Dance, disability, and the pluralistic audience
: a phenomenographic engagement

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    There is a large body of interdisciplinary research on the disabled dancer’s experience. However, there is no research that explores how dance featuring disabled artists enables different ways of understanding disability to be manifested. This applied phenomenographic research contributes to the area of developing approaches to the understanding of the impact of such performances on how disability is understood in society. The analysis encourages funding bodies and arts venues to reflect on their current practices. Are their existing commissioning, selection and evaluation processes surrounding integrated and inclusive dance works truly all-encompassing and fair?

    Audience members who attended the 2018 performances of Candoco Dance Company’s Face In (2017) across five different venues in the United Kingdom were interviewed as part of this research. The question was: ‘What are the different ways of understanding disability in your experience of Face In?’ Phenomenographic analysis was applied to accounts of their experience of watching. This was then contextualised with a thematic analysis of performers’ accounts of their experience. The research documents the different ways of understanding disability that exist in this space between watching contemporary integrated dance and audience engagement. It also uncovers the points of connection between performer and audience research.

    Six ways of understanding emerged from the analysis. These were rooted in core understandings about disability. They ranged from ideas of limitation, lack, or restriction, to ideas of neutrality, opening up, or innovation.

    Thirty-six categories of description, revealing ‘further degrees of meaning’ were developed by placing the ways of understanding in relation to nine aspects of the performance on which audience members focused. These were used to create a series of descriptors which further break down the ways of understanding.

    The challenges and constraints of audience engagement research in live integrated dance performances often mean that value-laden constructs such as disability cannot receive the depth of interrogation that they need. Working with these limitations, this approach to audience and performer experience analysis provides a way into this elusive space. Apart from providing the company, its dancers, and choreographers with insights into what their work ‘does’ in expanding society’s thinking around disability, it shows how performance becomes creative work that is performative beyond the stage.

    Additionally, it is proof of the need to consider the democratic nature of disability when evaluating impact. Understanding disability is a continuous, collective endeavour, with the power of its definition belonging to many spaces – aesthetic and otherwise – and everyone who experiences it in different contexts. Beyond these spaces, the utterances of experts and non-specialists live on in the everyday. It is this capacity of a performance to generously offer plurality to an audience that needs to be acknowledged in impact evaluation.

    Ultimately, given contemporary dance’s unique nature as exploration of the body as aesthetic communication through movement, it is also proof that dance is the only mode of communication with this capacity for social enquiry into disability.
    Date of AwardSept 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorKaren Wood (Supervisor), Sarah Whatley (Supervisor) & Charlotte Waelde (Supervisor)

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