There’s a certain image of contemporary dance – it’s all arched backs and stretched out arms and bare feet against a scuffed black floor. It’s not an issue. What is, however, is that this image of contemporary dance almost always centres only able-bodied dancers. This year, a number of disabled-led dance shows at the Fringe are shifting the focus.
Queer, disabled dancer and choreographer Dan Daw had spent much of his career hearing how much of an inspiration he was to others; now, The Dan Daw Show is all about him inspiring himself. “It looks at the ways pride and shame intersect, looking at the pride and shame associated with having a disability in the world,” Daw says, “but also the pride and shame of being kinky in the world.” Daw’s disability is explored in relation to his kinkiness, with such topics so rarely given the limelight and disabled folk routinely desexualised in mainstream media.
Daw’s work incorporates spoken word and dialogue, ensuring nothing is left unsaid. There’s no room for ambiguity – and this is exactly Daw’s intention. Performing at this intersection of theatre and dance allows for a clarity which is often lost between the alientating angles and curves of contemporary dance. As Daw puts it, his work is just as much for the industry as it is “Margaret who plays bingo on a Thursday” – or anyone else for that matter.
There’s not only a desire to limit who “gets” contemporary dance, but also an inclination to limit who has the title of “dancer”. Kvartetto sees choreographer Kati Raatikainen collaborate with three disabled performers, exploring their personal longings and desires, while claiming their identity as both dancers and participants in society. For Raatikainen, “The piece gives an opportunity for the audience to contemplate normality and ableism on the stage as well as in our own society and in our ways of thinking.”
Kvatetto, photo by Ulla Nikula
While disability is not a boundary within contemporary dance, disabled-led dance doesn’t need to always make a commentary on disablism or disabled-rights: that inherent desire and love for dance is enough. “Music makes me dance and move and feel good,” says Sanna Tornikoski, one of the dancers in Kvartetto. “Dance brings me joy and makes me surrender.”
This notion of giving in is something that also comes through in Daw’s work, primarily in its exploration of kink. “I’m essentially being dominated on my terms and using Christopher Owens – who is a non-disabled performer and collaborator – to use his body to set my body free,” he says. “I want to feel this free when I'm out in the world – when I'm being stared at, when I’m being laughed at, when I'm being pushed over.”
To platform such vulnerability, the relationships off-stage are just as important as those on-stage. Daw has known Owens for over 15 years, having worked together throughout their careers. For Daw, that familiarity is key, allowing them “to really rely on each other in the work and to meet each other where we’re at during the piece.” Their full presence is required to emotionally and physically support each other.
Ice Age, photo Huang Jyong Jhe
Ice Age – a collaboration between visually impaired choreographer Chang Chung-An and disabled choreographer Maylis Arrabit – explores this notion of mutual support across the stretches of distance and time created by the pandemic. “In the process of interaction, despite the language barrier and different cultures, we support each other in this journey of struggle but with hope and toward the same direction together,” says Chung-An.
“Support sometimes means stepping back, giving space for someone else to ‘be’, sometimes it’s watching and listening, sometimes it’s finding allyship,” adds Arrabit. The show’s inclusive choreography seeks to reflect this by drawing on the dancers’ simultaneous vulnerability and power. Yet again, it’s a far cry from inspiration porn.
Rather, disabled dancers are approaching the Fringe on their own terms. Just as all contemporary dance doesn’t look one uniform way, nor does all disabled-led contemporary dance, a reminder of just how much these groups are bringing to the stage. As Tornikoski says, “Performing in Edinburgh is exciting and a little scary too, but still very interesting.”