Each time I go to London, I find myself yearning to go to the South Bank, to gaze at the Ballroom, and remember the exhilarated breathlessness fused with terror – the ghost of which still travels within me whenever I step into that building.
Once I emerge from reliving the thrill of performing on that Ballroom floor in 1998, my thoughts turn to Dick Matchett. A bearded man with a scarf, a gentle voice, generous heart, a fearsome skill for strategic planning and a forensic approach to achieving true potential. None of this making-do malarkey that I was beginning to settle for, but the true, fear-inducing vision. He gave me a safe space to dare to dream beyond what I believed was possible. He also helped me discover the foundations on which StopGAP would grow and flourish. The Royal Festival Hall gave us our first commission as a fledgling company and gifted me time with this magical man. This experience put in motion the adventure for Stopgap to become the company it is today.
Having been created as a community project to launch Woking Dance Umbrella, we were given the opportunity to continue independently after the project was scheduled to finish. Chris Pavia, some of the original community cast and I were taking our first tentative exploration and asking, “what next?” … When seemingly out of nowhere, the Royal Festival Hall contacted us and offered us an opportunity of a lifetime. A paid commission, with a mentor and the support of the RFH team, and the opportunity to share our work, philosophy and practice in London! I have never felt so thrilled and fearful in equal measure. I remember struggling to believe I was being invited to choose an external choreographer, that music would be written for us, costumes actually designed and made – for US! And to have a photoshoot? The choices and opportunities that financial support gave us was delicious but bewildering. I realise now that many people must have been championing our work and I hope the RFH team realised how inexperienced we were, but being fresh out of university, I didn’t have the experience to understand any of this, and so spent most of my time hoping I could look like I knew what I was doing before I got found out.
I chose Sue Smith to be our choreographer and she created “Creeper” – an exploration of green spaces in urban setting, with movement that thrilled me and a piece that had everything in it that I had been searching for as a performer. Stopgap began by being mentored by the wonderful Dave Toole and Kuldip Singh-Barmi. They had invited me to join CandoCo company classes which I did whenever I could, and there, I had shyly watched Sue in awe. I couldn’t believe my luck when this project meant I could ask her to create on us. Working on Creeper was a wonderful experience for me as a performer, but also was a masterclass opportunity to learn how Sue approached creation, leading a team, and crafting integration.
As well as the thrill of performing, we were invited to curate a series of wrap around events. I remember moments of utter confusion, in particular when I found myself talking to a room full of people. First of all, I didn’t really believe anyone would come. But there they were. A roomful of people, listening to the ideas and principles I had nurtured for years as a secret rebellion to elements of the industry that I disagreed with. They were all older than me, some were people who I had read about in books, had admired from a distance, and they were smiling at me, and being inspired by what I was saying. That validation and acceptance, the like of which I had never experienced before, flooded over me in a bewildering but wonderful manner. As I write, I am reflecting that it really was life changing.
In the years that followed, that experience gave me the strength to achieve what seemed an impossible dream, gave me the tenacity to seek out the people I needed to achieve the unattainable, and gave me the confidence to turn a secret rebellion in to a public display of defiance. For me, Stopgap is a working, living example of how society should and could be, valuing the richness that comes from diversity. Under the leadership of Lucy and Sho, they have developed this even further, achieving beyond what I dared hoped for.
Events like the one curated by Unlimited and hosted by South Bank Centre are incredibly important. A mixture of established artists and emerging talent, given the same platform, gives the industry the chance to celebrate and reflect, the public the opportunity to discover what phenomenal talent we have in this country, and for artists like we were, it really can change the future. Go and watch as much as you can!