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Welly O'Brien in Cuckoo directed by Caroline Darbyshire and Sophie de Oliveira Barata of the Alternative Limb Project

Objects, Obstructions, Objections, Objectives

Candoco Dance Company online

How do dancers with disabilities navigate space? Who is defining space for disabled dancers? What are the objects that obstruct, block and blur? How do we define choreography within the framework of disability? Candoco Dance Company are, as ever, refining and redefining what it is to move in space, and how dancers of various abilities navigate this in their practice. They ask the questions that make other people shy away, because society is still not comfortable with disability. As an arts critic recently diagnosed with a disability, I became increasingly aware during lockdown of how I interact with day to day chores, the wobbly steps I take, and often see how many people try to walk through me as if I am invisible—they would rather I didn’t exist. So these two short dance films resonated powerfully for me.

Anna Seymour in Feeling Thing by Jo Bannon

Jo Bannon, who has albinism, and has created a slew of brilliant pieces centred around different body types, has directed and choreographed Feeling Thing. It’s a provocative, intelligent and at times heartbreaking film, fusing choreography with ASMR. Three dancers negotiate dances with household objects, proving anything can become a choreography. 

Anna Seymour feels the shape and weight of an extractor fan. She curls around it like a question mark, gently rises up, embraces it like a lover, sways against its curves, winds the wires like limbs, wears it like a shield. She’s first prone, then hanging upside down, a hand splayed, legs stretching, navigating all the time how she, and it, take up room. Both are objects, inconvenient, in the way, othered.

Ihsaan de Banya in Feeling Thing by Jo Bannon

Ihsaan de Banya is tussling with a ladder, a stubborn, unyielding partner. It topples over with the weight of his body, it’s so hard to set up when it’s such a cumbersome thing. Our bodies are cumbersome at times, are they not? A burden. Being human is hard, disability harder. The ladder sways and sways like a pendulum, de Banya grapples with it like a punch-drunk prize fighter ready to collapse. He is as graceful as the ladder is clunky, his limbs robust and strong against the rungs. If it would just behave the way objects should.

A hoover becomes yet another partner to fight with and dance against. Olivia Edginton, nose to nose with the old fashioned contraption, faces off against the vacuum, from base to handle. She uncoils herself as the nozzle uncoils, weaving a weary, resigned form down onto the ground. Locked in a sinewy duet, woman and machine are equally taking up space on the floor. Items of domesticity and convenience are thus rendered symbols of frustration. Bodies which won’t do as the brain asks become frustrating too, like choreography with new, unfamiliar steps to learn. But Edginton learns the steps, with time and patience.

Meanwhile, the short film Cuckoo, was filmed at Tate Modern. Directed by Caroline Darbyshire and Sophie de Oliveira Barata of the Alternative Limb Project, it playfully yet creepily looks at the passage of time, momentum and changes. A lone figure, dancer Welly O’Brien, feels out her space. She slides along the floor of an empty room, as a clock ticks ominously, getting faster and faster. Partially filmed using stop frame animation, partially filmed dancing in the moment, O’ Brien is a restless, watchful and alert figure, with pendulum like arms. Her dancing is graceful, robust and sensual.

Welly O’Brien in Cuckoo directed by Caroline Darbyshire and Sophie de Oliveira Barata of the Alternative Limb Project

She’s a poised, stately presence wearing her bespoke new prosthetic leg created by de Oliveira Barata, a gorgeous, surreal creation carved from cherry wood and containing a cuckoo clock within it. Now, she is lying on the stairs, looking like a femme fatale, a 1940s film noir goddess a la Lana Turner, with an expression that says, “Don’t mess.” A light swings like a pendulum beside her, casting a wild tapering shadow on either side. Suddenly, the clock has started to slow to a more steady motion. She’s cast in eerie half shadows, biding her time and hatching grand plans.