Last week at the Attenborough Centre, the phenomenally unique and refreshing dance company Candoco brought to the stage a double bill of performances exploring identity, community and communication. What strikes any audience first and foremost is that Candoco are made up in part of disabled dancers; what keeps them captivated is the realisation that this is no cheap gimmick – this is first class dancing ability coupled with fantastically clever choreography that has something important to say, and isn’t afraid to say it.
Face In is a fast-moving bizarre exploration into the human psyche. There is a distinctly animalistic quality to it – dancers howl and snap at one another like feral dogs, sensuously embrace then scuffle like wild cats in heat, clap and shriek like maniacal baboons. The animalism seeps into not only their body language, but their vocalisation and facial expression – I’m reminded of those lessons with a slightly oddball drama teacher, telling you to embrace your highest energy level.
The eeriness of Face In kicks in in part because of the contradiction between this wild physicality and the sickeningly modern aesthetics: a minimalist white set, neon urban attire and blaring rainbow lights that could indicate a frantic club scene or the emergency flashes of an A&E ward. Of course there’s something fascinating about the way three dancers with partially missing limbs, and one paralysed from the chest down, move and interact in ways beyond what I had imagined possible – headstand in a wheelchair anyone? I have an urge to wince when they balance on or grasp one another’s stumps and then immediately recognise my own stupidity in thinking these can’t function as strong, capable body parts like any other.
Nothing could bring to light these anxieties and taboos more acutely than the second performance of the evening: Let’s Talk About Dis. It’s here that I am forced to face my own limitations as a viewer and reviewer, as so much of this performance is directly satirising the way in which an able-bodied person like myself talks about disability – carefully, patronisingly, frothing at the mouth with political correctness and sounding grossly less sincere with every syllable. In a mixture of dance, sign language and spoken word, the exceptionally funny set ruthlessly mocks the privileged leftie who thinks the world is begging to hear what they say.
Let’s Talk About Dis revolves around a series of phrases, which are subtly tweaked, shifted by context or translated into text, BSL (British Sign Language) and French. It explores the variety of ways through which people communicate, and cleverly challenges our preconceptions about what should be said and how. There’s a fantastic degree of comedy at work in the way ideas are misinterpreted between the dancers. The performance also becomes a different experience for everyone watching depending on what they can and can’t understand – some jokes in French or BSL go straight over my head but I become more comfortable throughout in the knowledge that they are supposed to. The same goes for jokes that – though in plain spoken English – concern thoughts and experiences that are unfamiliar to me.
Highlighting that disparity between peoples, recognising that it is something that should be talked about and celebrated, seems to be at the heart of what Candoco do. Their performance attracted the most plentiful, diverse and engaged audience I have seen at a show all year, and the company are undoubtedly one of the most refreshing and powerful collectives active in the world of dance today.