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Since moving to the UK in 2013, with deep-seated determination, Nadenh Poan has grown with the company from an apprentice as part of Sg2, to devising and touring with the company as a full-time artist and teacher. Beckoning on his future, Nadenh now branches out creative limbs by making his own work, reflecting on a rich lifetime full of learning and artistic growth. Together we reflect on his journey from a small village in Cambodia to his latest achievement of premiering his choreography Reflections at Resolution, The Place’s platform for emerging choreographers.
Born in Cambodia, Nadenh experienced a turbulent childhood after contracting polio as a baby. Living in a small village with limited access to medical information and treatment, Nadenh spent the majority of his young life pulling himself along on his hands due to weakened lower limbs. At age 7 his family moved out from their village to live on a lake, and he found that being surrounded by water was freeing. Here Nadenh says “I spent my time learning life skills like swimming, fishing, and cooking, from my father who was a fisherman”. The small canoe his father handcrafted for him became his first mobility aid – allowing freedom of movement, to travel wherever he liked, watching wildlife in the jungle, and gliding around independently with ease.
These core memories are richly woven into the choreography of his new work Reflections. Nadenh recalls spending so much time looking down into the water; the jungle, sky, and a young boy reflecting back at him. Using these memories of the surrounding environment and how it felt to be constantly on the water, he embarked on his most ambitious choreographic journey yet.
Over his time with Stopgap Nadenh has made exceptional progress since arriving in the UK in 2013. As an original member of Sg2, our apprentice dance company, Nadenh trained, collaborated with established artists, performed nationally, taught and led in the community. Adjusting not just to a new company, but a new country he says “I am proud of my achievements with Sg2”, reflecting on the numerous projects, dance works and choreographic practices as part of the apprenticeship. Nadenh recalls the relief he felt after successfully auditioning to be in the main company, and how he’s since never stopped learning from fellow colleagues and external collaborators when working on productions and projects. With over eight years of experience under his belt and a growing desire to develop an idea, he was given opportunity and resources by Stopgap to choreograph a duet.
For Nadenh it felt like a poignant time to make work, making decisions about his life here in the UK and life in Cambodia. With family and friends in both countries, there is a feeling that whichever place you are in, a whole other part of your life continues existing halfway around the world. Perhaps this is why he decided to reflect back on his former life living on the lake, reconnecting the parts of himself that reside in Cambodia with the parts of himself in the UK.
Reflections is a duet choreographed on fellow Stopgap artists Christian Brinklow and Emily Lue-Fong. Dynamic and intuitive, the duet contemplates Nadenh’s dual identity, reflecting peace and wildness through contrasting rhythms and spirited interactions. Adding to the layers of experience, live music played on-stage by Nadenh creates an immediacy that ties audience, dancers and creator through sound, memory and physical storytelling.
Building on choreographic research from years prior, Nadenh shared with the dancer’s his childhood memories of home and living on the lake in the Cambodian jungle; these recollections wove around his experiences of arriving in the UK. Coming to terms with the facets of his identity, the work is a meditation on the uneasy feelings that come with newness and change, and the two dancers embody Nadenh at different points in his life creating a deeply intimate and insightful experience.
Taking a wheel back from dancing, Nadenh enjoyed the opportunity to watch and observe. Of his practice, dancer Emily says “Nadenh is very open, very generous with what his ideas are and his process. There’s a lot of flexibility to ask questions and make suggestions, but he also knows what he wants.” This speaks to a confidence that comes only with time. Fellow dancer Christian noted the influences from the processes Stopgap’s Artistic Director Lucy works with, “in both processes we always improvise extensively before anything is set, and then tend to reconstruct from recordings and dig deeper into what was found”.
Of Nadenh’s process, Lucy comments:
“Nadenh was very considerate when sharing his instructions with his dancers. As if bestowing secrets, Nadenh collaborated with Christian and Emily as individuals and affirmed their offerings with positive feedback. He then worked closely with them to translate his movement phrases, gently but firmly pushing them to look for the details.
I could see that the tools, tasks and approach that Nadenh reached for when wanting to share his story and ideas were all influenced by the Stopgap artists, present and past. It was a happy moment when I observed Nadenh’s creation process. I realised that Nadenh, Chris Pavia and myself will always take Stopgap’s inclusive process with us, no matter who we are creating with. I also finally understood what people meant when they commented that Stopgap had a choreographic style. A style that I now know is as much about approach as it is about movement.”
For Nadenh, Reflections was a step-up in terms of professional work and responsibilities. Co-ordinating rehearsals and leading the creation process, creating an original soundtrack and composing live on-stage, organising the costuming and lighting of the work. All of this activity wrapped around the actual choreographing of the work, adding extra layers of management for Nadenh.
However he also contributes so much to the support of Stopgap: “I couldn’t do it without them”. Alongside years of investment in Nadenh’s training and artistic voice, within this project Nadenh was given time, expertise and guidance. Fellow artists provided feedback during sharings and rehearsals, access support with the application to Resolution, and support with marketing and communications. Everyone in Stopgap supports the progression of artists, everyone in the company is so willing to share their time and expertise because we each believe so strongly in the creative potential of each and every member of the company.
After months of development, watching the work live at Resolutions was an exciting and proud moment for Nadenh’s family, friends and everyone from Stopgap. Drawing a large audience, Reflections was met with great enthusiasm. In a review of the work, when commenting on the dancers, writer Jodie Nunn remarks on their ‘astonishingly low centre of gravity’. I smiled in recognition of how the principles of translation between bodies meant that Nadenh’s lower centre of gravity was emulated within the two standing dancers. Nadenh works with such tight grounding, shifting low along the floor which is guided by his core. For it to be noted on stage demonstrates the attention to detail Nadenh worked with, and how Stopgap’s choreographic practices are embedded in the process. The work is refreshing; for so long contemporary choreography replicates the (almost always) standing body of its creator, which can lead to a fairly monotonous cycle of movement. When a disabled choreographer has an opportunity to create work, their individual voice transmits across through their choreography, whether that be their thinking processes, body, or ideas. It’s interesting to see the work of an artist whose primary movement modality is with a wheelchair, choreographed on non-disabled bodies. The textures and movement patterns unique to Nadenh create an incredibly interesting physicality in the two standing dancers’ bodies, and they harness Nadenh’s power and vibrancy stemming from his fundamental passion.
Extremely proud of this latest achievement, Nadenh recognises how it wouldn’t have been possible to make this work years prior; professional growth and support from Stopgap has provided the artistic and leadership skills needed, and personal growth has allowed for introspection and strength. To conclude his reflections, I asked how it feels to be a leader, he shared “when I was a child I didn’t have any disabled role models to look to. I didn’t know what I could achieve, it felt like there was nowhere to go. It feels good to now be that role model for others.” In both the community and on international stages Nadenh is a shining example of the potential of disabled leaders.
Growing from this experience Nadenh says he’s learnt that true leadership is not just one person dictating their ideas to everyone, it means working as a company. Collaboration and respect are highly valued by Nadenh as a leader and his future ambitions beckon in more and more artists to continue his leadership development.
Discover more about Stopgap’s Choreographic Practice here: stopgapdance.com/inclusive-choreography/