DANCE : Anything you can do, they can do better

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
WHATEVER else you might expect of contemporary dance, you don't expect wheelchairs. But it's five years now since a company calling itself CandoCo (as opposed to can't do) first rode roughshod over all the perfectly natural assumptions people make about disability. Among their number were four trained contemporary dancers, one of whom had broken her neck and was paralysed from the waist down. Another two had been in wheelchairs all their lives.

Yet far from being mawkish or embarrassing, the CandoCo experience was so positive that some of the most sought-after choreographers have been inspired to make work for the group, regarding its unique limitation as unique possibilities. For Emilyn Claid, a wheelchair is not an encumbrance, but a dance-element that forms an elegant and speedy counterpoint to human muscle. Her Back to Front with Sideshows was a white-knuckle ride of a piece, with dancers and chairs careering past each other at breakneck speeds. Who said the unsound of limb can't relish a bit of sexy business and dare-devilry, same as anyone else? Claid's work crashed every taboo in the book. But where do you go from there?

Her latest work for CandoCo, Across Your Heart, explores more forbidden scenarios, not all of them explicitly about disability. Clearly Claid sat the company down and asked them to tell her their secret fantasies and feats: being mugged, being petted by a bevy of toyboys, regressing and wearing a nappy, and more ludicrously, being haunted by weird old hags or blood-drinking vampires. The result is that many of the loosely assembled scenes seem so highly personal that you feel perhaps you shouldn't be watching.

But provoking they certainly are. Seeing paralysed Celeste Dandeker standing upright in a pretty dress makes the heart skip a beat. Then ittranspires that her skirts conceal a fearsome steel body brace, and when she leaves the stage, humming contentedly, she advances perilously by rocking it to and fro. Feelings of pity and admiration and fear for her safety all fight for space. Similarly, when thugs accost wheelchair- bound Jon French, spinning him like a roundabout, handspringing dangerously in his path and finally tipping him right out, we are outraged. But again the rug is pulled. "I'm alright," he says irritatedly to his rescuer, "just leave me alone." We are all of us full of contradictions, Claid seems to be saying. Don't presume a thing.

The word of Shobana Jeyasingh is another example of contemporary dance that, by dint of stylish inventiveness, has powered its way into the mainstream. Jeyasingh's basic language is bharatha natyam, the classical dance of southern India, but she has rewritten its grammar to reflect modern Indian women's liberated status. Traditionally performed solo, bharatha natyam presents a dense complexity of detail: fingers curled into hieroglyphs, splayed feet stamping out mathematically ordered rhythms, and those strange little darting eye movements that suggest a shy and startled animal.

Jeyasingh retains the angled character of the dance, but simplifies and emboldens it, directing our gaze to the stronger shapes of massed dancers performing the same steps. Palimpsest, her latest piece, is exactly what it says, an ancient text rubbed out and a new one written over it. But mysteriously the old code continues to make its presence felt. Women in sharp citrus colours tilt and curve into contemporary-looking shapes in sympathy with Graham Fitkin's thoroughly Western score - cellos, a clarinet, electronics. Yet as the looser, more fluid new dance progresses, the old percussive rhythms gradually reassert their hold. The effect is galvanising. Then suddenly, as if there is any danger of seeing these serious young women as mere ciphers, formality gives way to chattering, giggling, whispering social groups. A final, wary glance over the shoulder at the audience suggests that some exquisite secrets remain untold.

The other half of the bill revives an old piece, Romance ... with Footnotes, a gorgeous concoction in which traditional rhythmic elements are more straightforwardly set out. Glyn Perrin's fascinating score (so good you want to hear it again, without the dance) takes its cue from a series of jathis, the syllabic rap traditionally recited by an Indian dance-master to dictate the rhythms for the feet. Combine this aural virtuosity with the sight of Jeyasingh's lovely women clad in topaz and rose, carving out diamond patterns from a space of midnight blue, and the effect is ravishing - pure pleasure for mind and eye.

CandoCo: Warwick Arts Ctr (01203 524524, 6-8 Mar. Shobana Jeyasingh Co: Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 504444), Tues; Bristol Arnolfini (0117 929 9191), Thurs & Fri.