Stopgap Dance Company makes its Japan debut this month when its internationally acclaimed 2017 masterpiece, “The Enormous Room,” is staged at Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT) in Tokyo, as well as in Yokohama and Kita Kyushu.
Since it started in 1995 as a community project under artistic director Vicki Balaam, the company — based in the southern English town of Farnham in Surrey — has followed an innovative approach it calls “inclusive dance.” In practice, this means that disabled and non-disabled artists actively collaborate together through the entire creative and performance process.
Meanwhile, as Stopgap’s following was gradually growing beyond its local area back in 2003, a new member named Lucy Bennett joined and at once began pushing for the company to focus on original rather than repertoire works.
As that shift gained momentum, and Bennett became artistic director in 2012, Stopgap became the fully professional company it now is. To date, among its numerous original inclusive-dance works, particularly popular ones have included “Portfolio Collection” in 2006, “Chris et Lucy” (2007), “SPUN Productions” (2011) and “Exhibition” (2014).
Thanks also to funding support from Arts Council England since 2006, Stopgap has maintained a busy touring schedule that has made its works and its inclusive-dance approach famous around the U.K. and far beyond. As part of that international outreach, Shohei Shibata, the company’s executive director, attended the annual TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama) in 2016, where he met a producer from SEPT and some of other Japanese theatres. And that’s how Stopgap’s current Japan debut came about.
With that in mind, this writer took the opportunity of a trip to London in January to interview Shibata, an English resident who is certainly the highest placed Japanese person in the U.K. theatre world.
Although he was born in Japan, where he was a popular child actor for a while, Shibata continued his schooling in London from the age of 12, later graduating with a degree from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science. After that he joined Arts Council England, working in the field of disabled arts he says he became interested in at a young age through the influence of his mother, a licensed social welfare worker.
“Since the 1990s, the U.K. government has paid a lot of attention to social diversity and social justice, and that has inevitably related to its arts policy,” Shibata said.
“For example, an arts organization or company that doesn’t practice diversity will find it very difficult to get any subsidy from ACE. While this is obviously a good thing, it’s still far from my ideal for disabled arts, which should be more equal to the regular arts world. And in dance education there is a huge gap between disabled and non-disabled people.”
In 2012, however, a dancer named David Toole, who has no legs and is the male lead in “The Enormous Room,” became widely known for his starring role in the opening ceremony of that year’s Paralympics in London. Along with the other disabled dancers, Shibata said his performance made a great impact that has helped people to realize the high quality of disabled arts in Britain.
Despite this, he said most of Stopgap’s members were rejected by dance schools or teachers, and had to find other ways to learn — which shows that discrimination still continues.
“Apart from ballet, I believe that people with any kind of body structure are fundamentally able to study dance in ways suitable for them. Yet most dance schools restrict disabled people’s opportunities,” Shibata said.
“That’s why Stopgap has individual fostering programs equally open to disabled and non-disabled people. Some of our members came through that program and we are working hard to spread our methods to other organizations, or schools, so they take on more disabled dancers.”
In fact Shibata was referring to what Stopgap calls its Creative Learning system that starts with free dance classes it runs for young people in a community. After that, they may join a Youth Dance Group to receive more formal training using the company’s own method. From there, selected dancers can take a three-year apprenticeship course with the Emerging Artists Company that Stopgap runs for aspiring professionals. Finally, subject to audition, they may become full-time members of the company.
As Shibata said, that’s exactly how Naden Poan and Hannah Sampson, who has Down syndrome, came to be Stopgap dancers — and to perform the lead roles in “The Enormous Room.”
As to why Stopgap remains so committed to its inclusive-dance approach, Shibata explained, “It is very important to have disabled and non-disabled dancers collaborating and performing together to show our ideal of an equal and integrated world. It’s also essential that they all gleam on stage as splendid professional dancers.”
Then, talking about “The Enormous Room” in particular, he said, “A specialty of our artistic director and choreographer, Lucy Bennett, is creating dance-theatre works that blend elements of dance and drama.
“So when we started to create this work we all discussed what kind of things anyone experiences regardless of their physical condition. What we settled on was death — and how bereaved people cope with losing someone very close.
“We also thought that with such big themes, audiences wouldn’t care much whether the dancers were disabled or not — and we hit the target because they have been more interested in the story than the dancers’ physicality,” he said.
To put that story together, though, took more than two years of detailed research into how different cultures and countries deal with death. This included inviting guests to hold workshops, while Shibata and Poan who is Cambodian member also explained their own culture’s ideas about life and death.
As a result, the Japanese custom of “isshuuki” (marking the first anniversary of someone’s death) was incorporated into the work through the main character, Dave (Toole), and his daughter, Sam (Sampson), visiting a world of illusion at that time, where the ghost of their beloved wife and mother went after she died.
Then, as regards Stopgap’s future direction, Shibata said, “The international success of ‘The Enormous Room’ has given us a lot more confidence to create more works tackling common themes that relate to everyone and to our society. Another big aim is to promote inclusive dance more widely across society and to hold workshops in as many countries as possible.”
In line with that, he pointed out that Stopgap will hold inclusive-dance workshops in Yokohama, Tokyo and Kita Kyushu during its upcoming tour taking in those three cities.
Finally, in a personal message to Japanese audiences, Shibata said, “This work is really an emotional tragedy that’s not only for dance lovers. It is also perfect for movie and theatre fans, so I hope all sorts of people will see us in here.”
Surely, when this acclaimed new wave company takes to the stage at Setagaya Public Theatre on March 8 and 9, it will be a precious opportunity to see their wonderful, pioneering work for yourself … and perhaps to start thinking how to follow their lead.
[By Nobuko Tanaka]
Sho was actively involved in the performing arts in Japan as a child, performing in various children’s television and film productions as well as on stage with ‘Les Miserables’ directed by John Caird and ‘Waiting for Godot’ directed by the late Yukio Ninagawa.
He then moved to UK in 1995 and graduated from London School of Economics and Political Science in 2005 with a degree in Philosophy and Social Psychology. His studies gave him a theoretical understanding of how discrimination and segregation come about in social settings. After graduation, Sho worked at Arts Council England, South East and joined Stopgap Dance Company in 2008 to manage touring, outreach and dance development projects.
Sho began producing Stopgap’s outdoor productions in 2009 with ‘Tracking’ and built its profile in the outdoor arts sector. His endeavours culminated with a Cultural Olympiad tour of ‘SPUN Productions’ in 2012. After successfully completing ‘SPUN’, Sho joined the company’s senior management as the company’s full-time producer.
Dates：Fri 8 March – Sat 9 March 2019
Venue：Setagaya Public Theatre
Artistic Direction & Choreography: Lucy Bennett
Cast:Dave Toole,Hannah Sampson,Nadenh Poan and others