‘Bam! Incredible energy’ – how a group of performers with learning disabilities are changing dance

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We’ve all got our teas?” checks Daniel Hay-Gordon, looking around the circle of people sitting in a rehearsal space in Brixton, south London. Mugs clutched, things can start, and the discussion is about the early 20th-century poet Edith Sitwell. Hay-Gordon and fellow dancer-choreographer Eleanor Perry set about describing Sitwell to the gathered group: her unhappy childhood, her distinctive appearance, “wonderful slightly hooked nose and big, hooded, very beautiful eyes”, says Perry. Sitwell had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that caused her to have unusually long limbs and fingers, Perry explains. “She felt her hands were as expressive as her face.”

This chat is not just cultural history, it is preparation for a performance. In a few weeks’ time, the dancers in the circle will be embodying the poet, transforming on stage into eight Edith Sitwells, complete with headdresses, rings, robes and mannerisms. Sitwell, Perry tells the group, overcame her challenges, and other people’s judgments of her, “by being extremely singular and very proud of who she was”, and that strikes a chord with the assembled dancers, who all come from Corali, a company of performers with learning disabilities. They know what it’s like to subvert expectations and be unashamed of their own difference.

Corali and Thick & Tight performers with Edith Sitwell masks created by Sheila Hay.
If the face fits … Corali and Thick & Tight performers with Edith Sitwell masks created by Sheila Hay. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

“I do relate to that,” says Corali’s Jackie Ryan, a quietly spoken woman who will be playing one of the piece’s imagined versions of Sitwell and who turns out to be a confident communicator with a talent for one-liners. “I like performing to show people what I can do. My personality comes out on stage,” she says. “I like to see how the audience reacts.”

Corali has been running for more than 30 years. Originally founded by a social services worker in Southwark, south London, it has become a pioneering organisation for artists with learning disabilities. They perform and run workshops in hospitals, schools and community centres, but have also collaborated with the Tate galleries and Sadler’s Wells theatre. The partnership with Hay-Gordon and Perry might seem an unlikely one. Known on stage as Thick & Tight, the idiosyncratic duo came through the dance conservatoire system but now make surreal work that sits between cabaret, dance and lip-sync, delving into queer history. Thick & Tight reanimate characters from the past, whether it’s Barbara Cartland, Marlene Dietrich, Diana, Princess of Wales or Marilyn Monroe, in vignettes that traverse high camp and deep pathos.

The two companies seem to occupy different spheres, but the way Hay-Gordon sees it, both are on the fringes, championing outsiders. And working together has enriched everyone’s creative life. “They are all amazing performers,” says Perry of Corali, “and they’re so supportive of each other and welcoming to us that it’s just a total joy every time to come back and think of new ways we can work together and what they can bring.”

“We gel so well,” says Housni “DJ” Hassan, another of the show’s Sitwells, who brings an infectious buzz to the room. He is constantly moving. When Hay-Gordon describes Sitwell’s expressive hands, Hassan’s fingers immediately start to twirl. He talks about the alchemy between the two companies: “The formula comes together and … Bam! Look what has happened, incredible energy!”

Thick & Tight previously made a piece with Corali about the last years of Derek Jarman’s life, set to the music of Stockhausen. “It was to challenge some preconceptions about the sort of work that we could do and the music that we could use,” says Hay-Gordon. Corali’s longtime artistic director is Sarah Archdeacon, who loves how confident her performers are. “Teaming up with Thick & Tight, the audiences are surprised by what they see, but in a really positive way. We can be confident in the difference that we’re celebrating, and we have strength in doing that alongside each other.”

As well as the pleasure and pride of performing, Corali’s work offers its members chances to forge relationships they might not otherwise make. “It’s a good opportunity [to work] with people who haven’t got disabilities,” says Ryan. “To trust and help one another as a team. Because you don’t [often] get a chance to work with other people.” To that end, Perry and Hay-Gordon have also invited friends from their network to work with Corali. “There’s a glass ceiling above a lot of artists, and what we can do is shatter that a bit,” says Hay-Gordon. “I think that’s where dance is going; big companies are going to have to start employing artists with disabilities. It’s too separate [now] and it doesn’t work.”

A rehearsal with Corali and Thick & Tight.
To the point … A rehearsal with Corali and Thick & Tight. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

Corali stands out as a company that doesn’t put any limits on the kinds of performances it can make, and also for the commitment of the dancers, most of whom have been performing together for nearly 20 years. The secret, Hassan says, is that: “We’re unique, we’re powerful, we understand each other. We know how to do things properly in a fun, creative way, and we’re never negative,” he says. For Hassan, dance is second nature. “I love to transform the way I move,” he says. “It opens up my vocabulary, it transforms my body, I just love moving in a completely different way to what I normally do.”

People with disabilities who come to see Corali perform are inspired by seeing people like themselves on stage, notes Ryan. “Some people do get surprised because they don’t know what to expect.” she says. “If someone in the audience is shy or nervous, I make them laugh so they feel comfortable.”

Sitwell was the subject of Thick & Tight’s first piece a decade ago (she had tea with Schubert), and they thought she was the perfect subject to revisit with Corali. “Everyone here can do such amazing comedy work,” says Hay-Gordon, “but can also be incredibly touching and make audiences cry. There’s something about that balance … everyone’s going to show a different Edith Sitwell in this work.”

“I can’t wait,” says Hassan. “I want to get to know her. I like going back through time, and there are people out there who’ve got so many stories to tell, just like us, and we want to understand where they’re coming from.”

Graham Evans in rehearsal.
Audience reach … Corali’s Graham Evans in rehearsal. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

The Sitwell piece will be one of nine in Thick & Tight’s new show. Others include encounters with Sid Vicious, Rasputin, Twiggy, and – that famous avant-garde duo – John Cage and Elaine Paige. Their performances are reliably outre – in an early piece, Hitler and Cath Kidston tyrannised the world with their imagined ideals – but Thick & Tight don’t tone down their ideas for their Corali collaborations. “Absolutely not,” says Hay-Gordon, who is frequently found in drag. “If anything, it challenges us to make something even more interesting and explain it properly.”

Being honest about who they are means everyone becomes more open-minded. “You see Danny doing these performances, wearing women’s shoes, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Ryan. “Give people respect.” She leans over to Hay-Gordon: “Well, you have got a nice pair of legs,” and the room erupts with laughter.

Perry says that, through working with Corali, they’ve been learning about social models of disability, the way external factors prevent people from doing things, rather than their own abilities. “There can be an assumption that we want to not be disabled,” says Archdeacon, “that we want to be the same as other people.” But that’s not the case. Corali are not trying to ape non-disabled dancers, they’re bringing their unique selves to the stage. “We’re doing something that’s about difference, and, as Danny said, the dance world is waking up to how brilliant that difference can be.”

“We are blessed for who we actually are,” says Hassan. “The experience, the knowledge, the importance, the value. What everyone has been saying here, we’re even more.”

Thick & Tight: Short & Sweet is at the Barbican Centre: The Pit, London, 25 to 29 January.