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Ems Coombes - disability arts online
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Ems interviews Caroline Bowditch, choreographer and performer, who is currently working with Scottish Dance Theatre / 28 April 2011

photo of face of dancer Caroline Bowditch, smiling at the camera

Photo of Caroline Bowditch, choreographer and performer

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Ems Coombes: Caroline Bowditch, Hello and welcome to the Artist Treasure Hunt.

Caroline Bowditch: Thanks for having me.

EC: That’s okay. It’s quite exciting, isn’t it.

CB: (Laughter) It is exciting. Why is it called the Artist Treasure Hunt?

EC: Because I want to find other artists. Other disabled artists. So I’m hoping that I’ll find new blood.

CB: Are you going to make a map and mark where the treasure is?

EC: Maps are so one of my things.

CB: Well, there you go.

EC: Do you want to tell us a bit about your practice and who you are?

CB: Yes. I’m an independent performance artist. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a dancer. I would call myself a choreographer. My practice is that I am passionate about working with bodies that don’t necessarily fit the dance mould, whatever that might be. I like working in unusual places. (Laughter) And I make work that is multi-faceted and often is based around text. But I hope and continue to want to make high-quality work that makes people think and feel.

EC: In your life, what has been – what made you become who you are?

CB: That’s a very big question.

EC: Or maybe – maybe a sort of touch point or springboard into your creative world.

CB: Okay. I think the springboard was probably my introduction to contact improvisation. And as I said to you earlier today, and really feeling like I landed in my skin. For the first time in my life. And became aware of what was physically possible for me rather than living in a state of fear based on what I’d been told I couldn’t do.

EC: Contact improvisation? You said that that was the touch-point. But why did you do it?

CB: I did it because Candoco were coming to Australia for the first time, in 1996. And there was a project called Moveable Dance co-ordinated by an organisation called Arts Access based in Melbourne. And they were – they wanted to bring together a group of disabled people who had some performance experience. And because I had done a degree majoring in performing arts, and had therefore done performance, I was involved in the project.

EC: Was that the first time you’d worked inclusively or had you worked inclusively before?

CB: I had gone to a special school until I was 8. And after that time, I was integrated. So I’d always been around other disabled people. It wasn’t like that was the first time I had met anyone with a disability, other than myself.

EC: What about working with non-disabled people?

CB: I suppose in a way, it probably was the first time that I had worked in that kind of level-playing-field sort of a way. Yes. I suppose it was the first time I worked inclusively.

EC: Did you – how did you feel about working inclusively?

CB: I don’t think I really noticed. I mean, I wasn’t conscious that it was a different environment. I didn’t necessarily go there and think, “This is a really different world to anywhere else.” Yes, so I don’t think I was really that conscious of it at the time.

EC: An influential piece of art work. Or an influential artist. And why they are so influential?

CB: I think that this is – I’m not saying this because I’m in Plymouth. But I think that an influential artist and someone who keeps recurring in my life and has had a major impact on me and my dance development has to be Adam Benjamin. He was still involved in Candoco. I met him 1996. I can still remember the exercises that he led in that workshop. And I can’t say that of anyone else that I have ever worked with.

I have worked with him as a choreographer, in terms of me being one of his dancers. He continues to be a mentor to me. And we continue to have interesting conversations on which we disagree and agree on lots of things. But there is always an interesting dialogue.

EC: You worked on a project with him as well, didn’t you? Can you talk a little bit about that?

CB: He choreographed a piece on the Fathom Project which was a group that I was involved in setting up based in Newcastle. And he made a piece on us called Slight. But the year before that, I had also worked with him just as a dancer when I had gone to work with Scottish Dance Theatre and he’d come to be the choreographer of the piece on the company. And the main company had brought in four disabled dancers to work with their non-disabled dancers. The company dancers.

EC: So he’s been very influential throughout your career really, hasn’t he?

CB: Absolutely.

EC: Last but definitely not least, probably because there’s actually points to this one. Okay. So three pivotal moments in your life or your career?

CB: Getting on a plane to move to the UK and not knowing what I was going to find. Other than the man that I was going to marry at the other end. Leaving a job that I loved, a house that I loved, everything that was familiar. My family. All of my friends. To move to a new country knowing two people. That was fairly pivotal.

Having someone say to me, “What is it that you want to say on stage that you think is going to be so important for an audience to see?” Which sent me into a complete state of shock. But also really made me think about the work that I was making. And it made me ensure that it wasn’t trivial in the least. But by the time it got to performance, it was absolutely ready to be there. And deserved to be there. And I think that doesn’t happen a lot. So that was another one.

EC: I was going to say, looking into your eyes right at this moment, Miss Bowditch, you – there is an awful lot of life story going on in them. (laughter)

CB: Yes, I think the other point possibly for me was when Janet Smith, the artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre, asked me if I would be prepared to go and work with the company on tour as one of the dancers after a week’s R&D. And me really having to have a good hard look at myself and think, “Are you actually prepared for that? Are you prepared to take this next step and actually really consider yourself to be a professional dancer?”

EC: And the answer to that question?

CB: Yes, I am.

EC: (Laughter) Fantastic. Good for all of us really. I know, I know I said three questions. But something has really interested me. Last week, Andrew McLay said something about sex is a very interesting point for a disabled person. Now you mentioned nudity earlier.

CB: Yes.

EC: And because of your physicality, I’m wondering how difficult is that of a concept. You know, to be nude in front of people. Is that, you know, I  mean have ever considered it? Have you ever done it? What is your take on that?

CB: I’ve posed nude for a female disabled painter. And been made much larger than I really am. So –

EC: Do you mean taller?

CB: Whilst I’m – I was kind of in one of those Titanic poses.

So reclining and whilst I am 3 foot 4, these canvases ended up being about 6 foot high and I think probably about 8 foot long. And I was across three of them. So it was completely – it was a massive, massive image of me.

When I came to the UK and I started working with Fiona Wright as part of a collaboration called Girl Jonah, she asked me whether I would go topless and bottomless. And I said, “Yes.” And I did it. But I had the biggest anxiety attack I’ve ever had in my life before I had to go on stage. (Laughter) Mostly because my boss was sitting in the front row.

But also, having said that, the painting that was done was also viewed by my boss a week before I started the job. So it’s kind of like there’s this weird connection between me getting naked and –

But I think nudity is something that lots of people shy away from in inclusive work. And the work that I did with Fiona was much more seen in the live art setting. And I think in a way, that’s where lots of disabled artists end up, is in the live art kind of fringy sort of places. Rather than mainstream dance scene.

EC: Do you think it’s because of the ‘disabled gaze’. You know, it’s – how people sort of look at you for you – will they look at you for your disability? Or will they look at you? You know the gaze is a strange one.

CB: Yes. I think I get fascinated by this fact that, as a society, we’re encouraged not to stare. Whereas in performance, that’s exactly  what you’re aiming for. And I think there’s a real juxtaposition. And almost a contradiction in that. Because we are inviting people to look. Actually, that’s what we want.

But once we step off the stage, that’s not what we want any more. And that’s about control for me. That’s about the fact that I can’t control what people think. But for once I can control what they see. In a way. How they read that, I can’t control.

And also, I think that I have a very strong sense of my body. I have a very strong sense of body confidence. In a recent relationship, my then partner said, I have never ever been with someone who knows their body as well as you do. And it was just like, “Yes. Absolutely. And why the hell shouldn’t I?” (Laughter)

EC: I was going to say that this stems from all the work that you’ve done with your genetic make up and everything. You know, and I think that this goes for a lot of disabled people. Me as one of them. You know when I realised that I was disabled, I looked and researched into what it meant to have a stroke. What it meant to be disabled. You know, how I looked, my physicality. I think that once we get to that place, you know, like you with Candoco, when they came to – that it frees you up.

CB: Yes.

EC: And you think, “Okay. So now I can accept myself. So you look to see why – what’s going on there. And then ask for other people to accept you to.

CB: I think that’s probably not true for me. I don’t mind if people accept it or not. But I suppose in a way I do. Because otherwise I wouldn’t make an effort in terms of how I look. I wouldn’t actually put in any effort. (Laughter) If I didn’t care.

EC: No, exactly. You wouldn’t have sat here putting your make up on before hand. You know. And we wouldn’t want our performances to sell out and things like that if we didn’t want to be understood and accepted, surely?

CB: Yes, absolutely.

EC: But I think that’s a human condition. I don’t think that necessarily stops at disability.

CB: I think also the longer I am in my body, the more accepting I become of it. I remember being 16 and completely hating it. And just – it was never going to be good enough. But I was being a teenage girl. And that wasn’t about having a disability. Necessarily. It was about being 16 and wanting to fit in.

EC: Acceptance again, I suppose.

CB: Yes.

EC: Maybe that’s what we’re searching for all the time.

CB: Yes. Yes.

EC: Well, Miss Bowditch. It’s been a wondrous weekend and a wondrous interview. And I hope to see you again soon.

CB: Indeed.

EC: Thank you ever so much.

CB: You are very welcome. And anytime. (Laughter)