Reflections on a Dance Journey

An interview with Dermot Farrell

At the beginning of the year, we reflected on 20 years of Co-Artistic Directors Lucy and Laura, and Senior Artist and Choreographer Chris working together. One of their tips for growing a successful inclusive company was to ‘find and keep the people who can grow with the company’. This is evidenced by artists like Chris reaching 25 years with Stopgap, and continuously achieving new milestones with his work. It is reflected again in Senior Artist Hannah Sampson, who started out in our youth company and now tours around the world performing and co-leading workshops. Look at Nadenh Poan, who began his career through apprentice company Sg2, graduated to the touring company, and who has now recently returned from a residency in Italy developing his own new choreographic work. At Stopgap we speak endlessly of long-term investment in artists, and how training routes particularly for Disabled artists should be equipped to support a long-term plan. 

In this article we want to showcase a Disabled dancer whose pathway has been forged at their own pace with support from Stopgap along the way. 

Two dancers stand looking at one another in an outdoor performance as another dancer who uses a wheelchair watches behind. In the centre of the three is Dermot, a tall white standing dancer with long limbs, ginger hair and glasses. Dermot, like the other dancers, wears dungarees with one of the straps off of his shoulder.

Meet Dermot Farrell, a dancer and teacher who has grown alongside the company from a young member of our first ever youth dance company, to a dance artist with an exciting career ahead.  I’ve known Dermot since we started dancing together in Sg Troop and I’ve always admired his enthusiasm, determination, and his quiet tenacity to create and fulfil new goals. As an associate artist of Stopgap, Dermot has been involved with the company in different forms over the years, I sat down with him to ask more about his dance journey and what he’s currently working on.

Dermot tells me how he began dancing with Stopgap in 2009 as part of our original youth company which was established by Co-Artistic Director Lucy Bennett in 2004. It was here that he found a love for dancing. Dermot had always been interested in dance and enjoyed participating but had never previously thought about dance as a career pathway. When our original youth company found a new home in a more accessible studio space at the University of Surrey, students on the dance degree joined and supported sessions. It was this connection to the industry, in combination with interactions with established Stopgap artists, that spurred Dermot’s realisation;

‘When the uni students came to join us, I was like, okay, I don’t see why myself, as a dancer, as a Disabled artist, can’t have a career in dance. I thought, I would love to do it! I would like to have a career in the arts, because I have the energy and focus, and I’m really interested’

A dance career doesn’t just have to look like performing on stage and touring, it also doesn’t have to follow the process of 1) attend university or a conservatoire, 2) make your way out into the industry. With many of the dancers we work with, their careers haven’t followed this format. It’s hard not to feel the pressure of knowing that if you don’t undertake traditional formal training, you might not get into the industry – because we’re the first to acknowledge that inclusive opportunities like our apprentice company or even inclusive training programmes like IRIS are still far and few between. But they are out there and it’s something we and many others are working hard to change. We recently announced our collaborative partnership with Northern School of Contemporary Dance which is an exciting step forwards for change, enabling us to “use our immense joint experience and expertise to improve the accessibility and equitability of high-quality dance training and dancer development”.

I asked Dermot if given the opportunity he would have liked to study dance at university? Thinking about it, he decided he wouldn’t have gone anyway, as the opportunities and connections he’s had whilst involved with Stopgap and other companies have far outweighed those he believed he would have had when going to university.   

‘If I’d gone to university, I feel as if my journey would probably not have come this far. It might have stopped me because there could have been some boundaries. But because I hadn’t come through education, I felt as if all the many connections I’ve made through dancing with Stopgap have helped me get to where I am now and I feel really privileged for that.’

It’s often assumed that going to university or a conservatoire is what is needed to make it in the industry. But for Disabled students who experience barriers along the way to further training and then barriers within training, they are shut out of many pathways. Many institutions are still unsure of how to train and assess Disabled dancers, and this alongside lack of accessible studios, inflexible timetabling and a lack of general support contributes to the barriers within education. Disabled students don’t necessarily get to create industry connections whilst training because like Dermot mentions, barriers require so much energy and time to navigate, setting students up to be further behind than peers who don’t face these barriers. 

A black and white image of Dermot during class, his body horizontal as he leans over and reaches his right arm overhead, he looks down to the floor in concentration.

A black and white image of Dermot during class, his body horizontal as he leans over and reaches his right arm overhead, he looks down to the floor in concentration.

Dermot serves as an example as to why more accessible routes into industry don’t always look like university and traditional pathways through education. After time in the Youth Company Dermot thought about the next opportunity that could further his journey. He was invited to try our professional level open class after talking with teachers in our creative learning department.

‘Going to class was amazing, we learned a lot of detailed and specific material which helped my development. It was a bit challenging to begin with, but because I could go on a weekly basis and be surrounded by lots of interesting artists, I thought to myself how things were really beginning to work’.

Dermot always recognises challenges as just that – challenges. And when working in an inclusive environment these challenges aren’t the immovable barriers that they might be in other settings and environments. For example, we talked about how complicated sequences were difficult initially, but by spending time working on the same phrase over a longer period of time it gave the opportunity to build up detail slowly. Dermot shared how observing other Disabled dancers translating movement into their bodies gave him permission to do this for himself. His consistency and commitment to his development paid off as he describes the feeling of things ‘beginning to work’ in terms of reaching his goals. From open class, Dermot attended a few Artists in Training sessions, these were regular sessions run by Stopgap artists, for dancers to connect and move in a highly creative and concentrated environment. It became a space to support artists who were at a point in their journey where they needed the opportunity to begin exploring their artistic voice and push their skills.

Then, in 2014, Sg Troop was established as an inclusive community dance company for Disabled and non-disabled dancers aged 16 and over. Dermot says, ‘I feel really unique when I’m dancing as part of Troop’. With a different focus to our youth activities, Troop began as a company to support dancers who’d reached a point in their training where they wanted to progress further with inclusive practice, choreography, and performance. Previous dancers in Troop include Kat Ball, who graduated from apprentice company Sg2 in 2021 and has recently toured with Daryl &Co and Mimbre’s co-production Look Mum No Hands. Another young dancer Lucy Rutter joined Troop and went on to train at Rambert, Laban, and was part of postgraduate company VERVE23. And myself, Lily Norton, being part of Troop was formative in my understanding of inclusive choreographic practice which informs my work now as an access artist collaborating on the companies’ productions.

Dermot and Sander, a wheelchair dance artist, during an outdoor performance. Dermot sits on a chair to the left of Sander and they make the same position with their elbows lifted and hands drawn as if holding a line of string between their arms with their fingers.

Dermot and Sander, a wheelchair dance artist, during an outdoor performance. Dermot sits on a chair to the left of Sander and they make the same position with their elbows lifted and hands drawn as if holding a line of string between their arms with their fingers.

All the groups and opportunities that Dermot has been part of have allowed him to work on developing different skill sets. Where the youth company introduced movement skills in a fun community environment, these skills were then pushed and refined into techniques as part of Open class. Then attending Artists in Training and Troop, where the focus is collaborative and choreographic practice, allowed Dermot to develop as an artist. It feels like a connected web of opportunities that have enabled a sustained and continued progression – and without one of the connecting strands this progression might not be as possible.

The wealth of connections Dermot has made spread far beyond Stopgap now. After participating in a teacher training intensive in 2019, Dermot works as a teaching artist for Candoco, regularly contributing to their weekly open level dance classes.

‘My favourite thing about teaching is that when I deliver, I really enjoy the way everybody in the room has energy and they give it to me. When I’m explaining something, I love the way that people’s focus fills up the room. Whether their concentration is only a small amount or a big amount. I love seeing how people show it in their own bodies.’

Over the pandemic he shared with me about a self-produced project where he created small dance sketches for people to learn at home for Guildford based community organisation the Halow Project. In 2022 he collaborated on Jo Fong’s How Shall We Begin Again?, a live installation featuring 50 people performed over two days at Siobhan Davies Studios. Most recently Dermot has begun choreographing his own solo work to be performed at our annual community dance platform. After performing as part of Guildford Youth Dance Company and then Sg Troop for several years, this is now an opportunity to showcase his own work to Stopgap’s community of artists, young dancers, and their families. I asked how it feels for Dermot to be making his own work for our Winter Platform:

‘It feels really inspiring and it also feels a bit emotional as well. I’ve had the opportunity for people in Stopgap like Lucy and other artists to help me and give me advice. It’s interesting how important for me it’s been that I have had the opportunity to come into the studio and dedicate my practice every Wednesday. I also had the opportunity to observe Nadenh’s duet with Christian and Emily. It really gave me a very clear understanding of how long a process takes and how dedicated you need to be to your work. I was able to sit and take notes and it was so useful.

In my process I started by collecting a lot of information, before I even thought about writing down a plan. Throughout the time, Lucy gave me the reassurance that ‘this is your piece’. At home I then began working on my solo. For me it is really about a personal journey. The name of the solo is ‘Still Image’, it’s all about being in a dream when dancing and using my imagination when I am performing it.

How I came up with the idea is thinking about where I started my journey as a dancer in Troop. The first section is all about breath. When I first started Troop, I used to come in from a really chaotic day, so I really thought about how I overcame things that I found really difficult. So, using my breath was one of the ways I did that, it’s all about breathing and understanding my body.

It’s been challenging, but it’s been amazing. I had lots of ideas beforehand, but I’ve been able to think to myself ‘this is going to work, or this section isn’t going to work’, which has been helped by clear information and feedback from artists like Hannah Sampson and Abbie Thompson. It’s really coming to life now’

All of Dermot’s unique experiences and opportunities that he’s firmly grasped and committed to, have rounded him as an artist and given him the confidence and skills to carve his own pathway in pursuit of his career. There are different pathways into a career and as we progress as an industry more of these pathways will hopefully become accessible to Disabled dancers. In the meantime, Stopgap will continue offering bespoke training opportunities and be there for artists like Dermot to grow and develop at their own pace.