Dance and disability: A New Zealander’s experience in London


Jolt Dance

Lyn Cotton established Jolt in 2001 which is recognised as New Zealand’s leading educational dance disability company. Lyn teaches, directs and choreographs for Jolt and also advocates for accessibility within the arts for people with disabilities. Here she writes about her experiences of immersing herself in the UK dance and disability scene during her Winston Churchill fellowship

“London has always been a special place for me. Jolt Dance really began when I was living there in the late 1990s. I was working at a school for children and young people with severe learning difficulties and was invited to watch one of their dance classes. On the way into class one of the students, Ricky, collected a flower. I watched the teacher, Wolfgang Stange, create a dance with Ricky using this flower. Ricky had limited movement but the smallest movements became a dance as powerful as that of the most technically accomplished performer.

The dance really impacted on me because it never sought to impose a structure. Instead, it allowed Ricky to express his own creativity. He was not defined by his disability, and it was the integrity of his movement and his ability to be completely within the moment that was so moving. That memory is still very powerful for me and it is the yardstick by which I still continue to view the work we do in Jolt.

I worked with Wolfgang for three years and learnt everything I could. So, when I returned to New Zealand I quietly hoped to establish a class of my own. Jolt grew larger than I had ever imagined: fifteen years on, and with the support of a great group of people, we have nine classes and three performance companies. In the last four years, we have really tried to push our work further: creating a teacher training scheme for our dancers with disabilities, a performance company creating works for diverse audiences and community programmes for marginalised groups. All our work is based on the belief that everyone has a right to dance and to access the arts in ways that are truly meaningful. Disability is not a limitation, rather it is an opportunity for unique movement and connections between people.

Returning to London on the Winston Churchill Fellowship was an opportunity to put our work into an international context and to see what new ideas were emerging in the disability dance community. London was also an opportunity to ask questions. What models are there for disability dance training and performance? What is the Jolt model and how does it differ to groups in London?


Claire Cunningham, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

It was truly wonderful to be back. London breathes artistic endeavour and there is long history of commitment and respect for the arts. There is also a newer but strong disability activism that was energising and inspiring. I was lucky enough to time my visit with the Unlimited Festival. Listening to the panellists and seeing performances (especially Claire Cunningham’s work “The way you look (at me) tonight”) challenged and opened up my thinking to ideas about accessibility and the diversity of experiences for people living with disabilities.

My first week was spent with Oily Cart and their production of “Mirror Mirror”. Tim Webb has pioneered performances for people with disabilities and there are a lot of companies now developing work based on the Oily Cart model. The work is immersive: fusing multi-sensory experiences with character, set, singing and original music for small audiences. What was interesting was that while our aims were similar: to create accessible theatrical experiences, the outcomes were quite different. Oily Cart focusses primarily on multi-sensory experiences with high production values, while Jolt’s work draws on the responses of the audience to shape the work, creating open moments where audience becomes performer.


MEnter a caption

Another key difference was around audiences: Oily Cart audiences are small – normally six participants and 6 carers and are targeted at specific disability groups (Profound and multiple learning disabilities, PMLD or Autistic Spectrum Condition, ASC). Jolt Interactive audiences are significantly bigger (between 20 and 30) and more diverse (in age and disability). These choices raise questions about our perceived outcomes. Creating performances for specific audiences: PMLD or ASC creates a framework for the theatrical experience that is controlled and allows for intensity rather than diversity within the experience. But there are wonderful opportunities to be gained from connecting diverse groups. There is also an inherent challenge within the work for diverse audiences that forces it to be more flexible and responsive to its audience.


Jolt Interactive performance of Fish, 2016

For me it really made me question how our assumptions about disability impact on the work we are creating. Are we assuming that disability is the most important aspect for our audiences to engage with our work? When do we stop seeing the disability and start seeing the person? How do we manage the balance between creating work that is accessible (often this means using multi-sensory elements) but has integrity in its own right? How do we gently go into the worlds of our audience and let it impact on us in meaningful ways?

During the rest of my time I visited as many dance groups as I could; Amici, Magpie, Corali, Blink, Slide, Laban Dance Ability and Candoco. There is real depth and strength in the dance and disability community and a high level of teaching and choreography. Dance disability companies in London work closely with the mainstream dance community and are generally staffed (teachers and choreographers) by professional dancers. The model of teaching for a lot of the companies was a contemporary dance one where the emphasis is on technique and the quality of movement. This is a valid and highly successful way of working that has achieved amazing results and we need this option for our dancers – It sets real and challenging expectations for the dancers and challenges perspectives about disability in the mainstream community.


Tightrope, Amici Dance, image by Nik Mackey

The difficulty is when this type of training and performance becomes the accepted face or ideal outcome of disability dance. While this training creates beautiful movement, it ignores what is unique about the dancers and it is a small number of dancers who can fit this mould. It raises questions about inclusive practice – what do we mean by inclusive? – how does this impact the way we teach? the work we create? What are we training for? And how can we train while retaining the unique voices of our dancers?

There are companies who work with more diverse groups and who focus on exploring and extending the unique movements of the dancers. They tend to not to have such a high public profile and fall more under the community dance label. I believe we need to acknowledge difference within our field and not accept a model of disability dance or a hierarchy that puts some groups above others – often depending on their ability to relate to a mainstream audience. We must fight for choice and diversity – this offers more meaningful options for people with disability but also enriches our own practices and widens people’s perspectives about disability in the mainstream community.

My expectation when I came to London was that I would discover a new model – a new way of approaching disability dance training. In reality this didn’t happen. I met committed, hardworking artists creating interesting work with really inspiring communities. Within our world of disability arts there seems to be a desire to create ways of working or models – especially for people with PMLD or ASC and my expectations reflected this. What I learnt instead was that as artists our work reflects our own artistic visions and objectives and the uniqueness of the communities we work with. Our approaches are as diverse as the people we work with and my trip allowed me to recognise and articulate our voice more clearly and to have confidence in it.


Me with Amici dancer David

My trip ended with one final class at a day service for autistic adults in Acton. Taught by Amici tutor Lynne it used many of Amici’s trademarks, an open space responding to individual movement, random choices of dancers and music decided by the spinning of a pen and individual improvisations that focussed on creating connections through mirroring and sharing movement. There was very little structure and few set activities but it was beautiful and completely worked with the diverse group we had in the room. It was a reminder to me that as we develop our own ways of working: teaching and creating, that at its simplest music and movement has the power to transform, to make us feel and to express the voices of people that are often hidden.”


Huge thanks to Lyn for sharing her thoughts and reflections. As usual we look forward to your comments 



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