To access all areas: using dance and science to become more inclusive of disability and reflective on accessibility

When we watch dance, we are exposing ourselves to a series of movements and transitions that link together to share a story and emotion with us. One might say that the moving moves us. But when we consider the biomechanical, physiological and psychological elements and influences that go into the act of dancing, we are exploring something much bigger than a routine. We are discovering and experiencing a balancing act that is a complex blend of art and science. It is within this sophisticated vortex that we have the opportunity to examine concepts and themes that can transcend language, while simultaneously opening a dialogue between the visible art, its functional existence and the audience engaging with it. What could make for a better platform to have a much needed and important conversation topic that often goes ignored: disability and access. 

We do not yet live in a society in which disability is freely accepted and acknowledged and, accessibility still exists as an afterthought within a multitude of scenarios. Dance among most of the arts is lacking in terms of its inclusion and exploration of disability and access. However, a number of dance artists and companies are beginning to challenge this state of play. 

It is important that we challenge the exotification of bodies that differ from the able ‘norm’. When we other disability, we feed a level of superiority to being ‘able’. Instead of viewing difference as the spectacular, we need to develop an understanding and a language of familiarity with disability. We are no longer in the dark ages. Having said this, outdated thinking certainly has a role in provoking and informing modern artistic practice. Claire Cunningham’s Give Me A Reason To Live (GMARTL) is a choreographic work inspired by the paintings of artist, Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s paintings often depict disabled people as lowly and there is a school of thought that suggests that they could be a representation of sin and greed. This got Claire thinking about bent postures and how they can represent both penitence or oppression. Prior to creating GMARTL, her work focused on what she could do whereas now there has been a shift towards explores what she can’t do. As disabled individuals, we are often cornered in to having to prove our disability and the limitations it brings us whilst simultaneously showcasing all the things we can do. This duality of this societally constructed digon creates a performative conflict that often goes unaddressed and Claire’s work is exploring this in a visually compelling narrative that showcases the coexistence of ability and disability in a thought-provoking and captivating manner. By creating movement with and for her body rather than modifying classical / contemporary technique, she encourages us to partake in the conversation surrounding what dance can be and how defying dance norms would bring a whole new dynamic to the art form. The introduction of her crutches to the piece not only as physical aids but aids to the live creation of an emotionally punctuated landscape, catapults an audience into broadening their thinking and assumptions surrounding disability, particularly mobility. 

Speaking of emotional landscapes, dance theatre is exploring mental illness via creating poignant spaces that challenge our conformity to norms and stereotypes. For example, Am I Me? by Louise Draper and Bianca Ha takes on a journey through living with mental illness and the impact that it has on us and our loved ones. Using dance to creatively and emotionally analyse life with mental ill health can publicly challenge taboo around the topic. Thanks to Time To Change and other mental health initiatives, conversation about mental ill health is now much more common. However, discussions of access needs and mental health as a disability are less common. Works such Am I Me? are actively challenging this scenario and both an increase and further development of such pieces would really bring something new and change driven to the table. 

Dance and dance theatre that takes a strong influence from science is becoming a growing commonality and is encouraging audiences to be less passive. Transmission (2014) was created by the Becs Andrews Company in collaboration with biologist, Michael Brockhurst. Whilst the focus of the piece is on the transmission of infectious disease, this work of contemporary dance paired with installation also evokes conversations surrounding the mass transmission of information online and the potential consequences of contracting an infectious disease. The company’s innovative use of shape, sound and light create a very blatant agitation that floods the spaces surrounding them and the audience. The abstract nature of this piece allows us to follow the narrative of infectious diseases but to also think beyond the binary of recovery and fatality. As infectious diseases can result in long term disability and change quality of life, it is important that this narrative is considered. The fast-paced nature of this piece conveys the body’s defiance and acceptance of differing states and prompts us to reflect on what it means to ‘function’. It is somewhat concerning that performances such as this are so unique, as it reflects the stagnation in the movement of arts. Transmission is an important piece of dance because it entertains and incites an emotional response in audiences whilst simultaneously sharing a wave of scientific knowledge surrounding the reactionary behaviour of the human body to the presence of foreign bodies. If dance took a further hold on this innovative use of science to impart knowledge about our biological condition, this model could easily be developed to explore more biological aspects of make up alongside physiological and psychological aspects of our being. Creatively presenting these elements of who we are allows for discussion, awareness and a lean towards greater acceptance. And this could create a space in which the othering nature surrounding disability is depleted and in doing so, we as arts makers and observers begin to reflect on the accessibility of dance for all.  

When we think about ‘difference’ on stage, it is hard to avoid harking back to Arlene Croce’s comment back in 1994, when she refused to see a performance due to victimhood being used to create victim art. And whilst there is legitimate logic in this statement, every case would need to be considered on its own flaws and merits. Flash forward over 20 years and when we talk about the use of victimhood, it is important to reflect on what exactly are we talking about. The inclusion of marginalised groups and sharing of their stories and experiences doesn’t necessarily result in a conveyor belt of poverty porn and othering optics (though of course this can do if marginalised groups’ experiences are presented as spectacle). If stories from/about these communities are experienced without the overcoats of 2D stereotypical caricatures, we have the opportunity to truly change the landscape of the performing arts. By weaving sensitivity and inclusivity into the creative process and utilising the outcome as a sharing of art and knowledge (potentially of a scientific nature where appropriate), we are creating a welcoming space for broader thinking and meaningful dialogue – both of which are arguably prerequisites of change. 

There is no doubt that disabled led and disabled positive dance is leading the sort of progression that the arts world is much in need of. This movement is not only initiating conversation around disability but is also widening access for both artists and audience members. We can also see that inclusion of science within performance arts allows for knowledge growth but in a digestible and fluid format. Which raises the question of how ground-breaking could science inspired dance theatre become and what could it lead to? 

If disability is present, it becomes less of a novel experience and fosters an environment of progression, artistic growth and representation – leading to a more open forum in which to talk about access. Add in some science to inform rather than preach and, the landscape will naturally shift toward a positive skew. This is something we need to see more of.