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Features Performance Published 13 May 2014

Disability, Process and Integration

Lucy Bennett, Artistic Director of Stopgap Dance Company, talks about social integration in performance and process ahead of the London premiere of their latest piece, Artificial Things, at Sadler's Wells.
Lucy Bennett

Stopgap Dance Company works with exceptional disabled and non-disabled dancers to make exhilarating performances. We tour nationally and internationally to represent what social integration might look like using the medium of movement and physical expression. The merits of working with a diverse cast might seem quite obvious when our artistic aim is to depict integration, but I hope to elaborate on this on this by talking about our artistic goal and how our cast is involved in the devising process.

When a diverse cast works as a cohesive unit, it inevitably gives a strong visual message to its audiences. People tend to perceive a utopia of social cohesion when we display unity and dystopia when we exaggerate the differences. It’s fair to say that they might see cliched scenes of a disabled person being ostracised and some ideals about unity amongst diversity, but we have a team who can have frank conversations and dig much deeper into these obvious ideas during the creative process. The reality about disability and integration is much more complex than what people assume, and our work aims to expose the different degrees to which cohesion can be attained.

To achieve our artistic goal, I collaborate with a tightly knit team of dancers who experience disabilty and integration on a daily basis and are willing to express opinions about my ideas and begin a dialogue about their experiences. Some of our dancers have been with the company for over a decade, so they are quite open to exploring the issues at hand. The sense of trust is very important in developing work as a collective, and their involvement as collaborators means that our work has more authentic emotional force. In a subtle way, our dancers are revealing some personal truths in our work, and I think this is what makes it appealing to our audience.

I particularly enjoy working with learning disabled dancers because they tend to have less inhibition, and their ability to become immersed within their fantasy is invaluable during the devising process. They give me fresh and honest ideas and their ability to be ‘in the zone’ has a positive effect on everyone.

In this collaborative devising process, it’s important to create a horizontal and not vertical working relationship. The joy of being in integrated dance is the richness of what the dancers can give you, so it’s important to listen, watch and work with them. A type of top down method wouldn’t work very well.

As a choreographer, I’m also interested in alternative ways of moving and in creating a new visual language from them. For me, it’s not about getting the dancers to pretend to hit the conventional dance shapes and lines, but coming up with entirely new ones that our dancers can offer as a group.

It’s important to stress at this point that disabled dancers involved in our touring work are not amateurs. They might not focus on those shapes and lines, but they work hard at getting to know their bodies and finding bespoke techniques. During their training, they refine their capacity for physical expression just as hard as non-disabled dancers do. At Stopgap, we have trained our own disabled dancers over the last 15 years, and we are currently nurturing a handful of new ones. Most of our non-disabled dancers have also been with the company for a number of years and have developed a real understanding of alternative dance aesthetic too. Through this long-standing involvement of core individuals, we’ve devised a unique method of blending our individual styles to create a collective movement vocabulary, and this is the secret behind our ability to physically express integration.

Dance is a form of physical and non-verbal expression, and it can make you feel and think about complicated things like social integration in a very direct way. In this sense, it has an advantage over words and theatre. By nurturing and working with artists who know about the issues at hand, we aime to redefine old ideas and bring about new perspectives through our work.

Stopgap Dance Company will be performing Artificial Things at Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, London on 13th and 14th May as part of the =dance series. Stopgap will also be delivering a workshop on 14th May at Sadler’s Wells.  

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