Challenging the image of a dancer – Quartet, a work for disabled dancers raises questions about inclusion

Kati Raatikainen, Sanna Kangasluoma, 8.6.2021

In this dance piece, even those who are often seen only as the passive objects of activities and actions become visible, independent subjects who tell their own stories. Quartet is programmed live & stream at Zodiak in June and at the Tampere Theatre Festival in August.

A woman solo on stage

“Dance means so much. It saved me. It is love,” says Maria Lahti perfoming in Kvartetto by Kati Raatikainen & working group. © Ulla Nikula

Quartet (in Finnish Kvartetto), created by Kati Raatikainen and her working group, is a gently radical comment on the right of people defined as learning disabled to perform on stage as dancers as social agents and human beings with sensations, desires and longings.

Here Kati Raatikainen writes about the creation of the work and her thoughts inspired by the process. The article was originally published in Finnish Dance in Focus magazine vol. 21 (the link opens to a pdf).

“The dancers in Kvartetto are aged 40-50 years and none of them want to be called a pensioner – which is their official status in society. When someone with a learning disability works, it’s usually a question of supported employment, for which the pay is nowhere near the average wage for the same job. One of the aims of our project is to be employed in dance and get paid for it. The central point of the project is practising the art of corporeal sensitivity and interaction with others.

The premier of Kvartetto took place at Kokkola Winter Dance Festival in 2019. Our coming together resulted in a contemporary performance, which moves from the relationship between people and objects to longing, love and the glitter of disco lights. The working party initially comprised four dancers, whom I had got to know at dance camps over several summers. We only see three dancers and a sound designer on stage in the performance because of insuperable challenges presented by the group dynamics.”

The right to be involved in culture and arts is a cultural right rather than a rehabilitative activity

Kati Raatikainen continues: “My aim has been to make the dancers more self-directive, more courageous in making their own choices through improvised movement relating to the performance space and to each other. I believe that the experience of agency is an important part of building up a sense of self-esteem and a feeling of being visible.

But at what point does the widening of operative possibilities become a process of reparation and cure? Is it more ethically correct to leave everyone’s existence as it is or is learning something new a central human right? And also, if the portrayal of a human being in a performance is based on the standard of autonomy, on an individual and functioning subject, is that when we prop up a social structure in which other kind of existence is excluded?

In Kvartetto, we were looking for agency that emerges from interaction. We practised moving together among people and objects, touching and being touched, affecting another person and being affected by them. The varied ways the performers perceived time, space and movement, as well as the support required to maintain the rhythm of the performance – helped by the sound designer on stage – highlighted how our existence is defined by our relationship to other people and the environment.

At the same time, it felt ethically right to project the performers as autonomous, grown-up agents – they’re not often perceived as such in our society. It was challenging to avoid the thought of an ideal performance in which all the performers would relate to the performance context in the same way and would recall perfectly an almost an hour’s worth of movement and action in the correct order.

Why aim at the illusion of fluency, if reality is occasionally slow, halting and stumbling – even dull?

For me as the choreographer, the central issue of the work is the relationship between intensity, fluency and ‘stumbling.’ Why aim at the illusion of fluency, if reality is occasionally slow, halting and stumbling – even dull?

The idiosyncratic way in which the performers perceive the world and react to it gives an opportunity of challenging the spectator’s established ideas of the fluency of the rhythm in the performance and his or her longing to be entertained. The rhythm of life according to the capitalistic world view requires constant movement. A so called exceptional situation, a disability or illness, imposes a pause and breaks the whirlwind in which our perception of reality is shaped.

I believe that if we set out ambitiously to create accessible performance art from its early origins to the staging, and aim to listen to the interests of the whole working party in addition to our own visions, we’ll be compelled to abandon restrictive concepts, which we use, routinely and without noticing, to practise multilevel exclusion and discrimination.

Inclusion requires the right attitude and financial resources but when practised, it increases every participant’s potential for changing their automatic patterns of thought and action, and for finding themselves searching for new ways of being human in a changing world.”

The working group of Kvartetto consists of Kati Raatikainen (choreography); Maria Lahti, Jarmo Patana, Sanna Tornikoski (dancers); Markku Essel (sound design); Milla Martikainen (space and lighting); Roosa Marttiini (costume design).