Nicole Thomson, Artistic Director of Anjali Dance Company discusses the artistic potential of people with learning disabilities

Anjali Dance Company

Anjali Dance Company is a critically acclaimed, innovative and pioneering company that enables people with learning disabilities to achieve excellence in dance, provides positive role models and encourages inclusion in dance. 

Artistic Director Nicole Thomson gives us an insight into the company and their current Genius tourthat comprises works by award-winning choreographers, Lea Anderson MBE and Gary Clarke.

The UK tour runs until 20 November taking in Bournemouth, Barnsley, Halifax, Coventry, Leicester and Birmingham.

Tell us about Anjali Dance Company: when and why was it set up and how it developed?

I had been inspired by seeing the work of Strathcona Theatre Company in London, which produced professional-quality performances with actors who had learning disabilities in the 1980s, and after graduating with a BA Hons degree in Performing Arts I became interested in the idea of working with learning-disabled dancers. In 1995 I began teaching integrated dance classes for people with and without learning disabilities at a local Arts Centre in Banbury, north Oxfordshire and I was delighted to discover that people with learning disabilities had previously unsuspected talents and depths of creative energy. I became convinced that a new artistic quality could emerge from a company of dancers with learning disabilities, an engaging and challenging aesthetic that would bring a new dimension to contemporary dance. I started Anjali Dance Company to provide a framework in which learning-disabled dancers could be accepted as serious artists, train to professional standard and perform to mainstream audiences. 

From the start Anjali’s dancers were treated with respect as artists who had learning disabilities, not as people with learning disabilities who happened to dance. The dance they made was individual and diverse, and it was turning out to be wildly imaginative, inventive and free from cliché. The dancers showed themselves to be focused and motivated and able to learn new things, and they threw themselves into learning and performing dance with enthusiasm and understanding. I could see that a powerful new aesthetic form was spontaneously emerging from the way the dancers, who had no expectations about how it should be done, were interacting with dance. 

Nicole Thomson, Artistic Director of Anjali Dance Company
Nicole Thomson, Artistic Director of Anjali Dance Company

As I came to know them and watched them gain in confidence and skill, I was fascinated by their fresh interpretation of movement material and their sensuality, humour, and emotional engagement. They had a complete absence of self-consciousness and a unguarded directness in the way they engaged with audiences. It was illuminating to observe the way they supported one another and see how their support and sensitivity was translated to their performances on stage. Being able to share experiences and work closely together created a bond of trust and focused energy between them.  

At first we had to struggle to gain acceptance, obtain funding and establish ourselves. In 1998 we obtained funding from Arts Council England for a three-year training and touring programme, and we made and toured our first triple bill in 1999. Since then, we have made four national tours and we have performed in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Mexico. The critics and the dance world began to take us seriously, and we were described as “one of the brightest companies in British dance”. 

The defining moment for us came in 2000, when Anjali was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall in London to create and perform a new work with choreographer and ex-Royal Ballet dancer Matthew Hawkins, which received a four-star review in the Guardian, and host a national debate about disability dance at the South Bank. We have also performed at Sadler’s Wells, and at the Royal Opera House with dancers from the Royal Ballet. In 2003 Anjali’s dancers performed as the finale of the European Year of the Disabled festival in Lisbon, the company’s first international performance. 

In 2004 we were awarded funding for a three-year accredited learning programme for dancers with learning disabilities. We now have our own specialist education team, which is led by learning-disabled dancers who teach dance workshops and give presentations about the work of the company. Individual dancers have spoken at conferences and represented Anjali in seminars and discussions. 

In 2006 we formed Young Anjali, our successful youth dance company, which has performed at major venues and festivals in the UK , including four consecutive years at U.Dance National Youth Dance Festival, and has appeared on  television. In 2009 all of Anjali’s dancers and students performed for the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Special Olympics in front of 25,000 people, and two of our dancers performed a duet at the UK Flame Lighting Ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics. 

The dancers have gained in personal growth, confidence and artistic skill, and they have been central figures in advocating aesthetic diversity and equal opportunities. They have spoken at conferences and seminars and have appeared on television. The achievements of Anjali’s dancers have won them recognition and acceptance as performing artists in their own right in the UK, Europe and elsewhere, and they have changed perceptions of the creative and artistic potential of people with learning disabilities. Their work has helped to encourage integration and inclusion of people with learning disabilities and has illuminated and educated the world of dance and the performing arts. 

Anjali Dance Company

“Anjali Dance Company celebrates the creative abilities and artistic potential of people with learning disabilities”

What did you see as Anjali’s mission and purpose?

There were low expectations, or no expectations at all, about what people with learning disabilities might be able to do, and it was generally assumed that they would not be capable of artistic creativity or able to make choices in their lives. I wanted to challenge these perceptions and beliefs, and I wanted talented dancers with learning disabilities to be able to show the world what they were capable of doing when given the opportunity and inspire others to follow them. 

I started Anjali Dance Company to provide a framework in which learning-disabled dancers could be treated as serious performing artists, train to professional level, and perform to mainstream audiences. Anjali would provide a nurturing environment in which people with learning disabilities could take part in stimulating creative activity and be encouraged to explore and develop their creative potential. I decided to find a way to engage their talents and enthusiasm to create a new kind of dance that would be of the highest quality and would stand as performance art in its own right. The dancers would create original work of artistic distinction and present exciting, challenging and inspiring performances of contemporary dance to the widest possible audiences. I had a clear and strong vision of what Anjali could be and the kind of work the dancers could produce. Their work would aspire to excellence. I had a huge amount of belief that it would happen. 

I wanted Anjali to focus on ability, not disability. Anjali would empower learning-disabled dancers as artists by celebrating their creative abilities and talents and supporting and promoting their artistic and personal development. From the beginning I wanted to change perceptions of what dance is and who can do it, and Anjali’s dancers have succeeded in breaking down traditional stereotypes. They portray disabled dance in a positive and dynamic way and they provide inspiring role models for other people with learning disabilities.

What difficulties were there in the early days of starting up a learning-disabled dance company?

In the beginning I found there was resistance to overcome. Early difficulties mostly concerned other people’s perceptions of, and attitudes to, learning disability. There were low expectations of the capabilities of people with learning disabilities and the value of any art they might produce. Parents sometimes lacked knowledge and insight. When I started recruiting dancers to Anjali’s main company, I found there was often discouragement from carers, parents and social workers, who set limits and decided what was acceptable. There were also low expectations about the capabilities of people with learning disabilities from teachers in schools. Other difficulties concerned access to necessary facilities, transport and funding.

As Anjali evolved, we worked hard to show everyone the importance and worth of what we were doing and convince those who doubted. At times we found ourselves trying to re-educate and change the perceptions of the entire Arts system and the world of dance, and convince them to accept learning-disabled dance as a valid and original art form, treat it with respect, and allocate funding to it. 

Funding, of course, was and still is the biggest difficulty. At the beginning we had a constant struggle to obtain enough reliable and sustainable funding to make anything significant happen. It was some time before the value of what we were doing began to be recognised, and we had to survive on small amounts of short-term funding wherever we could find it and work from project to project, which made it difficult to fund coherent, long-term planning. I know this experience is shared by other companies. We had small grants from the local authority and project funding from the Arts Council, but the financial situation has always been precarious, and this placed limitations and restrictions on what we were able to do. 

Anjali Dance Company – Genius – photo by Judie Waldmann

Tell us about the dancers and their experience of being part of the company…

We have seven dancers in the main company: Alex Hyde, Hannah Dempsey, Nick McKerrow, Daisy Garrett, Jason Manito, Lauren Payne, and newest member Holly Risborough. Three of the dancers are from the local Oxfordshire/Warwickshire area; one comes from Wiltshire and three come from London. Alex has been with the company since 2002, Hannah and Nick since 2007, Daisy and Jason since 2009. Lauren joined in 2014 and Holly in 2018. 

Among their many other achievements, Daisy is a member of Anjali’s Education Team, teaches workshops and residencies, and speaks on behalf of Anjali at conferences; Lauren gained a GCSE in Dance and studied at Trinity Laban; Nick was in the 2013 semi-final of SkyTV’s ‘Got to Dance’; Hannah has been the subject of two films. Holly studied Performing Arts at College for five years, won a Gold representing Great Britain at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles, and is a Sports Ambassador for Sport England and an Elite Disability Artistic Gymnast. 

The dancers have huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm. They meet each week to train with our resident dance artist to learn new techniques and skills and rehearse repertoire. They create and perform their own dance pieces as solos and duets. They tour and perform in mainstream venues in the UK and have travelled abroad to perform in Spain, Portugal, Germany and most recently Mexico. They sometimes perform in all-day, fundraising ‘danceathons’ in local town centres and have been a big hit with the tourists in Oxford. Some of them give presentations at disability arts conferences.

People with learning disabilities can sometimes be isolated. Dance provides a safe and non-judgmental space in which everyone is accepted and valued, and in Anjali the dancers have the company of like-minded people and positive support in a nurturing and creative environment. Their mental and creative horizons are broadened, they acquire or improve life skills such as working as part of a team, they develop confidence and social skills, they are able to form bonds and friendships, and they have their talents as performing artists respected and appreciated. 

Tell us about performing arts courses that the dancers participate in… 

Anjali may have been the first dance company in the world to provide a framework in which people with learning disabilities could train in dance at a professional level, and we developed our own training course to make it possible. We recognised that supporting learning-disabled people and developing their skills and abilities would take time and from the beginning we put in place training and support systems. 

I think we are still the only company in the UK providing bespoke vocational training in dance for people with learning disabilities. The dancers receive a programme of intensive, high-quality training in dance which is equivalent to conservatoire work at higher education level. We demand a high level of commitment from them. They train with our rehearsal director, company assistant and guest artists three days a week, 42 weeks a year, in contemporary dance technique, and they receive training in complementary disciplines such as ballet, contact improvisation, physical theatre, music and dance appreciation. They also receive training in strength and fitness, yoga and pilates.

The dancers train for performances of full-length productions for touring, rehearse repertoire pieces and prepare work for performances. They create and work on their own choreography, solos, duets and larger pieces. They research and develop new material and rehearse new work for touring. As part of the education programme the dancers receive training in all aspects of teaching, including how to teach dance workshops. They have individual development plans and have sessions of planning, consultation, discussion and evaluation of work. Their training programme is supported by regular reports and an annual review.  

Tell us about your education work...   

Education has been part of Anjali’s curriculum from the beginning. We have our own specialist education team, led by our learning-disabled dancers, who teach dance workshops with the support of a dance artist and give presentations about the work of the company. Individual members speak at conferences and represent Anjali in seminars and discussions. Anjali’s education work introduces potential new dancers to the company and encourages people with learning disabilities to participate in dance training.

We have developed a series of educational workshops to support the current tour. The workshops can explore company repertoire which is devised during the creation process, creative ideas and tasks, approaches to making dance and improvisaton. The workshops are led by our Education Manager and the dancers. 

We provide training for teachers and leaders who are interested in leading dance or incorporating dance into their activities. We can provide training in various settings through practical workshops, resource packs and bespoke projects, and professional development training for dance artists who wish to work in inclusive settings or with people with learning disabilities.

We also offer to other groups and disability organisations, education and outreach programmes which develop the teaching skills of people with learning disabilities. Our dancers teach educational workshops in settings such as SEN schools, disability organisations and groups, and mainstream schools, colleges and universities. Our outreach programme provides insights into Anjali’s creative processes and methods, develops the dance skills of workshop participants of all ages and abilities, and provides positive role models for people with learning disabilities.  

Anjali Dance Company
Anjali Dance Company

Anjali was established in 1995 (27 years ago). As Artistic Director, what is your vision for the future of the company?

From the start I had a very clear vision of starting a professional-level dance company, changing accepted thinking about people with learning disabilities globally, not just in the UK, and inspiring and helping other people to start their own learning-disabled dance companies. In the future I see Anjali being an inspiration and a valuable resource for new learning-disabled companies.

We have been creating and promoting learning-disabled dance in the UK and internationally since the mid-nineties, and we have acquired a wealth of useful knowledge and experience about setting up and running a learning-disabled company which we are planning to make accessible for the benefit of future generations. I would like to see Anjali Dance Company making its knowledge and experience available to others worldwide. We aim to make our work widely available to international promoters and show them what can be possible.

The company works with award-winning choreographers. What is the process for creating new work with the company?

Anjali’s artistic work has its roots in contemporary dance and contains strong elements of other art forms such as physical theatre and film. We collaborate with highly-regarded choreographers who are sympathetic to Anjali’s philosophy, such as Claire Russ, Matthew Hawkins, Charlotte Vincent, Matthew Hawkins, New Art Club, and most recently Lea Anderson and Gary Clarke, to make and tour our dance work. Claire Russ was the first choreographer I brought in to work with Anjali. She worked with me from the beginning and was an integral part of the early company.

When a new work is planned, we invite choreographers to come and meet the company for a day and work with the dancers. We show them the high level we are working at, which is very important, so they can gauge the level of the work. Anjali’s dancers are central to the choreographic process and we and the dancers choose choreographers who will be open to new ways of working with them. I might give the choreographer a general theme to work on, such as ‘genius’. We always ensure that the dancers are fully engaged in the process. After the initial day we invite the choreographer back to do several days of R&D, after which we get them back to make the work, and that’s usually quite intense. The work is usually based around the three days a week that the dancers are together. Fitting rehearsal time into the choreographers’ busy schedules can be quite difficult, and we might have to spread their work out over a longer period of time, or make the work in a couple of concentrated blocks. It’s also good if they do some work with us then leave it a while for the dancers to rehearse and develop. 

Early on in the making period we invite musicians, composer, music director, lighting designers, technicians costume designer and anyone else who needs to be involved, to collaborate with us. At the end of the process we hold a sharing, where we invite an audience of dance professionals and people who know the company, and whose opinion we value, to an open rehearsal. Before we go on tour we have a production week, when all the elements of the show come together and are finally rehearsed. 

Anjali Dance Company
Anjali Dance Company

You worked with Lea Anderson and Gary Clarke to make Genius. Why did you choose these particular choreographers? How did they react to the company?   

We enlist world-class choreographers, and Lea and Gary were obvious choices. They each had a high profile and a strong reputation, and I like their work, it’s accessible, visual, theatrical and dramatic, and they are both willing to experiment and be open to new possibilities. They came to do workshops and there was an immediate rapport. They understood what the company was about and they instantly related to the Anjali dancers and their particular style. They were both very enthusiastic about what they found and the possibilities they could see.

The dancers are the most technically proficient they have ever been, and they worked on Genius intensively until the material was embedded in their bodies. Both choreographers praised them highly for their commitment and enthusiasm. Lea described them as thoughtful and passionate artists and said she had really pushed them and made them take risks to give the work some unpredictability. She worked with the dancers to create a piece that would not follow established and safe methods of making successful work, and said she looked forward to working with them again. 

Lea said, “I’d never worked on creating a piece with people with learning disabilities before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I’m very surprised and very inspired, and I’m really pleased that we have made a piece of work that is a stand-alone piece of artwork. It’s not something that I’ve specially made for people with learning disabilities, because I didn’t have to. It’s a piece of work that treats itself very seriously, by a group of artists who take themselves very seriously, and this has been joyful for me to discover.” What really surprised her was the ability of the Anjali dancers to inhabit the characters they were portraying. “This is something that they are really good at. I can see that Hannah, when she’s doing the big vampire, really is the vampire. It’s really hypnotic watching her do that, and I love it.” 

Anjali Dance Company
Anjali Dance Company

Gary loved working with the company. He said it had been a rewarding and inspiring experience, and described the dancers as “an amazing team of talented dance artists, an intelligent and mature group of performers who worked with rigour, clarity and emotion.” He said each company member had brought their personality, skill and hearts to the process, which had resulted in strong, poignant and beautiful work. They had instantly understood his work and he had instantly understood their talent and their passion for movement. He said, “The company was full of expressive performers who could tell stories through their bodies, their faces and their emotions.”

Gary didn’t dictate what he wanted, he just made sure that the work came from the dancers. He presented the company with a work that he would do with any group and challenged the idea of disability by seeing how far it could be pushed. He found the Beethoven theme was a good fit: he said the dancers responded well to Beethoven’s powerful and emotive music, and they made a perfect combination. He had wanted the work to be full of technical movement and storytelling, and the dancers managed to create a half-hour piece of technical, solid dance work and perform it at a high level. Gary said, “There is  more room for this kind of work. Anjali should be celebrating and should be put into a spotlight as an example of what a professional company with learning disabilities can achieve.”

Anjali has been on tour across the UK since September. Tell us about the show you are touring…    

Our current show, Genius, is now in its third year. We toured it in the UK in 2017 and have also performed it in Spain and Mexico. It’s a double bill of colourful and theatrical dance with elaborate costumes and choreography, consisting of two original works, Beethoven by Gary Clarke and Bloodsucker by Lea Anderson. Gary’s piece is about the large gesture, big statements and extravagant staging, Lea’s piece is intricate and contained. Gary’s choreography portrays scenes from Beethoven’s life, performed in Gothic and theatrical style, with beautiful and expressive dancing, to extracts of Beethoven’s music. The set and costumes for Bloodsucker were designed by Simon Vincenzi, and the sumptuous costumes in Beethoven by Ryan Dawson Laight.

Lea’s piece is an abstract and impressionistic take on the way vampire stories are portrayed in film. It was inspired by the 1922 German Expressionist silent movie Nosferatu, directed by Murnau, the 1958 Dracula by Terence Fisher and Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampire. The dancers perform in different styles in a three-sided frame to create the feel of a fairground or carnival theatre, and move on and off stage through the sides to simulate film edits. A review by Josephine Leask said, “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.” 

As part of the Genius project, we provide residencies, workshops and training at the venues where we perform. Our vision for Genius is that it will inspire and enable participation in dance for people with learning disabilities across the UK. We offer to help venues and local dance providers support existing dance classes for people with learning disabilities or set up new ones, and we provide dance workshops for people with learning disabilities and training for dance practitioners who work with them. We also offer in each locality long-term training programmes, mentoring and support for dance artists, and leadership training for people with learning disabilities who are already part of a dance or other group.

The Genius UK tour ends in Birmingham on 20 November 2019. We have four more dates to do: Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 7 November; Curve, Leicester, Saturday 9 November; Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 19 and Wednesday 20 November.

Anjali Dance Company
Anjali Dance Company

What are some of the challenges of going on tour?

The tour packs and promotional material sent out to each venue need to be designed and written with inclusion and accessibility in mind. Organising the tour can be a major logistical challenge. We have to liaise with parents and carers months in advance, and if a dancer doesn’t live at home with parents, several people might be responsible for arranging his or her schedules. We have to confirm dates of performances to parents and carers as early as possible, and make sure no-one is taken away on holiday when a show is due. We have  to get all the dancers to the right place at the right time. Everything has to be carefully planned and organised down to the last detail, and parents, carers and dancers provided with checklists and timetables. 

On the road, we need longer get-ins at the venues to give the dancers plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the performing space, look at the spacing of each piece on a new stage, and have a technical rehearsal and a run-through, although this is not always possible. The dancers perform in a lot of different spaces and have to adapt and rehearse in each one, and sometimes there is not enough time to run the show, which they can find stressful. They ideally need to have as much information as possible about the venue before we go there so they know what to expect. If we stay somewhere overnight, the company is booked into a hotel and each dancer is given a list of everything they need to know or remember to do. The dancers think it’s wonderful and they enjoy the feeling of being independent.

What are the dancers most excited about? 

The dancers love touring, meeting new people and seeing how their dancing inspires audiences. They love performing Lea and Gary’s two pieces in Genius, and after the hard work of creating a performance, training, rehearsals and preparation, they find it exciting to be out on tour, going to different places, performing for new audiences, showing their work, being acknowledged and appreciated as performing artists, and getting positive reactions and feedback. 

After a previous tour we asked them how they felt, and they said things like: “I love to go on tour and show our work . .  People say we’ve changed their lives . . When I’m performing I feel confident . . I like the standing ovations . . I feel I have the power when I’m performing, it makes me very proud . . It was great to arrive at a venue and see our posters all over the street . . In one place we had three curtain calls and the audience went mad.” 

What can audiences expect from Genius? 

I think audiences, especially if they haven’t seen Anjali before, can expect to be surprised, impressed, entertained, and possibly stunned, by how professional the performance is. We’ve had good reviews and very positive feedback. Since Genius toured in 2017 there has been further polishing and intensive rehearsal. Audiences can expect a moving, professional-level performance with high production values and an intense engagement with the dancers. I think they will come away with their perceptions changed.  

How can people get involved, or join the company?

Anjali is a registered charity, and we are always glad to hear from volunteers who would like to help with various aspects of administration and running the office, such as marketing and finance. We can be followed on Facebook and other social media, and on our website at anjali.co.uk. There is a progression route for people who are interested in joining the company as trainee dancers. They are invited to our take part in our Open Classes, and if they show potential they can move on to our youth group, Young Anjali, or join an informal apprenticeship scheme. There is more information on the website.  

Watch the Trailer for Beethoven!

Find out more and book tickets at anjali.co.uk.

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