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