SPOKEN Dance is, first and foremost, about the joy of dancing. What makes it that bit different from other contemporary dance companies is that it is an integrated dance company, with dancers who have, and who do not have, a disability.
And, since the company was set up just 18 months ago, it has stunned audiences and won hearts right round the country, among them President Michael D Higgins for whom they performed last April in Rathfredagh Cheshire Home.
Now, Limerick audiences will have the chance to see and enjoy a full programme of dance when the dancers take to the stage for No Limits, Only Epiphanies at the Millennium Theatre at the Limerick Institute of Technology next Tuesday and again on Friday, April 19.
And among the pieces they will perform will be Getting to Know You, their first creation involving dancer Lisa Cahill and Sultan Kakar, originally from Afghanistan and now living in Limerick.
â€œGetting to Know You has travelled a lot,â€ Lisa grins, explaining that it has featured at some half-a-dozen or so arts festivals around the country within the last year.
But since that first dance-piece, their work has expanded and the initial band of three has also expanded and been joined by Rhona Coughlan. Originally set up in October 2011, with the support and backing of County Limerick Arts Officer, Joan MacKernan, the original trio were dancers and dance-teachers Mary Hartney, Foynes and Lisa Cahill, Patrickswell and IT student Sultan Kakar who became involved as a result of an open workshop run by Mary in UL.
Sultan is a wheelchair user who grew up in Afghanistan. â€œIf you remember the first war in Afghanistan, I was just four years of age. I was playing with my cousin in the garden. A Russian rocket went off and the shrapnel hit me in the back,â€ he explains. As a result, while he has some movement in his legs, â€œthey are not strong enoughâ€ and he gets about in a wheelchair. He spent several years at the UN Special School in Kandahar where there was sport but it was only after he came to Ireland that he became involved in dance.
A wheelchair athlete, he plays rugby and hurling from his chair, is an All-Ireland Boccia champion and also basketball at national level. He keeps fit by self-propelling himself between home and college each day,
â€œI am trying to inspire other wheelchair users. Donâ€™t give up your life. Do something,â€ he says. â€œI get teased. But inside your mentality is strong.â€
For him dance is important and an important extension of his can-do attitude. â€œI like it. I see other wheelchair users there and I try to show; you can do anything. You can move your body. I tell them I am in a wheelchair but I donâ€™t care. I am doing anything I want to do.â€
But perhaps the most telling thing is his own ability. â€œI have a talent for the chair,â€ he explains simply and with understatement.
Pushing the limits is a quintessential part of what Spoken Dance is about, Mary Hartney, who is well-known around the county for her role as dancer in residence with the County Arts Office. In that role, Mary has worked with children, young people and adults, who have varying levels of ability and disability and in varying settings.
But, having started out her career as a guest dancer with Daghda, Spoken Dance has provided Mary with a chance to return to what she loves doing, which is dancing. â€œ I am an older dancer who has had a lot of accidents. I never expected to be back performing. But now I see I have no reason not to perform. I canâ€™t say, I canâ€™t perform. The whole aim is that anybody of any ability can perform. I have no excuse. I love performing. It has brought me back to what I love most. â€œ
But both she and Lisa are clear that there are two distinct, though interactive, elements to their work. â€œ There are two sides to us. There is the performance side and then there is also the community side, working with people who are just coming to dance,â€ Mary explains. The community side is about encouraging people to get involved, in allowing people the freedom and space to dance and in making integrated dance visible.
And she recounts the story of a woman who attended their performance at the Galway Fringe Festival who had been an Irish dance teacher before she lost her sight. Afterwards, she came up to them and said â€œI believe I will dance again.â€
â€œIf they really love something, they can do it regardless of age, level or ability,â€ Mary emphasizes.
But as professional dancers, they also have to create work of a professional standard.
â€œWe are very focused on making very high quality contemporary dance work,â€ explains Lisa, an MA graduate of at UL who is now also dance director with Waterford Youth Arts. â€œWe are a contemporary dance company but we have something extra.
In Ireland it is very organic the way things are happening. I think we are really to the forefront of â€¨that.â€
Just as music has many styles, Lisa believes their take on contemporary dance is also distinctive. â€œWe cross a lot of boundaries,â€ she says.
But the fact that it is an integrated dance company does mark it out in special ways. â€œThe dance really speaks to people and they respond,â€ Lisa explains, adding: â€œIntegrated contemporary dance can be more accessible, it often speaks to the heart. We are always approached at the end. We always receive emails.â€
â€œOur heart is in the community. Our work is of the highest level. That is what is quite exciting and new: crossing boundaries.â€
But mixing varying levels of ability and disability brings challenges, the members of Spoken Dance are clear. It is, however, a wonderful challenge, Mary insists. â€œWe have to find new ways of moving where each of us is showing what we can do. We are all the time expanding what we can do. There are no limits, just epiphanies.â€
And there is satisfaction also that their approach to contemporary dance is recognised by Limerick County Arts Office through funding and support and by the Arts Council. Last year, Mary Hartney was the recipient of an Arts Council bursary to create a new dance piece with mentor Cathy Oâ€™Kennedy.
â€œI love the buzz when we are working together. It is very satisfying to be part of a group where you are creating and performing,â€ Lisa enthuses. â€œI think I would choose what we have here at Spoken Dance anytime.â€
No Limits, Only Epiphanies will be performed at 11am next Tuesday, April 16 and at 8pm on Friday, April 19 at the Millennium Theatre, LIT. Tickets cost â‚¬15 and â‚¬12 but groups of 10 or more can avail of â‚¬6 tickets. Spoken Dance will also perform at the opening of Eigse Michael Hartnett in Newcastle West on Thursday, April 25 and again on Friday, April 26 at 11am and 4pm. See eigsemichaelhartnett.ie for details.