Watch a performance by the Candoco Dance Company, and the first thing that strikes you is the sheer power of the performers.
You soon realise that you are witnessing something out of the ordinary. Some of the performers are on crutches, others are wheelchair-bound.
One of these dancers is Toke Broni Strandby, who is missing the lower part of his left arm.
“I’m not in Candoco because I’m disabled, I’m in Candoco to dance,” he says.
“It’s a very unique thing to be able to work with yourself in such an intensive way, as you do at a dance school. Working with movement every day, you really discover things.”
Toke, who is originally from Denmark, joined the company when he moved to London in 2013.
“I always thought it would be possible for me to go into any company,” he says. “What [the company] does is get people with disabilities and those with no disabilities, and work with a mixture of them.”
Established in 1991 and based in Islington, Candoco was set up to explore the concept of dance through the nature of disability in order to create a new art form. One of the founders, Celeste Dandeker-Arnold, is herself a wheelchair user.
“It was founded by Adam Benjamin and Celeste, and came from them having a desire to explore what it meant to have different bodies,” says Hannah Dye, the learning manager at Candoco.
“Their interest was artistic, exploring what the interesting possibilities behind two quite different bodies are. Yes, it features disabled and non-disabled dancers, but it is always about high quality work.”
That outlook feeds from the philosophy of Adam, who wrote in his 2002 book Making an Entrance that advertising the dance as something uniquely different is “a bit like a road sign warning the unwary theatregoer of possible encounters with wheelchairs”.
It questions whether the audience should need to be made aware ahead of seeing a disabled person on the stage and challenges their surprise at the concept.
On Friday (20) and Saturday (21), the cast will perform Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The show focuses on community spirit and the relationship between life and art.
As well as high-profile performances such as this, Candoco aim to include as wide a variety of people as possible in their classes.
Hannah explains: “Historically, our company of dancers have tended to be physically disabled but that’s purely from who has been auditioning.
“We have a very broad learning programme, which tries to offer individuals many different ways in. It can be someone being introduced to dance for the first time.
“Our youth cast is a mixture. Some are there as a hobby and some are there for the beginnings of their training in dance.”
Candoco are one of few dance troupes to offer facilities for disabled people in Islington.
In agreement, Toke says: “There doesn’t seem to be that many people with a disability working in the arts.
“I was always the only one [disabled person], so it was quite new for me to start dancing with other people with disabilities.”
The company has a comprehensive outlook, catering for people with both physical and learning disabilities.
The dancers come from various backgrounds and have a range of different levels of experience, with some trained at university and other younger students who are new to dance.
Candoco hold dance classes for young people, between the ages of 13 and 25, and provide opportunities for them to perform.
This ensures that the younger generation do not experience the limited opportunities that Toke did. Toke says that he has “definitely” learned from being a part of Candoco, “not only in a physical way, but also how I think and how I read people and other personalities”.
It’s not just the dancers who learn though. The guest choreographers brought in to develop shows enjoy the artistic benefit of having a cast of such varied performers.
“It’s a learning experience for the choreographers that work with us as well as ourselves,” Hannah continues.
“The diversity of dancers that they get to work with offers something interesting in the creative process when making their piece. The responses tend to be very positive.”
Reflecting on the troupe, Toke muses: “I think the company embodies the spirit that if you work hard enough, it’s how you move that’s interesting, not what you look like.”
Candoco perform The Show Must Go On on March 20th and 21st at Sadler’s Wells theatre. A special offer for City University students means second price seats to see the show can be had for £15 (usually £20). To book call 0844 412 4300 and quote “JEROME” offer, or book online at sadlerswells.com using the promotion code JEROME.