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Interview: Welly O’Brien – A Year of Frida

Welly O’Brien hadn’t even considered a career in dance until after she lost a leg in an accident in 1994 at the age of 19, but a chance encounter with Candoco Dance Company changed all that. Carmel Smith from interviewed Welly at the end of last year to find out more about her 18 year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – and her year of Frida…

Falling in Love with Frida is Caroline Bowditch’s response to her extensive research into the life & work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Do you feel a similar connection with Kahlo as well?

To be honest I think most women could find some sort of connection to Frida Kahlo, whether its through her work, her personality, life experiences or sexuality. I hadn’t known much about her before working with Caroline. I guess like most of us I knew her for her mono brow, a few of her pictures and that she liked to have flowers and ribbons in her hair… She was actually quite a complex person. For me I think I feel a connection her through her disability and that her art form was an expression of who she was and how she presented herself.

You’ve been having an intensely ‘Frida’ time lately – as you were also involved in another production based on Kahlo’s life and work earlier this year…

Yes, it was fun to work on another production about Frida. I was approached by Bradley Hemmings to perform in The Four Fridas commissioned by Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF) in July. It was an outdoor spectacle, with 2,000 person capacity, whereas Caroline’s Falling in Love with Frida is always performed in an intimate space with never more than 100 people.

It’s what I love about being a freelancer that you can work in so many different ways. I find a joy in performing large scale and small, they both offer very different experiences both for audience and as a performer. In both productions there were immediate similarities reflecting her life and works, (ie costumes and watermelons!) but other than that, Caroline and Bradley depicted very different parts of Frida’s work and life.

Bradley commissioned Wired, an aerial company from Liverpool, to create an extravaganza on a 10 × 11 meter wall hanging from a crane in the sky. It slightly scared me, as it’s the highest I have ever performed but I loved being a part of it.

Caroline work depicts the subtleties of Frida, the piece explores the similarities and connections of women. We perform around a duplicate of Frida’s bright yellow kitchen table and chairs, which we move around the set during the show.

I have thoroughly loved having a ‘Frida year’ working on both projects with two fantastic casts. Fingers crossed there will be longevity for both shows.

You started to dance only after you lost a leg (in an accident in 1994). How did that come about?

I met Candoco Dance Company around three months after I lost my leg. It was at an open workshop where I was learning to walk again – and I’ve never looked back. I had been interested in dance before my accident but I had never entertained the idea of pursuing it as a career.

I was very fortunate that Adam Benjamin and Celeste Dandeker the co-founders and artistic directors of the company at the time gave me opportunities and encouragement to train and work with them.

Do you think the use of dance in rehabilitation after injury could be more widely exploited?

I think there is an enormous need for dance or movement in rehab after an injury – it helps people adapt to their new body make up or shape. Sadly in the United Kingdom I don’t feel there is enough help available after an injury to fully discover one’s potential physically. In other countries people have much more help and facilities in rehabilitation. For me, dance was fantastic.

You went on to dance with Candoco for some years, before moving on to dance with other companies. How difficult/easy has it been to make that transition to companies who weren’t necessarily known as ‘integrated’?

Candoco are a London based company of both disabled and able bodied dancers. They produce high quality mid-scale work and tour and teach both nationally and internationally. After training with them on an apprenticeship for nearly two years, I joined them and worked full time for four years, I left in 2004 to have a family. In 2009 I joined them again to understudy dancers who have been injured. Since then I have taken part in various performances, projects and teaching.

As well as freelancing with Candoco, I’ve worked with other companies – including Graeae, Scarebeus, La Fura dels Baus and Frontline Dance. I’ve been very lucky in that all the other projects and companies have been easy to integrate with. They have all been very open in adapting work or finding ways to work together – on all occasions there has been a two way dialogue.

Tell us about some of the highlights in your 18 years (so far) working in dance….

I have been so lucky to have had a career in dance for such a long period and travelled the world. There have been so many performances I have loved working on, with great people, that it’s hard to pick specific ones. But – I guess highlights have been performing in Prometheus Awakes with La Fura dels Baus and Graeae at GDIF (2013) when I bungee jumped out of a sack filled with water hanging from a crane 60 meters up in the air above 2,000 people. It was the first time my kids had seen me perform in such a large scale show. They loved it.

The second would be performing at the Paralympic London 2012 Closing Ceremony dancing to songs sung live by Coldplay – with Candoco and ten other commercial dancers. I was blown away by the enormity of it, the huge crowd in the Olympic stadium. It was a very different way of working, but really fun.

An old colleague Kate Marsh and I have been very lucky to have recently been given a grant by Arts Council England to create work choreographed by ourselves. It has been so refreshing. We have enjoyed spending time in the studio feeling free to exploring the ways in which we want to move, working with our specific physicalities on ideas we have talked about for years but have never had the time or space to play. We produced a film – the lily the rose – directed by Charlotte Darbyshire and Famuli a duet which we’ve performed in different venues around the country.

And any challenges?

I have found it hard at times to be away from my kids. Luckily I have managed to not have huge blocks of time away but it’s tricky to get a balance. There have been moments when I have been injured, or occasionally times in the studio struggling with choreographers.

What dance styles/movement practices have you worked with most?

I have always been interested in release based technique and improvisation, I feel there is more scope for class and also in creating work. I think ballet can be important to many people but for me personally it has never been so appealing as I haven’t found it very accessible. I know for many colleagues though it has been the grounds for their training and discipline.

You’re also an aerialist…

I adore aerial work, it’s very different to contemporary dance. In training and creation you work in short but very physical bursts, unlike contemporary, where you could spent hours or days one thing. I always feel more connected to myself when doing aerial work, maybe because of the unexpectedness of it.

Is it your sense that the dance world/audiences are now more open to integrated practice?

Thank goodness the world is more open to integrated dance but I still think there’s a way to go.

Thanks to Unlimited (a project at the heart of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad celebrating the work of deaf and disabled artists) and other organisations more work is being produced by disabled artists. There are more platforms for work to be seen. I was performing up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year and there was a large amount of high quality integrated work being shown, which was fantastic to see. I think the more work is out there, the more it will be seen by more and more people so that it will become the norm. Hopefully in time the word ‘integrated’ won’t be used anymore.

What would you advice be to anyone who is interested in dance, but feels that they can’t – and who doesn’t have a Candoco class near by?

If someone is interested in dance they should be able to access a class anywhere. My advice would be to approach the person teaching a class and chat to them about taking part.

There is always a way in, whatever ones physicality, there can sometimes be a bit of trial and error on both parts but it’s worth having a go. If you are struggling in finding somewhere, start up your own class with others and find a teacher that you all like. If you want something enough there’s always a way!

The Sydney season of Falling in Love with Frida plays at Riverside Theatres 4 – 5 March. Secure your seats now to avoid missing out!

This interview, by Carmel Smith, originally appeared on, the website covering all aspects of dance in London, produced by Sadler’s Wells.

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