Arts blog: How much have attitudes towards disability really changed, asks Kelly Apter

Claire Cunningham in M�nage � Trois
Claire Cunningham in M�nage � Trois
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“MEET the Superhumans” proclaimed Channel 4 loudly and often in the run-up to the Paralympics this summer. For many disabled people, “meet the humans” would have been enough.

Meet the people who, just like everyone else, have strengths and weaknesses and have overcome difficulties and challenges to reach Paralympian standard.

Notions of who can and cannot compete, or even take part in sport have been brought into sharp focus in Britain this year – and that can only be to the good. A sense of “otherness” may still prevail where disability is concerned, but a step in the right direction has most definitely been taken.

So too in the world of dance – another field where physical perfection dominates our perception of what constitutes good movement. Artistic excellence comes in many shapes and forms, as disabled dancers such as Claire Cunningham, Marc Brew and Caroline Bowditch have been ably demonstrating in Scotland.

Bowditch recently ended her tenure at Scottish Dance Theatre, where as “Dance Agent for Change”, she carried out grassroots work not just with young disabled dancers, but in widening out the audiences who watch integrated work, while Brew is about to embark on a tour with his own company, including a new piece created in collaboration with renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

Cunningham’s recent production, Ménage à Trois, in which she explored her relationship with her crutches, is one of the finest dance shows I’ve seen this year. Yes, it was thought-provoking and moving, for reasons inextricably linked with her disability. But above and beyond that, it was just a great piece of theatre, fusing choreography and video design in ways few others have managed.

There is more to be done, but there are more opportunities than ever for disabled dance in Scotland to flourish. How come? “There was a huge push in Scotland a few years ago, when the then Scottish Arts Council commissioned a review of inclusivity in dance, and pretty much implemented all the recommendations,” says Cunningham. “One of the big issues had always been the notion of role models. Disabled people weren’t really viewing dance as an option, because there weren’t many opportunities to see anything that created that expectation.”

Shows such as Ménage à Trois not only give the younger generation of disabled dancers something to aim for, they play a crucial role in helping audiences to see beyond the disability to the fine work being created – much like the Paralympics, where it was the achievement that mattered, not the impairment. That said, at times the amount of back-story given to the athletes threatened to overshadow the sport.

“I was impressed that the Paralympics had such a big presence on Channel 4 and you can see they absolutely drove debate forward,” says Cunningham. “But there were concerns amongst disabled artists that there was a novelty factor to it. And the superhuman thing always sits a bit uncomfortably with me, because they went into the realm of showing why people were disabled – they’d been injured, or blown up in a war. So there was a sense that it had to be explained why people had these bodies, rather than it just being fine that they did.”

As Cunningham says, ultimately “you want to be respected for what you’re doing, and not have to fight the ‘haven’t they done well, considering’ which is unsaid in the background.”

All three of the dancer/choreographers mentioned here benefited from the Unlimited fund, part of the Cultural Olympiad, which as well as providing financial support for disabled artists, signposted their work as being at a certain level. Now that disabled dancers have an increasing presence on stage, the next hurdle is to ensure that it is the work, not the disability, that is deemed most relevant.

“We’ve just seen disabled athletes achieving excellence in their field and being recognised not for their disability but for what they can do,” says Marc Brew. “That’s now infiltrating into the arts world, and our goal is for people to come and see artists creating excellence, not to have that sense of pity that was there in the past.

“I think through things like Unlimited and the Paralympics, people’s awareness and perceptions have really changed and shifted. So rather than work being hidden away, it’s actually being put out there on the world stages and respected in the same way as other high quality work.”

• Marc Brew Company: Triple Bill is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 18 October, as part of the Dance Live festival; and at Tramway, Glasgow (with Evelyn Glennie) on 26 October.