DANCE / The Body Builders: Two cannot use their legs; one has no legs at all. Candoco are enough to reduce Judith Mackrell to tears - of astonishment, not pity

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From the temple dancer-turned-concubine of classical Indian dance, to the corps de ballet of the 19th-century Paris Opera from which rich men picked their mistresses - dance has always been linked to fantasy and desire. Most audiences will admit that part of their pleasure comes from being entranced by beautiful bodies performing extraordinary physical acts, however intellectually absorbing the choreography may be.

So where does this image of 'seductive beauty' leave a company like Candoco, in which three out of the eight dancers are physically disabled? Two are in wheelchairs, unable to use their legs, the third has no legs at all, yet they fiercely and publicly resist being categorised as a 'disabled' group. Before I went to see them in rehearsal I thought this desire to be judged as an 'ordinary' dance company was naive or horribly disingenuous. What they did might be brave, or worthy, but would the public pay to see it? How could they compete with the slicker, sexier, more acrobatic dance companies already in the market?

But a couple of minutes into watching their latest piece, I'd lost interest in how Candoco would sell itself. I was blurry with tears and I wasn't crying from pity but astonishment. I was seeing things done with dance that I'd never imagined.

Wheelchairs, for one thing, when manipulated with a dancer's timing and reflexes, can cut corners, change direction and carve patterns with a hair-raising velocity. Add to that the drama of tipping those wheelchairs backwards or sideways at speed, or the tenderness of an able-bodied dancer cradling them in their arms. Add to that all the possibilities of the able-bodied balancing on and flying around on the chairs alongside their crippled occupants (yes, we're allowed to say crippled with this company) and you have sensational movement.

Also add to that Candoco's star, David Toole. Toole has only been dancing for three years (including one year as the Laban Centre's first disabled dance student), yet by any standards he's a virtuoso. He was born without legs, but his powerful hands seem to support him as naturally as feet. He can move incredibly fast, skittering around the floor and weaving between the other dancers. He can leap and cling to his partner's body without you seeing how he gets there. But most extraordinary is the unique distribution of his body's weight which means that he can arch and angle his torso in beautiful and astonishing ways. And because he has a dancer's sense of phrasing and music, because too he has a riveting stage authority, these things do not look freakish. They are amazing in the way a ballerina's 32 fouettees are amazing, or the hurtling rolls of a Eurocrash star.

The fact that Candoco are flghting to be considered a dance company rather than an exercise in disability PR isn't surprising since their founder, Celeste Dandeker, was a member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre before an accident on stage left her paralysed from the waist down. For more than 15 years she accepted that she'd never perform again, until the choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller persuaded her to appear in a dance film called The Fall. Around that time she also met Adam Benjamin, who was teaching mixed ability dance workshops. And through a series of meetings, commissions and performances, the two of them ended up running Candoco, a unique company of able-bodied and disabled dancers.

When the company performed last year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the dancers impressed but the choreography didn't. This year, they've been given money to commission work by two of Britain's most experienced dance-makers, Siobhan Davies and Emilyn Claid. Neither choreographer was expected to compromise their style; in fact, Davies says, she found it easier working with the three disabled dancers - Dandeker, Toole and Jon French. 'The fact that they'd had something taken away meant that they'd built up a very concrete knowledge of their bodies, they seemed to know innately how to alter the tone, the weight, the colour of the movement.' For the five not very experienced able-bodied dancers, Davies's subtle and sophisticated choreography came harder - 'They were all worrying about getting their legs in the right place'.

At times, Davies thinks that Toole, in particular 'got extremely angry' at not being able to push beyond his physical limits (and Dandeker admits readily to the frustration of watching others do movements she would love to do herself). But Davies feels huge satisfaction at having made a dance where the difference between able- bodied and disabled isn't an issue, where 'there's a communication between the dancers' qualities and equalities, where they look extended, straightforward and at home in the movement'.

Claid, whose work is much more theatrical and confrontational, set out to demolish the idea 'that it's so lovely having able-bodied and disabled people working together'. She was fascinated by the taboos that surround disability - sex, of course, and the fact that they aren't necessarily nice people. 'It's a light, mischievous dance' says Claid. 'But David as the ringleader creates a lot of havoc, making vicious little attacks on the others and getting very sexual with one of the dancers.' It contains a lot of risk ('It's amazing how many people you can get on one wheelchair') and a lot of laughs ('David was just dying to be funny'). The company's often raucous sense of humour helped Claid and Davies through some sticky moments, such as Claid wanting to broach sex ('how do you have sex, do you have sex') or Davies going into her first rehearsal and finding it 'impossible to mention legs for the first two hours'. Sue Smith, one of the able-bodied dancers, says that when she started with Candoco, she was terribly embarrassed asking what the disabled dancers could and couldn't do.

These kind of delicate issues form an inevitable extra agenda with which the company has to deal. The able-bodied dancers have to face the fact that most of the publicity centres on the three wheelchair-users. They constantly have to shrug off efforts to turn them into a caring-sharing role model. Benjamin talks with some glee of the rumpus he caused when he banned two boys with learning difficulties from one workshop. 'It was a dance class not a therapy session and they weren't up to it, they didn't even want to be there.'

The company have also been criticised for passages in performance where the able-bodied take off and dance on their own rather than sustaining a 'fully integrated' choreography - 'but we are a dance company and we have to use all our resources,' says Dandeker. 'I get worn down by people looking to us to make a good example all the time. I get worn down by people being politically correct and afraid to use the wrong words.'

Candoco know that they are a young company and that their special challenge will be holding their audience. 'We know we're still a novelty,' says Toole. 'It's going to be harder when people are used to having us around.' But with a new piece to be shown on BBC2 next year and a long tour ahead they have plenty to work on. Toole says he's 'really surprised at how our work can change people's opinion of disability in one performance. But we're not pushing this. We just enjoy what we're doing.' Dandeker agrees. 'I'm having a ball. I just wish I'd done this 10 years before.'

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, 4 and 5 February (Booking: 071-928 8800).

(Photograph omitted)