Ready, Willing and Able
Church, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
Anyone who saw London Contemporary Dance perform at Manchester Opera House on 8 December 1973 will have vivid memories of that night. The Company were rounding off a triumphant Northern tour; they were tired but in fine form. Their young star, a mercurial Anglo-Indian called Celeste Dandeker, was fighting a heavy cold, but went on regardless. The programme was an acrobatic one, with Dandeker somersaulting through the air over the bodies of her colleagues. All went well until one particular jump.
"She misjudged it, and just flopped," recalls a member of the audience. "Then almost instantly she started crying - an unearthly sound. Everyone froze. It seemed an age before a doctor came up out of the audience, and made them bring down the curtain."
Two decades on, Dandeker's memories of the event are patchy. "Instead of landing on my feet, I went half over again, and landed on my chin with my bum in the air. The next thing I remember, was waking up in the wings, and yelling my head off. My limbs felt light, as though I was floating, and I remember moving my head from side to side and thinking, Christ, my neck hurts. I remember the ambulance driver saying: `Take care how you lift her', but the next day in hospital I don't remember at all."
Only when they took her to the spinal unit in Oswestry three days later did she learn she'd broken her neck. "At the time it never occurred to me that I'd never walk again. I just thought, `I'm still alive, and that's great.' " She spent the next seven months in physiotherapy, and doing "passive" exercise. "But I had very little strength to push with. I was a little weakling."
The gracefully animated woman telling me this in the Barbican's ground- floor cafe may be sitting in a wheelchair, but she gives no hint of helplessness. It's hard to believe that the strength she uses to light up, drink her coffee, and illustrate her words with gestures, emanates from the muscles in her shoulders. "The nerves affected are from the seventh vertebra down, and run through the middle of my arms. I've got no triceps, so I can't open my arm towards you. If you shake my hand, I can't grip yours at all." She proffers a cluster of limp fingers to make the point. "But I've got biceps, so I've found other ways of gripping things - picking up a cup like this," with two hands. "And, in the same way, I can write," with her pen firmly clamped between 10 useless fingers. "You find ways to do things, and then they become normal to you." She demonstrates with an air of ironical amusement, as though giving a performance.
There were three things she desperately needed to learn as soon as possible after the accident. "How to hold a glass, because I liked my wine. How to put my make-up on. And how to smoke a cigarette - though I had to wait till I left the clinic for that." She now smokes six or eight cigarettes a day. "I know it's not sensible because having no intercostals or abdominals I can't use my lungs to their full capacity. But I feel good. And I'm not a great drinker, because I drive." (Like a whizz, says one of her friends later: with a three-pronged grip on the steering wheel.) "In fact," Dandeker says, "I'm quite an able disabled person."
That's putting it mildly. She's a leading member of Aspire, the campaigning charity for people with spinal injuries. She travels a lot, and leads a vigorously independent social life. As co-founder and artistic director of an ensemble called CandoCo, she has given the dance world its most beneficial shake-up in decades. Next week she will be on stage at the Royal Court as a performer in CandoCo's current tour. Yet her quadriplegia is no less severe now than it was 23 years ago. Is this a mystery, or what?
As she tells her tale, it becomes clear there have been no miracles: it's been a long haul from the despair that hit her when, after her stay in Oswestry, she went …
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Publication information: Article title: Ready, Willing and Able. Contributors: Church, Michael - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: June 17, 1996. Page number: 30,31. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.