is as clear, accessible, and engaging as possible. The following day has Charlotte Darbyshire joining Hollie Murphy, founder of Heroes of Hope, in a discussion of the arts as a means to redefine access and belonging.

Upcoming Arts Center dance events with the support of Dance Reflections include Compagnie Hervé Koubi at the end of October and Yaa Samar! in February.

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