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‘How many disabled people do you see in positions of leadership, decision-making and power? What is the difference between making one’s voice heard and appropriating that voice?’
– Manifesto of Al.Di.Qua. Artists, the first Italian association for artists with disabilities
In 2022, Oriente Occidente and Stopgap Dance Company embarked on a year-long project to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in the Italian and UK dance scenes, funded by the British Council’s International Collaboration Grants. In this blog, Project Manager James Greenhalgh outlines the collaboration and interviews Stopgap’s Co-Artistic Director, Laura Jones and Community Engagement Artist, Cherie Brennan to share their reflections and learnings.
The project was led and created by leading artists with disabilities, for people with disabilities, with the aim of influencing the sector in both Italy and the UK and providing training tools for a more equal and diverse practice. Bringing together disabled dance leaders in Italy and the UK to advocate for change, the project is in direct response to the Italian Manifesto: “What is the difference between making a voice heard and appropriating that voice?”
According to a research report by Time to Act, commissioned by the British Council and On the Move, 87% of managers in the performing arts sector do not involve disabled people in the selection committees and development processes of new work and projects, and knowledge gaps in the mainstream performing arts sector remain constant barriers preventing disabled artists and arts professionals participating equally in European culture. The UK is also still seeing a persistent lack of disabled creatives in the industry as identified in Arts Council England’s most recent diversity report.
Key points of collaboration
Stopgap and Oriente Occidente established an effective creative exchange between four inclusive dance leaders; two from the UK, Stopgap’s Laura Jones and Cherie Brennan, and two from Italy, Aristide Rontini and Giuseppe Comuniello.
“I think to an artist’s practice, cultural collaboration brings questions – questions about your own practice, other’s practice, and opportunities to reflect and acknowledge yourself in relation to others.” (Cherie)
Together the artists designed and ran creative workshops in the two countries, bringing a variety of lived experiences to inform and enrich the points of exploration. Each workshop resulted in an exchange between 15-20 disabled and non-disabled dancers, for a total of six meetings between April 2022 and March 2023, four in Italy and two in the UK.
The disabled-led labs gave opportunities to disabled and non-disabled practitioners to experience high-quality inclusive creativity. The project involved six other Italian organisations who nominated participants with experience of working inclusively from their respective networks, enabling our dance leaders to engage with emerging dance talent and advocate for the dance sectors of both countries to become more inclusive.
The Labs and Residencies
Training residencies in Italy
“There were so many different variables that we were working with so we had to really consider the needs of each group and adjust our teaching accordingly.” (Laura)
Working with regional Italian partners (see end note), our inclusive leaders co-led a series of four-day training residencies in both the north and south of Italy, where they shared skills and knowledge to enable participants to develop disabled talent, including:
- Inclusive Approach – An introduction to open language
Stopgap’s approach to teaching (inclusion & rigour). What is open language & why do we use it?
- Inclusive Approach – Finding a balance
Learning how to work to everyone’s full potential. How to give variations to allow for differences in your group.
- Learning Differently
To develop understanding of supporting dancers/people with learning disabilities (how everyone learns differently). Supported by an example class, with tools and tips Stopgap have learnt over the last 25 years of teaching.
- Working with sensory or complex needs
Exploring the power and joy of responsive teaching, including working with sensory props.
“From the Italian artists we worked with, we learned just how important conversation and time for in-depth discussion and questions were for them. They give a lot of time to dig into practice and discuss it – do we give the same time for that here?” (Laura)
Artistic Exchange in UK
“Every day it seems we are working towards deadlines or completing a project, it’s wonderful to have the space that an artist exchange provides” (Cherie)
“From a participant point of view it offers up a chance to be more open and vulnerable with a freedom to play, exchange and have conversations. It was really nice.” (Laura)
The first artistic exchange or lab was held at the Farnham Maltings, Surrey. This was a key milestone in the relationship between our four inclusive dance leaders. They explored creative leadership by deepening their skills in inclusive choreography with a small group of invited disabled dance artists from the UK.
The second at FABRIC in Nottingham, built on the earlier residencies and lab. We delved further into creative leadership by focussing on creating a safe and supportive, inclusive artistic environment in which to exchange skills and experiences, led by Stopgap’s Laura Jones, Cherie Brennan, Chris Pavia and Anna McMinn, with Italian Artists Giuseppe Comuniello and Aristide Rontini. It was a chance to explore ideas and learn from one another in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
“You need to have Disabled people in leadership roles so other Disabled people can recognise their own potential and look to them as role models.” (Laura)
The project directly contributed to the Inclusive Arts Manifesto of Al.Di.Qua, demonstrating the importance of disabled leadership and teaching team. On International Day of Disabled People 2022, we asked some of the artists involved in this collaboration ‘What does Disabled leadership mean to you?’, you can watch their responses here.
The implementation of this project that was co-designed and co-led by disabled leaders is a statement of intent to the UK and Italian industries. The labs benefitted emerging disabled dancers in our respective countries, and we hope the Italian residencies will have a long-term impact, giving those who are entrusted with developing disabled talent some valuable insight and skills to further improve what they do.
This collaboration started the conversations that led to the 2023 Open Dialogo Series. Curated by Stopgap Dance Company and commissioned by Arts Council England, the Italian Ministry of Culture (The Performing Arts department), the Italian Cultural Institute of London and the British Council, the series promoted a bilateral cultural exchange through sharing of knowledge and experiences between disabled and non-disabled artists and influencers working in England and Italy.
Note: Italian Partners helped facilitate the residencies, brought together local participants and provided space.
In northern Italy we partnered with Fabbrica del Vapore in Milan, Fondazione Nazionale della Danza / Aterballetto in Reggio Emilia (April 2022), Oriente Occidente in Rovereto and Lavanderia a Vapore in Turin (February 2023). In southern Italy we partnered with Compagnia Factory in Novoli, IAC Integrated Arts Centre in Matera (September 2022), Associazione Culturale Teatro Menzatì in San Vito dei Normanni and Compagnia L’Albero in Matera (March 2023).
Read Laura and Cherie's full interview below
Laura and Cherie shared some reflections on their experiences of co-delivering the programme, with a focus on the importance of making the space and time to explore, share and collaborate with other artists:
What does cross cultural collaboration bring to an artists’ practice/ what has it brought to your practice?
Cherie: I think to an artist’s practice, cultural collaboration brings questions – questions about your own practice, other’s practice, and opportunities to reflect and acknowledge yourself in relation to others.
Laura: Especially when working with someone in a different country, this external perspective can be useful, as it can be easy to become stuck in your own bubble with an internal focus. The more experience you can have with different artists, the more enriched your practice.
Cherie: We also found ourselves constantly self-reflecting on our practice and interrogating it before we shared it, particularly when you are sharing it to those with a different language and culture, it means you have to be very specific and clear.
How did you find the artistic exchange across this project? E.g. during the Nottingham lab. Why is it important to have residencies where there isn’t a specific outcome?
Cherie: Every day it seems we are working towards deadlines or completing a project, it’s wonderful to have the space that an artist exchange provides, to spend time exploring or sharing your interests and focussing on self-development.
Laura: It’s a lot less pressure, when the outcome is experience and exchange rather than a specific product. From a participant point of view it offers up a chance to be more open and vulnerable with a freedom to play, exchange and have conversations. It was really nice, especially in Nottingham, that there were four different teachers, one each day, which offered a rich variety of practices to tap into.
On Disabled leadership
Laura: It is important to acknowledge the current lack of Disabled people in leadership and decision-making roles. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation – you need to have Disabled people in leadership roles so other Disabled people can recognise their own potential and look to them as role models – so they themselves can become future leaders. But without those initial leaders to look to it’s difficult to shift the power balance.
There is a great value in people’s lived experiences and what that brings to a setting. As Disabled people, we have often had to push against barriers across society; this can make you much more aware of the barriers other people may face and the importance of working to ensure everyone has equitable access to opportunities.
We believe things are much richer when there is a more accurate reflection of society as a whole.
Did you notice any differences between where Italy is in terms of inclusive practice and where the UK is? Is there anything the UK can learn from Italy?
We can really only reflect on Stopgap’s practice, as inclusive practice across the UK is so varied, and the Italian organisations we worked with were from a variety of backgrounds too. From what we gathered, arts and culture is funded in a different way and contemporary dance isn’t as prioritised.
Even though our visits were specifically aimed at working with Disabled artists, there was little uptake, we didn’t know why that was but can assume its due to a lack of training opportunities for Disabled dancers. There is still a lack of training opportunities for Disabled people in the UK, but there is progress towards making institutions more open and accessible, our perception was that Italy is at the beginning of that journey.
From the Italian artists we worked with, we learned just how important conversation and time for in-depth discussion and questions were for them. They give a lot of time to dig into practice and discuss it – do we give the same time for that here? Sometimes we notice that when you are so busy hopping from project to project, you miss potential conversations and ideas that can come from them.
Often, when teaching new people in new circumstances we evolve our practice – was there anything over this process that you learned about your own practice? Has this project impacted your teaching and wider work?
Cherie: This is one of the biggest teacher training projects I’ve been involved with, it has definitely helped my confidence. It’s made me acknowledge the time I’ve spent with Stopgap, the experience I’ve gained and how it can inform my teaching and the knowledge I share.
Laura: Definitely making sure we slow down, take time and be clear with our instructions. It was important to deliver information in bite-sized chunks, so it could then be translated into Italian. A lot of people we worked with were new to inclusive dance or even dance itself, so that helped us evolve how we responded to the group – there were so many different variables that we were working with so we had to really consider the needs of each group and adjust our teaching accordingly.
Cherie: We do check-ins as part of our practice, but actually I think I valued them even more, particularly because when the language is different and the culture is different, the energy can feel different. So it gave useful time to get a sense of where people were. And we try to do it anyway, but I think it’s really important to get to speak with everyone individually – reading the room is a really important teaching skill so making that time to get to know individuals in a group is vital.