The Ghent organisation Platform-K is unique in Belgium. It is the only place where dancers with physical and mental disabilities are trained, and where they can then move on to a company that produces professional dance productions. Platform-K was established under the guidance of the Handicum training centre (now Konekt). Their theatre and dance workshops turned out to be a great success, after which Konekt director Koen Deweer and member Kurt Vanhauwaert decided in 2008 to set up a separate non-profit organisation specifically aimed at the artistic development of people with a disability. In the beginning, Platform-K, which has been receiving a subsidy under the Arts Decree since 2009, worked in a multidisciplinary way: people with disabilities who lived at home or in a facility were able to register for a project in the field of video art, dance, photography or theatre. Each project is guided by a professional artist.
Platform-K decided in 2013 to concentrate exclusively on dance and to set up a permanent company. It thus filled a gap in the Flemish arts field, where the socio-artistic sector is particularly well represented in the areas of theatre and visual art.
Responding to the need to work less on a project basis, and to deepen its expertise, Platform-K decided in 2013 to concentrate exclusively on dance and to set up a permanent company. It thus filled a gap in the Flemish arts field, where the socio-artistic sector is particularly well represented in the areas of theatre and visual art. This also allowed Platform-K to do some catching-up internationally. In Scotland and Great Britain, integrated dance companies have taken root: groups where dancers with and without a disability work together, with both representing added value for each other.
Training at home
Platform-K also follows the British model of an ‘inclusive’ company, although it prefers to avoid the term ‘inclusion dance’, which is often used to refer in a limiting way to the cooperation between dancers with and without a disability. As if it concerned a different form or style of dancing. Performers Kobe Wyffels, Hannah Bekemans, Sarah Snoeij, Fernando Amado and Véronique Mees form the core of the company, and are supported by artistic coordinator Inge Lattré and educational assistant Frauke Seynnaeve. The dancers are all trained in the ‘workplace’ of Platform-K, where a total of some fifteen people with a disability attend classes. Professional teachers introduce them to breathing techniques, yoga, floor work, release techniques, partnering and strength training – the basic principles of contemporary dance. In offering training, Platform-K aims to address the limited possibilities for people with a disability to move on to regular higher dance education. The Antwerp Conservatory (Dance) has been offering a module on inclusion dance for a number of years, which is a big step forward, but until now, people with a disability have been unable to follow fully-fledged training.
Platform-K has been working for five years, and in that time has realised four major dance productions in which both disabled and non-disabled dancers are always on stage together: The Beast in the Jungle (in collaboration with Het KIP, 2015); the international production You et Vous (in collaboration with StopGap, Indepen-Dance and Micadanses, 2015); Monkey Mind (in collaboration with Lisi Estaras/Les Ballets C de la B, 2016) and Common Ground (in collaboration with Benjamin Vandewalle, 2018). Yet it is difficult to speak of a house style. For each production, a professional guest choreographer is engaged with his or her own vision and poetics, resulting in an eclectic mix of productions at the intersection of dance and theatre.
Of course there are a number of key elements. Thus for example, the personalities of the dancers always come strongly to the fore. The search for authenticity and personal expression, apart from technical ability, partly seems to be a conscious choice to allow the viewer to ignore the limitation and all the prejudices that come with it, but also a natural fact: most members of the company, including three people with Down syndrome, have a distinct character that they do not want nor cannot hide on stage.
In the pleasantly disturbed Monkey Mind, choreographer Lisi Estaras even grafts entire scenes on the life world and interests of Kobe Wyffels, Hannah Bekemans and Fernando Amado. Thus she allows showboat Kobe, who is crazy about jumping, to go for it on stage to his favourite music. Figo fan Fernando does his thing to a Portuguese song in a football outfit, and Hannah turns out to be a seductive diva like she dares to be in real life.
At Platform-K, it is important that the dancers not only perform, but also ‘create’. It is a precondition for joining the company, and the invited choreographers must also be able to involve the dancers in the process as autonomous creators.
At Platform-K, it is important that the dancers not only perform, but also ‘create’. It is a precondition for joining the company, and the invited choreographers must also be able to involve the dancers in the process as autonomous creators. This is the reason for example why improvisation often plays an important role in the creation, but also in the performances themselves. It is rewarding for people with a disability to collect material independently. Members who do not have the verbal or abstraction capacity to discuss around the rehearsal table, can still contribute to giving form to the performance.
The result of this can be seen in the third part of Common Ground. Here, Wyffels and Bekemans dance a duet that they completely choreographed themselves. Choreographer Benjamin Vandewalle, who himself is on stage, added a voice-over to the slow dance phrases in which you hear Wyffels and Bekemans – in everyday life a couple – busy during the rehearsals. Bekemans, who is very strong linguistically, teaches English words to Wyffels, who often comes up with his own versions. It gives honest and funny insight into their life and relationship, which fits nicely with the intimacy of their duet. Through the camera, which enlarges certain details of their movements on a screen, this scene develops with proximity and distance, trust and strangeness. ‘I thought it was important not only to show Kobe and Hannah as dancers, but also as people,’ says Vandewalle about that choice. ‘The process we have gone through and our dynamics become part of the piece. The bond between us is the core of the performance.’
What Vandewalle refers to here actually applies to most productions of Platform-K. They almost always take as inspiration the ‘inclusive situation’, the meeting between dancers with and without a disability. Often it is already so richly loaded with meaning and connotations that an external theme becomes superfluous, not least because the worlds of disabled and non-disabled people seldom cross in ordinary life.
In The Beast in the Jungle, Kobe Wyffels shares the stage with British-Indian Taha Ghauri, a graduate from P.A.R.T.S., the dance school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The entire production is about their relationship and within this, the men examine the many dimensions: dependence, care, but also competition, power and an almost slapstick-like drive. With great humour, choreographers Charlotte Dhaenens and Oliver Roels of Het KIP act out the prejudices that come with a duet between someone with and without a disability. Ghauri, for example, constantly speaks in English with Wyffels, who often does not understand him, yet answers because it is written so in the script. At the same time, Wyffels knows very well the game he is being called to play, and several times engages in a battle of wits with Ghauri. A new comical duo seems to be born.
Also in Monkey Mind, Estaras plays with that (coloured) perception of resemblance and difference between people with and without a disability, and makes jokes about a number of sexual taboos. Lovers Wyffels and Bekemans, for example, simulate lovemaking in their underwear. Wyffels and Amado dance a loving duet chin to chin. It is an intimacy that is all too often censored when it comes to people with disabilities. Especially the beautiful end scene between Amado and non-disabled dancer Anna Calsina, shows the potential of dance with such a diverse cast. He tries to reassure her after a spasmodic dance, strokes her body with a gentle hand until her breathing becomes calm. You look at a relationship that, for so many reasons, cannot be, as if the disability radically cleaves the intimate space between them. At the same time you see a man and a woman sharing the same desire for comfort and security, creating a different, equal relationship. Normality or disability fade, and in the shadow two beautiful, strong people emerge.
Estaras shows the difference, but experiences it at the same time. That is precisely the ambition of Platform-K as such: they want to show the power of dancers with a disability, without reducing them to that disability.