Back On The Road

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Stopgap gets back on the road with outdoor arts, but can Dance really build back better for disabled artists?

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16 months on from the first national lockdown, Stopgap will finally be resuming in-person rehearsals next month, and our latest outdoor work Frock will be touring again to a small number of UK festivals. In the lead up to the summer season, I, the Executive Producer Sho Shibata, write about the important role that the outdoor arts will play in welcoming disabled people back to public spaces. I also call on the Dance sector to act on the poor disability rating that was identified in Arts Council England’s Diversity Data Report.

Three dancers during a Frock performance, seated and standing audience watch in front of a storefront on a high-street.

Image Description: A trio of dancers during a Frock performance, a large gathering of seated and standing audience watches in front a storefront on a high-street. Wheelchair dancer Nadenh and standing dancer Christian lift Jannick into the air, mid-jump he looks to the sky, body extended with energy and force. All three wear dresses and skirts with floral bright patterns.

Covid-19 posed so many difficulties for all of us, but it has hit disabled people much harder. The Office for National Statistics said that 6 out of 10 people who died as the result of the virus in the UK were disabled, and how the UK Government dealt with the pandemic posed further problems. The Government classified many disabled people as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and they were ordered to shield pretty much indefinitely. This led to a seemingly never-ending incarceration for many disabled people, and this was particularly hard to take last summer.

The Government launched schemes like ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and encouraged people to get out and about, but they had not made things safe enough for the so called ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people safe enough to give them the confidence to reintegrate back into society. The persistent ableism makes disabled people socially invisible at the best of times but approaching the pandemic in such a manner during a global pandemic undid a lot of progress we made in social equality and justice.

The gap has now started narrowing thanks to the vaccine roll out, and we as a company now feel secure enough to go back into full rehearsals. Next month, we will be remounting Frock for outdoor festivals, and we are deeply committed to dealing with the damage the pandemic has caused and build back better. You can find out about the tour dates in our Productions page on our website.

blue and white china teacup and saucer

Dancer Christian Brinklow during a performance of outdoor work Frock.

Image Description: Dancer Christian Brinklow during a performance of outdoor work Frock. He gestures one hand dramatically to his head – hand splayed with the back of his palm against forehead. His other hand gingerly touches his chest. His face is focused and his attention directed downward. He is wearing a light-knit pink top with a beaded necklace and you can just see the top of his bright flowery skirt. Photo by Chris Parkes.

The outdoor season usually comes with several speaking commitments for me, and I was most recently on a panel for The Centre for Performance Practice and Research at The University of Winchester alongside Angus MacKechnie from Outdoor Arts UK, Stella Hall from Festival of Thrift, and the artist Charmaine Childs. The panel gave me the time to reflect on how the outdoor arts can play an important role in healing the social divide that Covid has created.

Angus reminded me how the sector is all about taking work to where underserved people naturally gather (for example, in town centres) and Stella spoke about how Covid encouraged her festival to take this even further last year. Festival of Thrift took shows to small regional communities that were home to people who had historically not come into town for the festival. And Charmaine spoke about audience members who were so deeply moved by seeing live performances again, demonstrating the impact live outdoor performances can have on people’s psychological recovery.

The beauty of outdoor work is that it’s full of artists who are resilient and versatile, and we are motivated by the prospect of bringing joy to unsuspecting people and places.

This year, our tour will take us to towns like Skegness and Woolwich, and we are particularly thrilled that Greenwich+Docklands International Festival has been upping the gear in supporting artists to make our work accessible to audiences’ various needs. This is the 7 Principles of Inclusive Recovery in action for sure (there’s a link to more information about this at the end of this blog)… We are really looking forward to working with these festivals to welcome disabled audiences back to public spaces this summer after such a difficult year.

Hannah Sampson during a Frock perfromance, the rest of the group watch in the background.

Image Description: An image during a performance of Stopgap’s outdoor work Frock. A slightly perplexed expression on her face, Hannah Sampson stands in the foreground, her arms opened out to the side, elbows bent at 90 degrees. Hannah’s straight shoulder length blonde hair is down, she wears a black suit jacket over a white shirt and striped yellow and burgundy tie, with braces holding up black suit trousers. Hannah is white and has Downs Syndrome. The rest of the five dancers in the Frock cast gather in a still tableaux, watching in the distance behind her. Photo by Chris Parkes.

I also believe that presenting disabled artists is now more important than ever before.

Welcoming disabled people back into public spaces is one thing, but we would be missing a trick if disabled people were not represented in performances on show. Without Walls and many other outdoor festivals in the UK commission and showcase works that are by or with disabled artists every year, and I strongly believe that Dance as a sector needs to be doing much more. I was very disheartened by the Diversity Data Report that Arts Council England published recently. According to their data from the financial year 2019/2020:

  • Disabled people only made up 5% of the workforce of core funded Dance organisations. This is the lowest percentage against all other artforms

  • Only 3% of this workforce are artists

  • Only 7% of Project grant applicants for Dance are disabled. This is compared to 11 and 12% in theatre and visual arts respectively

Bearing in mind disabled people make up 15 to 22% of the national population, the data demonstrates a considerable underrepresentation… and this is pre-pandemic data. I dread to think what the results will be for the next few financial years.

If we were serious about making real change, shouldn’t everyone working in Dance have a short and long-term plan for disabled representation? It’s no longer enough for inclusive companies like us to support disabled talent. ALL dance venues and festivals must create an appropriate platform for at least one work by or with disabled dance artists in each season, and ALL dance organisations, companies and artists must have plans to nurture or work with disabled dance artists. And everyone must develop an inclusive, anti-ableist working culture. There’s a group of us who are ready and waiting to help them change too.

If you want to dig deeper into some of the points I make in this blog, why not check out the following links below?

Here is a link to the Disability Arts Alliance, #WeShallNotBeRemoved, which was set up to counter the invisibility of disabled artists and audiences imposed by the pandemic:

Here is the link to their 7 Principles of Inclusive Recovery:

You can read Arts Council England’s Diversity Data Report in full here:

Unlimited’s Jo Verrent wrote a great article calling for more action to support disabled artists in Arts Professional. Read it in full here: