“Dance is my passion and helps me communicate …it’s helped me realise the skills and talent I have… Flex Dance promotes my ability, not my disability.”
These are the words of Wayne Hooks, who’s 35 and has autism. He’s one of a small group of learning-disabled dancers who had little or no experience of dancing or performing before they joined Flex Dance, a company in the north-east of England that nurtures and supports its dancers and whose productions evolve and grow along with its dancers’ skills.
Flex Dance is part of TIN Arts, a social enterprise based in Durham that creates and delivers participatory dance and arts programmes. It was started in 1999 by husband and wife team, Martin Wilson and Tess Chaytor, both professional contemporary dancers who studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.
The company is one of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisations. Its funding allows Martin and Tess to develop their work and raise the profile of dance and disability in the north of England and look at future pathways for their dancers. “Every person we work with, we have to think, what’s next for them, how do we best challenge them and support them, what’s ambitious and achievable for them?” says Martin.
In the early days of TIN Arts, Tess and Martin held all kinds of dance workshops but one was in a school for young people with disabilities. “We didn’t know what to expect but the feedback was really positive because there wasn’t a lot of dance offered for people with disabilities then, either in community or educational settings.”
That feedback sparked an idea which eventually became Flex Dance. In 2000, with a small pot of Arts Council funding, Tess and Martin began working with adults with learning disabilities. That first group consisted of about 16 people from a range of backgrounds, many of whom simply loved discovering dance and its social benefits, but a handful of students wanted to take it further. “They seemed to have a natural ability,” explains Martin, “not only did they want to perform, they wanted to create work but needed support from us to do that.”
Flex Dance was born, but none of the students in that first small group had had any formal training or done anything creative. Most were in their early thirties and had been attending traditional day care for those with learning disabilities. Martin and Tess decided to follow the same principles behind their own training at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Performance and creating work became a priority for the group. “Even in the early days, we were doing performances fairly regularly, whether that was within the local community or by inviting family members, and the group got used to performing. They might not have had any formal training,” said Martin, “but they knew they like creating dance and performing it.”
Over the years there have been challenging times. They’ve learnt that blank dance spaces present difficulties for their dancers because many of them aren’t used to conventional theatre. So Martin and Tess decided to use the set not just to add texture to the whole piece but also as a familiar and fixed space which helps dancers orientate themselves during the performance. “They know if they sit on a block by a certain ramp they can tell which is the front, left and right of the stage because that’s always going to be there in that space,” explains Martin.
What’s important to Marting and Tess – Flex Dance’s Artistic Director – is that they fulfil a dancer’s potential, despite any barriers related to their disability. “We have a company of dancers who are talented and deserve to be on stage, they’re amazing but they just need support,” says Martin, “that might be emotional, physical or verbal support throughout a piece of work. So we looked at pairing them up with an artist who doesn’t have a disability and they dance together.”
That pairing led to the innovative idea of Creative Enablers – what Tess and Martin call the ‘glue’ that holds everything together. A Creative Enabler is a non-learning-disabled dancer who supports either one other member or the whole cast. This winning formula of Creative Enablers and orientating the performers within the set design has brought out the best in Flex Dance’s group of talented dancers.
Martin explains that the joy of working with such diverse artists is that you have to work with what they can do and that’s liberating in terms of performance. One of their dancers, George, has just gained a place at the National Youth Dance Company and, says Martin, he brings a whole new energy to a piece of work. “George is pretty much non-verbal, so the movement within his dance is his way of verbalising a piece. His performance is bouncy, it’s energetic. He may not be a lyrical dancer but he’s one who impresses with his physicality.”
George is dancing in Flex Dance’s new production, Caty Wompus, which they’re currently working on. Becky, who has autism and is partially deaf, is also taking part. “Her character is interesting,” says Martin, “she’s the invisible girl, the girl who hides, always in the background and on the edges, which kind of mirrors who she is in real life. So we try to capture the essence of who they are. That’s their starting point, the beginning of their journey with dance.”
What’s different about Flex Dance is their dancers take time to reveal their true talent. “It takes a good two years to build their trust, their confidence and their skills,” says Martin. That’s partly the reason Caty Wompus is only the third major piece they’ve made in about seven years. Their first was called Shake the Tree in 2010 and the second was Parked in 2013. “Our company is about nurturing learning-disabled dancers, so in the last three years, the piece Parked must have changed three times before we got to the final version of it. It just grows with the dancers, we keep refining, keep reviewing, keep pushing that piece forwards with the artists.”
So what of the future, both for the dancers and Flex Dance? Tess Chaytor says they’re still finding their feet in many ways and learning from each piece they perform. “The standard of the performers and the art they create has improved tremendously over the years, but we need to take that forward, to find the best learning-disabled artists in the country and help them to find us. Our mission is to create a learning pathway for learning-disabled artists and move this sector forward. I want Flex Dance to grow into a nationally-recognised company with high calibre dancers lining up to be part of it.”