Artistic Director Nicole Thomson talks to Dance Critic Josephine Leask about Anjali and ‘Genius’

Anjali Dance Company explores the minds of Beethoven and Nosferatu

This autumn Anjali Dance Company is touring its new show, Genius, a double bill which promises to thrill audiences with its spectacular, theatrical gothic themes. The performance will feature two commissioned works by innovative choreographers Lea Anderson and Gary Clarke during an extensive national tour before heading off to Spain and Mexico.  Bloodsucker by Anderson is inspired by vampire movies while Clarke’s Beethoven explores the personal life of the tempestuous composer Ludwig van Beethoven and the new work celebrates the company’s first tour in ten years. Alongside the performances, Anjali’s proactive education team of teachers will run workshops, seminars and classes.

Anjali (Sanskrit for ‘joining hands’), was founded in 1995 by artistic director Nicole Thomson as a company that would create opportunities for dancers with learning disabilities. Thomson, while teaching a weekly class for learning disabled dancers, became aware of the lack of provision in the dance sector. There were a few theatre companies working with learning-disabled actors and integrated dance companies that worked with physical disabilities such as Candoco, but nothing at the time for dancers with learning disabilities.  In 2000 the Royal Festival Hall, London, commissioned a performance by Anjali alongside a seminar entitled Beyond a Sympathetic Response at which dance critics, including myself, presenters, practitioners and directors debated how we as a society as well as a dance audience might describe or respond to work which included performers with Down’s Syndrome or other learning impairments. Delegates discussed how it was important to go beyond the limiting ‘sympathetic’ evaluations of such work and not confine it to the realms of dance therapy but understand it as a dynamic dance practice in its own right. Companies such as Anjali and Corali aimed to make high-quality, cutting edge work that would establish an exciting new genre of dance which would show the creative potential and possibilities of learning-disabled dancers. Most important for Thomson and Anjali was to make the work stand out, raise awareness about inclusion and challenge the aesthetics of dance, particularly around stereotypes of perfection and the body.

Since then, Anjali has developed into an internationally-acclaimed company that functions like any other professional contemporary dance company with a group of rigorously trained dancers. Company members participate in a performing arts course that runs three days a week, 42 weeks per year, which includes training in contemporary dance, physical theatre, music and fitness. What has made Anjali one of Britain’s most visible and prolific learning-disabled dance companies is a combination of the professional training its dancers receive, visionary artistic direction, high production values and collaboration with inventive choreographers such as Charlotte Vincent, Matthew Hawkins and New Art Club. Over the years the company has produced ground-breaking dance programmes as well as participating in conferences and appearing on television.

Based in North Oxfordshire, Anjali now has the original performing company, an educational and training team and a youth company, Young Anjali. While Genius will be Anjali’s first big tour in ten years, the company has been productive and busy with developing works in-house, such as Unexploded Stories in 2008 for the Burton Taylor Theatre, Oxford; establishing Young Anjali, which has performed in Youth Dance England’s National U.Dance festivals in London, Plymouth and Salford as well as in the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics in 2009 and the Flame lighting Ceremony of the Paralympics in 2012; and international touring in Europe and Mexico.

Alex Hyde, one of Anjali’s original dancers, still remains in the company today and for Genius he is joined by a core group of proficient dancers, Hannah Dempsey, Daisy Garrett, Jason Manito, Nick McKerrow and Lauren Payne. All of them have an impressive list of credits and are in peak condition to excel and rise to the demands of this ambitious new venture.

The title Genius was decided on by Anjali’s artistic team because it is not something normally associated with disabled dancers and also so that the term could be expanded to cover different kinds of ‘genius’. Choreographers Anderson and Clarke were obvious choices because of their popular reputations and the nature of their work which is experimental, humorous, visual, theatrical and dramatic.  Thomson talks about her desire to make ‘good art’ and for the work to look ‘bold and beautiful and to take risks’. She hopes that the audience will appreciate Genius for the artists’ fresh interpretation of familiar gothic topics and enjoy the glamorous costumes and lavish set designs. While ‘horror’ drives the show, she believes the work is accessible and can be enjoyed by all.

Thomson talks about how Anderson and Clarke had a ‘fantastic rapport’ with the dancers. Once the theme was chosen, the dancers were engaged in the rehearsal process from the beginning: watching gothic movies, reading books, listening to music, discussing, writing stories and then improvising around the themes. Both Anderson and Clarke worked with them in a highly visual way, picking themes that they could interpret by drawing on their own imagination, idiosyncratic skills and technical ability.

Anderson’s Bloodsucker is inspired by Dracula and in particular the 1922 German Expressionist silent movie Nosferatu, directed by Murnau, starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok; the 1958 Dracula by Terence Fisher and Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampire. For their homework, the dancers watched the three vampire films mentioned above as well as Hitchcock and Hammer House of Horror films. The dancers easily comprehended the hammed up dramatics, the sensuality and the humorous side of the piece and responded to the content in novel and imaginative ways – one dancer even brought in rubber bats!

Anderson has included a range of performance styles from expressionist, silent-screen acting and horror action in five distinct scenes. Once she had gauged the level of the dancers, she really wanted to push them and make them take risks so that the work would retain a level of unpredictability.  Opulent costumes by Simon Vincenzi give the piece a sophisticated flavour and the performers, positioned in a three-sided box, move on and off stage to suggest film edits.

Clarke’s work delves deep into the personal life of Beethoven in a series of “touching and darkly humorous short sketches” focussing on gothic, cinematic and theatrical choreography, set to excerpts of the composer’s music and sumptuous designs by Ryan Dawson Laight. As Thomson says, most people think about Beethoven in terms of his music but not so much about his troubled private life, which was punctuated by his rages, illnesses and ultimate deafness.

Both works complement each other according to Thomson. Beethoven is about the large gesture, big statements and extravagant staging while Bloodsucker is intricate and contained.

Preparing for the show, the dancers rehearse intensively until the material is embedded in their bodies. Thomson stresses that the dancers are currently more experienced than when she started the company and “at the top of their game” so can be pushed and challenged even more, which has been echoed in ecstatic praise by both guest choreographers.  There is no doubt that the commitment and enthusiasm of the dancers help to make the work look sensuous, unique and slick.

While there is much for Thomson to feel excited about in terms of the Genius tour, she believes that learning-disabled dance still has a long way to go in terms of its visibility, acceptance by presenters and recognition by funding bodies. Thomson celebrates how much the company has achieved in the last twenty years but is emphatic that there still needs to be more access to training and greater awareness about what this kind of work can contribute to current dance practice. She hopes that Genius will propel the debate forward, offer an alternative repertoire of beauty and on a personal note, that one day the company will have its own purpose built studio.

By Josephine Leask

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