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Candoco Dance Company: ‘We’re interested in work that shifts the perception of ability’

A scene from Face In. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Ben Wright and Charlotte Darbyshire are shaping their vision for Candoco Dance Company – and their first season as artistic co-directors – from a shared history of almost two decades and, by their own admission, from their differences.

The pair met in the early 2000s while at Ricochet Dance Company, and Wright says: “I believe our differing life experiences and skills will complement one another.” His co-artistic director agrees, adding it brings a “richness” to the role.

As associate artistic director at Skanes Dansteater in Malmo, Wright found collaboration with director and chief executive Asa Soderberg an “extremely fruitful engine to decision-making”.

After leaving Sweden, Wright teamed up with Darbyshire to apply to Candoco as co-directors with a specific pitch. As Darbyshire puts it: “We share a commitment to leading from a place that’s about questions, not answers – we don’t want to start with fixed ideas about how something should be.” Her co-director adds: “Fundamentally, we were interested in leading from the perspective of a creative conversation.”

Candoco dance company appoints new artistic directors [1]

This inquisitive approach is inherent to Candoco, a company that in 2016 celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Darbyshire herself was one of the company’s founding members and danced with it during its first eight years. “It was an exciting time where we questioned everything – from what dance is, to who can access it,” she says.

Today, these two directors are asking very similar questions. “Dance is always going to be a living force of inquiry,” says Wright. “The questions I bring are not unique – they’re shared by artists like Liz Lerman – What can dance be? Who gets to dance? Where can it happen, and why does it matter? Who are we doing it for?”

The answers to these questions are, along with the dance world, constantly evolving. For a company like Candoco, which is formed of both disabled and non-disabled artists, such questions and conversations can help enrich the dialogue around inclusivity.

For Wright and Darbyshire, that’s an important aspect of their role. “I believe that with creative agency comes acute responsibility,” says Wright.

“As a company, we are inherently committed to diversity and this affects our entire experience – from our commission choices to our approach to learning and working.”

From commissions that, in Darbyshire’s words, “challenge the form”, to extensive education work across the dance sector, the pair is clear Candoco must remain active to keep at the forefront of those conversations.

Part of that ongoing development comes from the company’s continued relationships with previous members. Darbyshire, who herself continued to teach for Candoco after her time with the company, says: “We want to support them in developing their individual voices but we also learn and develop from their practices.”

It all contributes to what Wright terms “refocusing the lens around ‘inclusivity”. As he and Darbyshire settle into their new roles, that focus remains a paramount concern. “As a company I don’t think we are anywhere near close to being as ethnically diverse as we would like,” observes Wright. “That is something we are both very conscious of right now.”

Scene from Face In. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

It’s a sentiment that Darbyshire echoes: “The company was quite clear in the early days about including people with physical disabilities. Now, our understanding is changing. We need to look at difference in a wider sense and how, in our opinion, that enriches the art form.”

Diversity in dance goes far beyond physicality, they agree. “Considerations of ability, access, gender, race, sexual orientation and age all factor into what it means to be working inclusively,” says Wright.

“It is the continual hope that through sharing and listening to a diverse range of approaches we can engage in a meaningful discourse that actually has an impact.”

Recently, the focus of the dance world has been upon the lack of prominence for work by female choreographers. Candoco’s current season features four commissions from female choreographers. This is an inheritance from the company’s previous co-directors that Wright and Darbyshire say they are “extremely happy and excited” by.

As they look towards programming their own commissions, the co-directors are keen to maintain a fair balance. “There is no shortage of women choreographers,” says Wright. “I believe publicly funded organisations have an inherent duty to positively discriminate, to programme consciously, to celebrate the work of female artists and make decisions that address historical gender bias. It’s part of mine and Charlotte’s DNA to continue that vigilance.”

The company recently premiered a duet by Caroline Bowditch at Sadler’s Wells Sampled, an annual dance event at the venue. And, as part of their double bill at Sadler’s Wells in March, they will perform Yasmeen Godder’s creation Face In, which joins Candoco’s existing repertory. “I’ve followed Yasmeen for a while and I’m excited by her work,” says Darbyshire. “It’s political, provocative and beautifully crafted.”

For Wright and Darbyshire the choreographers they work with must continue to question and develop the art form – and of course entertain. “We want to continue to make bold and unexpected choices – something that [Candoco’s previous co-directors] Pedro Machado and Stine Nilsen excelled at. We are interested in work that invites a range of readings and shifts the perception of ability,” says Wright.

As Candoco’s co-directors find their feet, it’s clear they are keen for the company to keep adapting and evolving. As Darbyshire puts it: “We always want to be nudging up against what dance can be.”

Profile: Candoco Dance Company

Artistic co-directors: Ben Wright and Charlotte Darbyshire
Number of performances: Approx. 60 (national and international and including Cando2 (youth company) in 16-17)
Audience figures: Approx. 22,000
Number of employees: 12 plus seven dancers
Funding levels: 50% Arts Council England, 32% earned income, 8% trust and foundations and individual giving, 10% miscellaneous 
Key contacts: chris@candoco.co.uk (programme and touring producer)

For more information on Candoco go to candoco.co.uk [3]