“How can you work with dance to explore what bodies are capable of?”
With this question, Caroline Bowditch (dancer, choreographer and CEO of Arts Access Australia) distilled a lifelong process. As a wheelchair-bound artist and someone whose body is “so very different,” she has perhaps had more reason than most to investigate the potential power of movement.
When she spoke with Dance Informa recently about her work as a co-developer of Rambert Grades’ new pre-school syllabus, she floated the question above in the context of a discussion about dance training; but it was evident that it cut to the core of her personal journey. If, as she argues, her body can dance, what does that imply for kids under five arriving at their first class?
When London-based Rambert Dance Company and the connected Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance debuted its Creative Dance for Early Years offering at the Victorian Dance Festival in April, Bowditch was on site to lead the first session. However, more than being simply another course aimed at kids, the syllabus was predicated on an expanded vision of both teaching and moving.
“From the outset, it’s been built to be accessible; and that is something that is rarely experienced in dance for young people,” Bowditch explains. “It’s working with traditional dance structures, so that any child is able to access dance in a way that actually works for them, regardless of body type or processing or whatever it is. Basically, it’s a flexible enough syllabus for any child to access wherever they are.”
Yet, as Bowditch knows only too well, accessibility is a fine sounding word, but what does it mean in practise? For the purposes of a dance class, it boils down to a few specifics. “This syllabus is not using codified language,” she says. “It’s using language that anyone can understand. It’s also not using ableist language.”
Indeed, the Rambert Grades team spent considerable time thinking about language and its implications. Thus, rather than walking, running, et cetera, they will speak of moving or being fast.
Although it may appear counter-intuitive, Bowditch reveals that their approach is “less focused on the physicality. We don’t talk so much about hands and feet but upper and lower parts of the body…and thinking about the real intention of a movement.”
While there are some who will regard this as too ‘Woke’, Bowditch is less interested in culture wars and more focused on presenting dance as a means of discovery. “So, what does accessibility mean?” she muses. “In this sense, it means using language and exercises that build dance technique without it being designed around one specific body.”
At this juncture, we are reminded that the prevailing dance aesthetic is entangled with idea of body perfection. Indeed, much of what we love about the artform is its grace and athleticism. Most likely, our favourite dancers are elite performers with ‘beautiful’ bodies.
While acknowledging this, Bowditch is keen to offer another perspective. “I think what Rambert [Grades] are doing is challenging the idea that only certain bodies can dance and belong on stage.”
Furthermore, she contends, this shift is not just happening in the safe bubble in pre-school classrooms. “What we’re seeing is more and more companies diversifying bodies. Take someone like Ballet Cymru [in Wales]. The bodies they have in their company are hugely diverse; and they’ve been doing that for many years, and they’ve had a real focus on making ballet accessible.”
Saying this, Bowditch’s work as a choreographer has given her a keen eye for the more traditional values of performative dance. “I mean, there is something very satisfying about that classical unison, and the way a corps de ballet does move together,” she declares. “But there’s nothing to say that a corps de ballet can’t be driven by a body that is very different.”
In many ways, the current CEO of Arts Access Australia has bridged the space between the artistic and participatory forms of dance. Life in a wheelchair, especially for someone growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, meant reaching a compromise between dream and reality. For her, there was no Rambert Grades, no accessible dance curriculum.
“But my dream jobs were always an ice skater or a ballet dancer,” she recalls. “I just loved the sensation of being able to glide in my chair, which is basically what I was seeing ice skaters do.”
Despite a lack of formal training and a few negative experiences at university, she persisted, and after being invited to participate in a series of masterclasses in the mid-1990s, Bowditch felt that she had finally landed in her own skin. “And I never wanted to leave that place,” she emphasises.
Three decades later, Bowditch is giving back. Her involvement with Rambert Grades’s Creative Dance for Early Years program harks back to the question she posed earlier.
“Kids are hugely imaginative…and they’re still learning about their bodies and the edges of their limits. It’s like, ‘yesterday I couldn’t do a cartwheel and today I can.’ It can all happen so quickly.”
Therefore, when they were designing the syllabus, the Rambert creative team approached things thematically rather than visually. Beyond what a phrase might look like, classes will seek to examine how they can be imagined and interpreted. “Because we know that everyone has a creative intuition if they are given the opportunity to tap into it.”
For a wheelchair-bound dancer, this matters to Bowditch. While for many of us accessibility is a word, an idea, for her it is a quality of life issue. It is, at core, physical.
Of the new pre-school syllabus she helped create for Rambert Grades, she states, “It’s an incredible opportunity for people to explore how their body, this body, feels. When we’re worried about how it looks, we’re not concentrating on how it feels, we’re just trying to replicate what’s being shown to us at the front of a room.”
In this perhaps, something crucial; because accessibility may well be more than a chance to copy. It could well be an invitation to create.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.