Ready, willing and able

Wheelchair-bound but unrestrained, it is Celeste Dandeker's intention to shake up the dance world. By Michael Church

Anyone who saw London Contemporary Dance perform at Manchester Opera House on 8 December 1973 will have vivid memories of that night. The Company were rounding off a triumphant Northern tour; they were tired but in fine form. Their young star, a mercurial Anglo-Indian called Celeste Dandeker, was fighting a heavy cold, but went on regardless. The programme was an acrobatic one, with Dandeker somersaulting through the air over the bodies of her colleagues. All went well until one particular jump.

"She misjudged it, and just flopped," recalls a member of the audience. "Then almost instantly she started crying - an unearthly sound. Everyone froze. It seemed an age before a doctor came up out of the audience, and made them bring down the curtain."

Two decades on, Dandeker's memories of the event are patchy. "Instead of landing on my feet, I went half over again, and landed on my chin with my bum in the air. The next thing I remember, was waking up in the wings, and yelling my head off. My limbs felt light, as though I was floating, and I remember moving my head from side to side and thinking, Christ, my neck hurts. I remember the ambulance driver saying: `Take care how you lift her', but the next day in hospital I don't remember at all."

Only when they took her to the spinal unit in Oswestry three days later did she learn she'd broken her neck. "At the time it never occurred to me that I'd never walk again. I just thought, `I'm still alive, and that's great.' " She spent the next seven months in physiotherapy, and doing "passive" exercise. "But I had very little strength to push with. I was a little weakling."

The gracefully animated woman telling me this in the Barbican's ground- floor cafe may be sitting in a wheelchair, but she gives no hint of helplessness. It's hard to believe that the strength she uses to light up, drink her coffee, and illustrate her words with gestures, emanates from the muscles in her shoulders. "The nerves affected are from the seventh vertebra down, and run through the middle of my arms. I've got no triceps, so I can't open my arm towards you. If you shake my hand, I can't grip yours at all." She proffers a cluster of limp fingers to make the point. "But I've got biceps, so I've found other ways of gripping things - picking up a cup like this," with two hands. "And, in the same way, I can write," with her pen firmly clamped between 10 useless fingers. "You find ways to do things, and then they become normal to you." She demonstrates with an air of ironical amusement, as though giving a performance.

There were three things she desperately needed to learn as soon as possible after the accident. "How to hold a glass, because I liked my wine. How to put my make-up on. And how to smoke a cigarette - though I had to wait till I left the clinic for that." She now smokes six or eight cigarettes a day. "I know it's not sensible because having no intercostals or abdominals I can't use my lungs to their full capacity. But I feel good. And I'm not a great drinker, because I drive." (Like a whizz, says one of her friends later: with a three-pronged grip on the steering wheel.) "In fact," Dandeker says, "I'm quite an able disabled person."

That's putting it mildly. She's a leading member of Aspire, the campaigning charity for people with spinal injuries. She travels a lot, and leads a vigorously independent social life. As co-founder and artistic director of an ensemble called CandoCo, she has given the dance world its most beneficial shake-up in decades. Next week she will be on stage at the Royal Court as a performer in CandoCo's current tour. Yet her quadriplegia is no less severe now than it was 23 years ago. Is this a mystery, or what?

As she tells her tale, it becomes clear there have been no miracles: it's been a long haul from the despair that hit her when, after her stay in Oswestry, she went back to join her boyfriend in their London flat. "The shock was horrible. I had imagined that everything could somehow be as it was before. But it was like being on a different planet. The hardest thing was my being so totally dependent, but it was hard for my boyfriend too." The relationship broke up. A brain virus put her into a two-month delirium. She started to do bits of voluntary work, "at a very menial level". To exorcise her mental pain she began to write poetry, "though it wasn't all doom and gloom". Then an out-of-court settlement by her former dance company enabled her to buy a flat, and employ a live- in assistant. "Suddenly, I had become independent."

She did a costume design course at Croydon, then she evolved an art-form of her own, making sculptures out of dough, and turned it into a thriving little business. Then the Indian dancer Darshan Singh-Bhuller invited her to star in a film entitled The Fall, with a story closely mirroring her own.

"I said, `You're mad'," but he insisted, so I went into the studio with a group of able-bodied dancers. I had no idea what I was going to do. But I immediately realised what it was to be a dancer again, and that it wasn't simply to do with getting my legs in the air: it was about what is going on inside, and how that translates into movement. I'd always known this to be true, but I discovered it again. I felt the same - performing in my wheelchair for camera - as I'd felt as a dancer on stage. This was my turning point."

CandoCo resulted from a chance meeting between Dandeker and the visual artist Adam Benjamin. Benjamin, who was working at a sports centre, persuaded her to help him run a dance class in which some students were disabled. The idea snowballed, till they were being invited to perform up and down the country. Five years on, the company are set to move into a permanent base that Norman Foster has designed for them in Stanmore.

Dandeker is one of only two disabled performers in the company to be seen at the Royal Court next week; the others are conventionally "abled". Should we make any allowances? "You certainly won't, when you see the work our Brazilian choreographer has created: it's an amazing piece of illusion. But in any case, we have unique skills. I can do things in a wheelchair which non-disabled people can't do." She has an ultra light, very manoeuvrable American model. "It's like roller-skates, or ice-skates: a new element. The creative possibilities are endless." Moreover, she argues, that if "integration" means "bringing the separate parts together", that is precisely what her company are about. "We have never dwelt on the disability aspect - or begged for critical concessions - because the focus is always on dance, and on the patterns which our different bodies can achieve together. Don't stick labels on us: take us for what we are."

One senses that CandoCo are on the verge of a great leap forward, with invitations to work in Brazil and Malawi, and close links developing with mine-victim projects in Cambodia, where limblessness is grimly all the rage. Meanwhile, Dandeker is pursuing her long campaign for disabled access facilities in public buildings. "People still regard it as a luxury, but it doesn't cost that much to have one or two larger [toilet] cubicles, and a ramp or two." Things are improving, she says, but not fast enough.

At one point in our discussion, a blind woman goes past with a guide dog, followed immediately by someone with a "hearing dog for the deaf". The effect is comically surreal. "You see!" says Dandeker triumphantly. "We're taking over the world!"

Does she, I ask, ever succumb to depression? "Yes, but not a lot. If I wanted, I could pin every one of my problems on my disability. But I really like life. I'm enjoying it. I get tired and irritable, but basically I just feel very lucky to be working with a bunch of people like this."

After the interview I get her to dig out the poems she wrote when at her lowest ebb. They reflect, with a force that loses nothing through its elegant obliqueness, the journey she has made through a nightmare landscape. We print two of them here.

don't turn your back on me or close your ears to what I have to say i ran along the ochre sand and scorched my feet to get to you.

your brow is furrowed and sunburnt. your mouth is moving but i cannot hear or read your lips. i have come a long way to be with you.

you called me but are silent now crouched in the shade drawing symbols in the sand. i cannot understand them. they are like hieroglyphics on an ancient tomb.

now you are curled up like the abandoned shell of a snail i arrived too late and found an empty fossil

the way is open now a new way it stretches ahead like a wave rising from the ocean it came from nowhere, but you rose with it high on the crest from that great expanse of blue that drowned you it has become a way to reach the shore

CandoCo: Royal Court, London SW1, 20 to 22 June. Booking: 0171-730 1745

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition