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January 2023 marked 20 years since Lucy, Laura and Chris began their careers with Stopgap Dance Company. Lucy and Laura are now Co-Artistic Directors, and Chris is a resident choreographer. To mark the achievements of the last 20-years, Executive Producer Sho Shibata spoke to the Co-Artistic Directors Lucy and Laura to come up with some top tips on how to grow a successful inclusive company.
Stopgap has grown into quite a different outfit in the last 20-years. In 2003, the company was just made up of Lucy, Laura, and Chris, who were young dancers back then, accompanied by another dancer Dan Watson and led by the founding Artistic Director Vicki Balaam. The company was largely running grassroots projects in the community, but their work began to expand quite quickly heading into the mid noughties. The company was operating as a repertoire model back then as opposed to a devising company that we are now, and by 2006, the company was receiving enough Arts Council funding and commissioning support to invite several notable choreographers as guest artists to make tour-able productions. The year marked a turning point with the national tour of Sweden under their belt, which was organised through the country’s dance network. A commission by The National Dance Centre in Pantin, France then followed before finally getting the national tour of the UK off the ground in 2008. The company then never looked back as its growth continued to accelerate.
Lucy and Laura eventually took over as Co-Artistic Directors and Chris became a resident choreographer, and Arts Council England recognised the visionary leadership these three have shown in November this year, when it announced that Stopgap will receive a substantial uplift in core funding – you can read our announcement here. It’s a real testament to their longstanding tenacity, inventiveness, and the absolute belief that inclusion elevates everyone. Their work showed that creating an inclusive environment that enabled learning disabled, physically disabled and non-disabled people to thrive made the joy of dance accessible to dance colleagues, audiences, and participants everywhere.
But enough of the context – here are our top tips!
Tip 1: Take your work to where it will be valued
The company had to do a tour of Sweden in 2004 first to prove to the venues in the UK that the company was ready for a national tour here. Before then, the company was seen as a grassroots organisation that was not ready to present work in mainstream theatres. In 2003, we’d managed to get Filip Van Huffel and Adam Benjamin to make a double bill, but the sector still wasn’t convinced that we had what it takes to rub shoulders with our peers in the so-called “mainstream”. The founding Artistic Director Vicki had an iron will, and she was unafraid of knocking on another door if one didn’t open. So, she hopped over to Sweden to secure commitments from the dance touring network there, and the backing from major players in Sweden helped us prove that the company was ready for mainstream touring in the UK. This also played a big role in the company becoming a core funded organisation of Arts Council England in 2006.
Touring might not be the ambition of every dance organisation, but the point is, if you find people are blocking your passage to success, search out others who believe in your potential and get them to help you demonstrate your value.
Tip 2: Find an influential advocate
2005-2006 was a period of fast growth for the company, and the recognition we got from abroad and the Arts Council helped our allies in the UK to back our ambition. December 2005 saw Stopgap present Corpus by Filip Van Huffel at The Place’s White Christmas alongside our peers like Henri Oguike, Filip’s Retina Dance, Luca Silvestrini, and Ben Duke. It was a moment that helped get Stopgap recognised by the sector and it paved the way for the national tour in 2008. Helen Shute, now the Executive Producer at Rambert and John Ashworth were programming for The Place at the time, and their commitment and support proved crucial. They had been a long-time believer of Stopgap’s potential and we felt that getting the Swedish and the French support gave them enough evidence to make a point of us through this major winter platform at The Place.
Tip 3: Be in control of how you are represented
Our organisational ambition was to make work to tour, but we didn’t always get our representation in the media and in the mainstream right. There were periods of time in the last 20-years when we were trying to be what we weren’t, and this worked against our reputation. Inclusive dance as a practice is different to how things are done in companies that don’t have disabled and non-disabled people working together and trying to cram ourselves into an ableist structure set us up to fail sometimes. It’s important that the company has a solid foundation, like a distinctive practice or a way of doing things, and to make sure that whoever is presenting your work reflects what you are about. Venues that present dance have got much better at this over the last 20-years, but we find that the mainstream media and particularly the broadsheets don’t represent inclusive and disabled dance artists very well. We all have different ambitions, practice and value, and these nuances need to be profiled respectfully.
Tip 4: Take time to develop your practice
To achieve Tip 3, we’ve learned that it’s important to have a strong foundation for your practice and a solid understanding of what you are about. In the early noughties when we weren’t getting funding and the attention, we were left to our own devices most of the time, and this gave us a safe space to develop inclusive collaborative skills. This instilled a pioneering spirit amongst the team, and when the funding did start to come our way, we were ready to seize the moment and use the resources to consolidate our practice. How we did this is elaborated on the article that Lucy, Laura and Chris wrote for One Dance UK in November, which you can read in the link below. But we perhaps didn’t quite know enough about what we were about artistically when we did the second national tour of the UK. It was a bit like the dreaded second album for us, and there were elements where we perhaps rushed things a bit too much.
Check out our article featured in One Dance UK’s One Magazine: Inclusion and Rigour are not binary
Tip 5: Find and keep the personnel who can grow with the company
When we first got the core funding from the Arts Council in 2006 and began touring our work in earnest in 2008, our workload and the range of work we did expanded. We were a small team trying to sustain our work in the community while touring internationally, and it proved crucial that Stopgap had a team of people that could grow with the company to increase our capacity. Inclusive dance has never been allowed to follow traditional pathways to develop our practice, so we have always had to be quite punk to get things done. A practice that’s developed like this isn’t taught at universities, colleges, and conservatoires; so people can only learn it through working within the company. Parachuting in an accomplished individual to try to expand our capacity didn’t always work out well… It was more important to find people who were excited by the prospect of an innovative practice like inclusive dance and for us to make a long-term commitment to their learning. This helped us sustain our collective pioneering spirit and continue to refine our inclusive practice and culture. It kept the company a tightly knit group during periods of fast growth, and this comes in handy in times of adversity. As your profile grows, the bigger the fall when things go wrong, so we need to have a team that doesn’t fall apart at the first hint of a crisis.
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