Stopgap Dance Company: integrating access for all audiences

[Image description] A male Southeast Asian wheelchair dancer is in a gravity defying head stand in the middle of the image. He is balanced upside down on the side of his head, his position supported by his right hand on the floor. His left arm is stretched out towards the camera, palm open, tattoo on his arm vaguely visible. He is gazing intently at his open palm. The wheelchair is tipped slightly away from the camera, wheels suspended in mid air. He is wearing golden coloured costumes gleaming in amber light, which is coming from behind him, cutting through haze and the dark background. Photography by Chris Parkes.
Nadenh Poan in 'Lived Fiction' from Stopgap. Photo by Chris Parkes.

Stopgap Dance Company is a collective of deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and non-disabled artists creating new dance. Nearly 30 years ago, Stopgap began as a community dance project set up by Woking Dance Festival and Guildford Borough Council. The company is presenting a new work, Lived Fiction, in 2024 at Southbank as part of Unlimited, The Lowry Salford, and DanceEast Ipswich. Lucy Bennett, the co-artistic director of Stopgap, danced with the company for a decade before becoming Artistic Director.

Lived Fiction is an indoor piece that celebrates Stopgap’s 25-year history,” says Bennett. “This piece is about integrating access for all audiences. In this piece, we use captions, audio descriptions, projection art, sounds and lights to capture the dancers’ movements and our personalities.”

Lucy Bennett. Photo by Chris Parkes.
Lucy Bennett. Photo by Chris Parkes.

The work was conceived and devised by the collective of deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and non-disabled dancers. Bennett says that to work with the different artistic and communication styles in the rehearsal room, “we take a lot of time, we check in regularly and share the smaller conversations. There are a few introverts in the group, so we have to always leave space at the end of a discussion to enable people to share an opinion. We film a lot and share via many communication platforms to suit different preferences. For Lived Fiction, we had a document with every scene and the motivation and reference points for the performers listed. This really supported artists who needed to work flexibly or wanted to check in regularly with the reasons behind the work.”

As well as supporting artists in the process, Stopgap is supporting the audience to receive the work, by experimenting with multi form access to its performances including creative captioning and audio description.

“The audio description is integrated into the work,” Bennett explains. “Most of it is live in order to be responsive to what is happening on stage. But there are some parts which are pre-recorded, either voices of the dancers themselves or the voice of Dan Watson who used to be a dancer in Stopgap. The captions reflect the movement or the atmosphere of what is happening on stage. This means that there is a script for the captions and audio description so that the captions and audio description happen in sync with each other. The whole performance with integrated access has been carefully choreographed and any change has knock on impact to all of the other elements.”

[Image description] A female caucasian dancer with Down's Syndrome is stood tall in the middle of the image. She is gazing upwards, her face a show of gentle determination. Her dark blond hair draped over her shoulders. Her right arm is raised above her shoulder, her elbow bent and her right hand folded gently below her chin. Her left arm is bend at the elbow, her hand just in front of her abdomen.  She is wearing a highly stylised pink blouse. She is backlit by an amber light in haze. Photography by Chris Parkes.
Hannah Sampson in ‘Lived Fiction’ from Stopgap. Photo by Chris Parkes.

Hannah is a Senior Dance Artist with Stopgap. She studied dance as a GCSE at a mainstream school, and one-on-one with Bennett. Hannah began with Stopgap at 14 years old, as part of one of its youth companies.

“I remember my work experience with them was for me to join in their classes, getting to know the dancers and watching them teach and perform their shows. I felt like I was at home,” recalls Hannah. “I studied performing arts and musical theatre at Kingston-upon-Thames College for a year. I got a job with Stopgap in 2010, as an apprentice. I’m currently in the main Touring Company started in 2017, and now a Senior Dance Artist.”

Hannah imagines that in the future she will dig deeper into choreography. “I’m hoping to do some acting and story-telling classes so I can use these in a dance film. I’m also interested in advocacy so I can stand up for those people who struggle with this.”

Lived Fiction from Stopgap Dance Company will be playing at Southbank Centre as part of the Unlimited festival on 4 September, The Lowry Salford on 17 October, and DanceEast Ipswich on 15 November. For more information, go to www.stopgapdance.com.

By Tamara Searle of Dance Informa.

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