2021 - A Year in Review

Yielding Change


Over the autumn, Stopgap updated their mission and vision. Here, Artistic Director Lucy Bennett reflects on the smaller conversations that have led to the bigger ambitions within Stopgap’s new company mission. By breaking up Stopgap’s mission into bitesize chunks - Lucy connects Stopgap’s big words to the detailed artistic work the Stopgap artists have tussled with during 2021.

When finally reading Stopgap’s revised mission and vision in print – I realised the words on paper only came to life because of the movement, grace, and creativity of all the staff at the heart of Stopgap. Without the quieter conversations and smaller actions to get through the low times of 2021, Stopgap would not have the confidence in 2022 to proclaim such high hopes.

A group of disabled and non-disabled dancers together in a dance studio

Stopgap dancers in a studio grouped together in a joyful clump, some stand and lean against each other, a wheelchair dancer cradles someone on their lap, others crouch and limbs entwine.

“Stopgap Dance Company is driven by a diverse creative team who uses dance as a movement for change.”

I want to focus on what a movement for change might look and feel like for a dance company with a diverse creative team. As an inclusive company, we are fortunate to be able to take care and time in the studio delving into what each individual has to offer. Therefore, I don’t think it is the loud, explosive movement for change that we would associate ourselves with, I think it’s more a consistent, persistent movement that expands gradually with a light but direct pressure. Similar to the conversation of movement that we dancers experience in contact improvisation:

  • We root our base
  • We receive our partners
  • We soften a little and let them lean into us
  • We then support them to shift with us to a new base
A black and white photo of two dancers.

A black and white photo of non-disabled dancers Amy Butler and KJ Mortimer together in the studio, both are white women. Amy leans backwards into KJ in a deep back bend, her arms brushing her ankles. KJ cradles Amy's head, smiling as she crouches and supports Amy' weight. In the background other dancers duet together.

In contact improvisation we often call this ‘yield’. Maybe when you hear or see the word ‘yield’ you think ‘to give up’. But for Stopgap, yield can also be like the moment before a cat or tiger pounces – there is calm easiness in their joints before an explosive leap.

An explosive leap – that could also be a movement for change, but for us, our consistent and persistent presence, with a firm commitment to inclusion, is what will yield people to come around to believing that inclusion is possible and desirable.

“Stopgap’s vision is to create an inclusive world where diversity is not just accepted but pursued, a world where no one is limited by prejudice against D/deaf, disabled, or neurodivergent people.”

The word ‘pursued’ is important. Through experiencing our work, we want our audiences, participants, and peers to believe that diversity is something that everyone should want, not something just to accept. Acceptance and humility had been our guise in previous years but, when the pandemic hit, we needed to pursue a new inclusive world with even more purpose because the one we knew was slipping away.

When we became aware that the only outlet for Stopgap’s work during lockdown was digital, we immediately pivoted and created the role of Access and Content Artist for and with Lily Norton. Lily and I are committed to meeting weekly and explore the puzzle of art and access.

At first, you might think it’s a wrestling match between an artist and access advocate, each engaging with each other from our own corner. But if it was a match, then this wouldn’t be your usual competition event, as Lily and I are very much wrestling for a draw or a truce.

This is a match where we want both contestants to win: art and access.

A capture of a zoom call with ten artists.

A Zoom video call on a laptop. Ten people within nine smaller boxes, connecting in creativity over the internet.

Over months, the company as a whole has learned to investigate how art and access can work together with authenticity in many other things that we do, and we are getting better at creating “a world where no one is limited by prejudice against D/deaf, disabled, or neurodivergent people”.

“We move together to create a remarkable experience that transforms society’s perceptions of difference and dismantle the inequity of privilege, in dance and in all aspects of living, collaborating, and creating together as humans.”

‘We move together’… this is the bedrock of our artistic works, and another important point to highlight. During the pandemic, our team moved towards each other virtually to support one and other.

I’d like to share an example:

It was lockdown, on a dark, wet afternoon when the Sg2 apprentices confided that they had lost their desire to dance. They were stuck in small rooms at home, deeply frightened about the future and crushingly disappointed with society. Through a screen they acknowledged that being creative could be a distraction. Gently we drifted into improvising on paper, imagining the dances we would do. We explored typography, audio description and self-felt dance experiences and before we realised it, we were playing with the visibility and invisibility of disabled dancers when there are no visuals. Together we choreographed our inner worlds into words, voices and sounds that was supported by a soundtrack composed by Hannah Moule of Moulettes… and the project Dance Tapes was born.

I bow my head to the spoked wheel of shame turned pride. 
I push down on the spongy mud guard 
simultaneously a brake 
and am prideful once again, for  
a prior decision well made.

An excerpt from the creative transcript of audio work 'My Whys' by Kat Ball. Swirls and arcs of pink watercolour edge Kat's words. A description of the sound begins the excerpt: 'Rhythmic strings bring us into a tranquil garden with bird song', then bold text reads: I bow my head to the spoked wheel of shame turned pride. I push down on the spongy mud guard, simultaneously a brake, and am prideful once again, for a prior decision well made.

By moving towards one another in limiting times, Stopgap created an original process that led to words like these from Kat Ball:

Stopgap’s apprentices Kat Ball and Sander Verbeek created two Dance Tapes tracks, and we received commissioning support from Pavilion Dance South West, Farnham Maltings and Arts Council Canada to involve disabled dance artists in Canada, Japan and London. We are hoping to launch six tracks of Dance Tapes in Spring 2022. The tracks will be engaging for deaf audiences too, through artistic transcripts, which our deaf Project Manager James Greenhalgh is working with Lily and the artists to create.

The inclusive work we made in response to the pandemic has hopefully made us even more adept at making works that can yield all of us towards dismantling inequity.

Two dancers in a floor duet.

Together on a light wooden studio floor in a duet, two dancers Kat Ball and Siobhan Hayes share a gentle moment of connection. Laying on her stomach Kat pushes herself up and rests her chin in the crook of Siobhan's elbow. Siobhan sits next to Kat and holds out her arm as a place for Kat to rest her head. Both are white, Kat has short cropped brown hair and Siobhan has brown hair tied back in a bun.

“Our work is both focused on and born out of the company’s rigorous investment in equity and inclusive culture. We are committed to removing barriers to dance, nurturing the talents of dancers born into any body and any mind. Stopgap is a global leader of disability access in dance and continuously examine best practice.”

The idea of examining reminds me of my recent experience of working with project manager James Greenhalgh to set up an Access Working Group for Stopgap’s YouTube dance class series, Home Practice.

To evaluate the accessibility of these online classes, we have organised a group of disabled critical friends who meet and give us feedback over Zoom. During the first meeting, we found ourselves in a frustrating and familiar corner where an access method for one dancer becomes a barrier for another dancer.

Exhausted we asked:

Do you know of any dance teaching videos for experienced disabled dancers that are doing this well, that we could follow? Because we really want to get this right

They quickly said:

Oh no, as far as we know there’s nothing like Home Practice, and we are so happy that you are being thorough and inclusive. To be honest this is the first time we have even been asked to contribute”

A big sigh of relief.

But only for a moment – because as our Mission and Vision states, Stopgap has committed to continuously examine best practice, so our job is never done. Bring on 2022!