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Interview with Laura Jones, StopGAP Dance Company

by Ana Abad-Carles

June 17, 2005 -- Lyric Hammersmith, London

Laura Jones has been a dancer with StopGAP Dance Company since 2001. She started dancing at an early age at the Linda Butler School of Dancing and went on to take A-Level Dance. While doing the course she had a spinal injury that left her unable to walk. However, she returned to finish her studies and became the first student in a wheelchair to complete the course.  I talked with her at the Lyric Hammersmith, just before attending a performance there.

What made you decide to pursue a career in dance?

I’ve really always been a dancer, to be honest. I started dancing when I was 3. We went over to Germany to visit my cousins, where I joined in at the back of the dance class. The teacher told my mum: “She’s got something, you know; she could be good”. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I decided that I wanted a career in dance, although the idea had always really appealed to me. At the same time, I thought that it was unlikely to become a reality. I loved it, but I knew that there were a million good dancers out there! As I got older I needed to see if I could make it. So, I chose to do Dance A-Level at college with the idea of moving onto either a dance degree at university or a vocational dance college. 

At the age of 16, a week into starting my course, I suffered from a spinal bleed which left me paralysed from the chest down. So, just when I had decided what I really wanted to do, I felt it was taken away from me.  But my tutors at college were just fantastic. They said: “Come back and finish, at least some parts of the course… you’ll still be able to do the theory… so, come back!”  As the course progressed, they kept saying: “Well, I don’t see why you shouldn’t do this part of the course as well … and you can do your solo choreography … and you can do the set study, surely… and why don’t you try to do the notation as well?” So with their support and encouragement, I ended up completing the whole of the course and became the first student to complete 100% of the Dance A-Level in a wheelchair! And that’s something that no one can take away from me!

I have to admit at times it was hard going.  There had to be a lot of dialogue between myself, my tutors and the examining board, because we all had to find a way to figure out how the different elements of the syllabus would work. So yes, it was a struggle, but definitely worth it. At the end of the A-Level course, I thought: “Do I really want to go to university now? Do I want to spend another 3 years of creating a path for myself and teaching others how to teach me?” So I decided to take a year out and see what happened in that time and what opportunities there were.  I had been to some StopGAP workshops, and was invited to audition for the company. And I’ve been there ever since.

StopGAP’s dancers have very varied and interesting backgrounds. Lucy Bennett comes from the vocational sector, Dan Watson comes from the university sector, Chris Pavia completed successfully an apprenticeship with the company. Was this variety of backgrounds something deliberate?

It’s probably a coincidence although StopGAP is stronger because we are all individuals who bring our own strengths and experiences together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly, the members of StopGAP were chosen for their personalities and skills in dealing with situations and their ability to get on with different people and each other… I think that was the most important thing. Of course dance quality is very important too, but because of the amount of time that we spend together, we need to be able to get on without getting on each other nerves!

Dance is a very hard career option for anybody who decides to take it and you even had your doubts about becoming a dancer before your injury. However, were there any particular obstacles in relation to your disability that you encountered when you finally made your decision?

There is obviously the physical barriers we came across – like inaccessible theatres (although that’s changing with the new DDA).  Apart from that, the main problem we have experienced was getting people to fully understand that we are a full time professional dance company… we’ve been referred to as “StopGAP Drama Company” or “StopGAP Group” We’ve had to work hard to change preconceptions and to prove that the work we do is of high artistic and technical quality. We are successful because we make quality dance, and not because people feel sorry for us. There were many times when we questioned whether it was worth the struggle, because it was tiring to fight for the funding and the recognition. But it was something that we all strongly believed in and now we are now getting the recognition we deserve.

Likewise, did you receive any particular form of encouragement that kept you going, either from your own determination or from somebody else’s support?

Yes, I guess so… Throughout my education I received a lot of encouragement from others. I had extra lessons at college because I had to find ways of adapting the movement to fit my physicality. I also knew that being a dancer in a wheelchair meant that I had something slightly different, an interest, a different quality that meant that I stood out from others… that helped in some respects. But it also hindered in other aspects because it meant that I had to work harder to find my personal movement potential as I didn’t know anyone in the same situation as me that I could copy or learn from.

Now I am a successful professional dancer, I have the opportunity to inspire other young dancers.  I feel that this is a very important part of the work I do, and it gives me great encouragement to know that I am contributing towards the next generation of dance artists.

StopGAP has received excellent reviews in the past. Somebody very recently remarked how beautiful you all looked together because – and not in spite of – your differences. You yourself have said that 'you don't try to hide the fact that you are in a wheelchair, but that you try to make the most of it'. How do you achieve that?

Besides the initial theme, the starting point for our dances is ourselves, our personalities, our strengths, our personal movement styles and how we interact with each other.  The movement comes from this, so it is very personal to each individual.  But this doesn’t mean that we have to completely avoid dancing the same steps together in unison.  Unison is a very powerful tool in dance - when you have a number of dancers doing exactly the same movement together in perfect synchronisation, it can be very aesthetically pleasing. Whilst there may be problems for us in attempting unison, within the solutions to these problems, there is a lot of creative potential. We look at the essence of movement, and try to extract what is important about it. Then we find a way for all of us to show that in its full expression, so although the actual movement is not exactly the same, you see four different interpretations of it, like four versions of the same thing, rather than four clones. Our different physicalities are not a constriction, but rather a quality to be celebrated that adds richness and depth to our dancing.

Somebody recently remarked that integrated dance was not about taking the Arts to people, but rather about enriching the Arts with other people’s perspectives and experiences. Would you agree?

I think that both sides are important. StopGAP is very passionate about giving everybody the opportunity to see and participate in our work, particularly those who are traditionally denied access whether due to service provision or self belief.   If that means performing in venues other than theatres, because people are unable to get to the theatre, then, that’s what it means! It’s a different experience to see dance in a day centre or a school rather than in a theatre, but I couldn’t say whether one is a better than the other. And of course, taking Arts to the people also has a strong role to play in audience development. 

We are currently working on an internal choreographic project for rural touring. The idea for the dance came because we do a lot of performances in day centres, village halls, school halls and so on, where we bring equipment to change an alternative venue into a theatre space. We thought that it would be interesting to utilise the fixtures and fittings that are found in such venues rather than trying to hide them.

Equally, the richness that comes from our diversity is an important characteristic of integrated dance. The fact that we are expanding the perceived boundaries of what is possible is a very valuable and integral part of the work we do. 

You have obviously worked with various choreographers. Do you think that the choreographic process in StopGAP differs in any way from that taking place within a mainstream company?

Obviously the fact that we are a rep company gives us the opportunity to experience a variety of choreographers and different ways of working. We particularly like this because with each new choreographer, we get to see a different approach to creating movement. We learn from them, but, equally, they can learn from us because they may find they have to approach things differently or find ways of doing things that they might not have thought of. Choreographers usually approach us as four individuals, though that happens as well in some mainstream companies. They may have an idea, but I think the most important point for them becomes the dancers and how to bring out our strengths and weaknesses.

You have been involved with workshops and/or partnership projects conducted by StopGAP with external organisations. What was the reception like? Did it enrich your own artistic experience in any way?

We do workshops for a wide range of different groups including mainstream groups, integrated or special schools, and the reception is always positive. We have an advantage with the make-up of our company -- because we’re all different, there’s four different role models. Somebody with a learning disability might look at Chris and think “Wow, he’s like me but he’s a professional and he’s teaching”… and somebody with a physical disability may look at me and be encouraged to try things that they didn’t think possible, or that they’ve been told they can’t do. And then you have a male role model in Dan, and Lucy, comes from a more traditional vocational sector but is not following a traditional career path.

From a teaching and leading point of view, we’ve learnt that you have to treat everyone as individuals. Vicki [Balaam] once said that she went into her first workshop thinking that she was going to treat everyone the same and everybody was going to be equal; then she realised that it was not going to work, because everyone was different. Creating work in a community setting that everyone can participate in to their full potential is very rewarding, especially when you get people who are usually introverted interacting with each other.  Sometimes getting a smile out of someone can be a big achievement.

Equally valuable are the collaborations that we have done with other international organisations, which have played an important part in enriching my artistic experience.  They have given me the opportunity to see where we are within an international context, as well as a perspective in which I can view my beliefs and practices and a wider understanding of the world of dance and specifically that of dance and integration.

Do you think there are enough opportunities for integrated dance companies in the UK?

I joined StopGAP in 2001 and I don’t know if there are more opportunities or it’s just that I’m more aware of them now. For example, CandoCo’s Foundation Course is something that people had been crying for, for so long … hopefully this will widen access into vocational training. I think people are becoming more aware and more open. It’s about people’s perceptions, ideas and awareness rather than physical numbers of opportunities.

How do you see the future of integrated dance in the UK?

Talking way into the future, maybe there will be a time when there doesn’t have to be specific integrated dance companies or opportunities for disabled people, because these will have been absorbed naturally into a holistic dance world. Specific training opportunities won’t be needed because all training will be accessible... Hopefully, the time may come when there will be a certain level of integration in the other mainstream companies (I’m not saying that every dance company should have a wheelchair user in it, just that all dancers should be judged on their individual artistic merits and not their ability to fit into a mould). After all, you wouldn’t build a building where the majority of the rooms were inaccessible and the other rooms were for disabled people only!  Awareness is the key and it is important that we create this awareness, especially with young children, because they don’t have the boundaries and preconceptions that previous generations may have grown up with.

Finally, what are the intrinsic artistic values of integrated dance that the general audience may be missing out and that you would like everybody to see and appreciate?

Once again, it’s individuality… and trying to make our work accessible to everyone, so that a dance audience can go and see it, and equally the common person in the street can go and watch it, and everybody can get something from it. It isn’t just for disabled people, it’s not just for high art people, but, hopefully, we are for everybody.

 

Edited by Staff.

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