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The label alone mixed-ability, disabled, integrated, or inclusive, depending who you ask is enough to distinguish the troupe, scheduled to perform at the South Beach-based Colony Theater for the 28th Annual Florida Dance Festival.
And though the shows draw crowds, CandoCo has earned the reputation of being a substantive dance troupe not because of but in spite of the obstacles its members face. Of the eight dancers performing in Miami, four are physically challenged; one is quadriplegic, one is paraplegic, one is hearing-impaired, and one is an amputee.
This begs the question: If it is difficult for an average person to be acknowledged without society focusing on his or her physical limitations, how do these dancers with disabilities overcome the stigma? Better yet: How does an entire group do it? Much to the relief of the well-meaning folks scanning their brains for the latest language to describe CandoCo, the answer is: Dance now; ask questions later. The relieved, brow-wiping whews from the PC-afflicted can float down on invisible parachutes and land softly on deaf ears, for when it comes to the CandoCo crew, these dis-abled dancers do not wait for pretty politesse.
In addition to the issues that plague every company, CandoCo had to prove itself as a dance troupe, as opposed to a dis-abled dance troupe. Then it had to establish itself as a good one. So how did it defy being stereotyped or, worse yet, being pigeonholed and on the receiving end of pity-party reviews?
Cofounder/artistic director Celeste Dandeker, who took her first ballet class at age three, is partly responsible. Dandeker, who says dance is "in her blood," was a teenager when she joined the London Contemporary Dance Theater in 1968. But in the early Seventies, the 22-year-old's career was cut short after a bad fall injured her spinal cord. Dandeker has used a wheelchair ever since. Indeed it was her own disability that sparked her interest in the mixed-ability genre, and in 1991 she cofounded CandoCo with Adam Benjamin. But the no-nonsense Brit recalls being very realistic about the venture.
"If we were going to form an integrated dance company," Dandeker says, "we needed to be excellent and not seen as a dance-therapy or disabled dance company."
She put dancers through grueling rehearsals, because Dandeker recognized early on that her troupe had its work cut out if they wanted to be accepted by mainstream audiences. Dandeker says the formula worked and her company grew from weekly workshops to the first UK-based mixed-ability troupe. Today CandoCo offers one-day "taster" workshops, residencies, summer school, contemporary dance technique classes, foundation courses for students with disabilities, and a youth company called Cando II.
Brazilian-raised, London-trained Pedro Machado began dancing twelve years ago. He has worked with CandoCo as a teacher and performer since 1998 and will dance The Journey, an original score. He will also dance the part of Lucifer in In Praise of Folly, more of a dance theater-style piece, inspired by Renaissance art. Machado worked with a voice coach to iron out kinks for his Lucifer role. Other than that, he admits he must remain "extra alert," adding dryly "what happens onstage is more important than just waiting for a bus."
UCLA choreography professor Victoria Marks is a huge CandoCo fan.
"CandoCo is one of the most world-famous companies," says Marks. "They have been key in changing our view of disabilities."
At the New World School of the Arts from June 21 through 24, Marks is scheduled to teach two classes that concentrate on dance and artists with disabilities, as part of the Miami-based danceAble program. The veteran who also conducted workshops at last year's festival describes her approach.
"I ask: What does desire look like?'" Marks says. "And how can we explore this through our moving together? We don't see much connection between desire with disability or with power." Marks also states she never views dancers as disabled.
"Very often we think the more versatile you are, the more ability we think you have," Marks says. "Certainly in dance we think the best dancer does the most turns. But what if we said, öThe best dancer is someone who had an impression on me'?"
Another believer in CandoCo is the Miami-based Tigertail Productions. Tigertail, along with Florida Dance Association, partnered for the seventh consecutive year to present danceAble. Mary Luft, Tigertail's executive director, has traveled to England to see CandoCo at work. She says, "There's an international movement toward integrated or mixed-ability dance. We want to show the general public that CandoCo belongs on the world stage."
Indeed, Machado says, "you can't lie with dancing." Though not physically challenged, he says he has limitations.
And what are they?
"Not knowing my limitations."