Is Disability Becoming
More Visible in Dance?
As part of the 2022 edition of the Festival d’Automne, Marlene Monteiro Freitas is choreographing a new piece for seven disabled dancers from the Portuguese company Dançando com a Diferença. Like her, more and more choreographers are choosing to work with disabled performers. While there is still a long way to go, particularly in France, some of these artists are now achieving greater recognition.
Those who saw choreographer La Ribot’s Happy Island, presented at the Festival d’Automne in 2019, likely remember dancer Maria Joao Pereira. Strikingly dressed in a snakeskin unitard and colorful feather headpiece, she got out of her wheelchair and performed with a physicality rarely seen on stage.
Pereira, who will also be featured in Monteiro Freitas’s ÔSS, is part of the Portuguese company Dançando com a Diferença, which was created in 2001 by Henrique Amoedo. Its philosophy is simple: “we dance with the body, not against it.” The Madeira-based ensemble, which is mostly composed of disabled professional dancers, has taken its cue from pioneering companies like Candoco Dance Company, and is a frequent guest at France’s National Center for Dance (CND). François Chaignaud, Tânia Carvalho and Vera Mantero are among the choreographers who have created works for Dançando com a Diferença.
While the dancer and choreographer Raimund Hoghe was once one of the few disabled performers to have a professional stage career, the dance world is gradually opening up to different bodies. Some have built remarkable careers, like the junior breakdance champion Junior Bosila (aka Bboy Junior), who has overcome the long-term effects of polio to triumph on the hip-hop stage. In La Tendresse, a recent theater production by Julie Berès in which eight performers tackle the issue of masculinity, he combined technical prowess with emotion, without any voyeurism in the way his disability was presented.
The same applies to the intimate choreographic portrait De Françoise à Alice, created by Mickaël Phelippeau, which stars a young dancer with Down syndrome. Alice Davazoglou, 35, started contemporary dance when she was 15 at the Laon Conservatory; she co-founded ART21 (Association Regard Trisomie 21) with her mother Françoise in 2013. Alice holds an educator’s license from the French Ministry of Education, and regularly organizes dance workshops for school children and associations. “I’m happy, I feel like myself when I dance,” she says.
De Françoise à Alice was programmed in 2021 at the Faits d’Hiver festival, which for years has made a point of including choreographic projects featuring disabled dancers. “We can’t elude the question of the visibility and representation of these artists nowadays,” explains Christophe Martin, the festival’s director. Among his latest finds, Tout ce fracas, by Sylvère Lamotte, deals with the sensory reappropriation of the body by patients and healthcare workers. Magali Saby is one of three performers in it; she appears completely liberated from her wheelchair, which offstage is necessary to her in daily life.
Saby, a dancer and actress in her thirties who discovered dance while studying theater at university, also campaigns for better professional acknowledgement of disabled artists in France. She says she had to fight and “work hard” to get to where she is now, and to prove she could become a professional dancer: “Even today, despite everything I’ve done, I know that some choreographers don’t want to work with me. I challenge the unconscious image people have of a female dancer.” She points out the clear lack of professional opportunities for disabled dancers, and how few auditions are open to diverse bodies. “We still have a long way to go in France compared to other countries like the US or the UK,” she says. “Inclusive international dance companies like Candoco Dance Company or Stopgap Dance Company offer professional training programs. It’s a key issue: how can we make it to the stage if we don’t get adequate training?”
Some interdisciplinary companies have opened the way in France, like the Montpellier-based ensemble La Bulle Bleue and L’Oiseau-Mouche, a group of 23 dancers who have worked with Christian Rizzo and taken part in Boris Charmatz’s La Ronde. A number of choreographers are also looking to break free from the ideal of a perfect body. This year, the Marseille Festival presented Parade by Andrew Graham, a former Candoco dancer who started his own inclusive company, L’Autre Maison. Élise Argaud, already seen in Forme(s) de vie by Eric Minh Cuong Castaing, is part of the cast; after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015, she has developed a form of expression close to Butoh, based on almost complete stillness. “My body can do a lot, even if it moves slowly,” she said after the premiere of Parade in June. As she demonstrates, physical disability may also lead to new forms of virtuosity – here, through minimalism.
choreography Marlène Monteiro Freitas
with Dançando com a diferença
5 > 8.10.2022 Chaillot Théâtre national de la danse, with the Festival d’Automne à Paris