Bringing disability into dance environments with Stuart Waters

Words by Sarah Lapinsky.

How does one begin to describe an artist like Stuart Waters? A challenge he poses to himself through his “live” practice, ever-evolving to encapsulate the complex intersectionality of all the facets of his work and his identity. Collaborating to create and perform thoughtful works while also developing and sharing measures for safe and accessible practices, Stuart embraces mental health access, queerness, disability, recovery and neurodiversity. He considers himself an ally for all areas of diversity and inclusion through his collaborative approach.

In our conversation, Stuart explained that his practice began developing eight years ago as he recognised his own disabilities and neurodivergencies and realised the extent to which disabilities were not considered within his dance environments he’d been in as a professional dancer in the sector for 22 years at this point.  

“How do I change the space for me to be my best self in this space?”

This question was expanded on after the creation of ROCKBOTTOM, which was created between 2016-2019 and toured the UK throughout 2019. ROCKBOTTOM is an autobiographical work that Stuart created as he recovered from being in a coma. As he delved into the issues and experiences that led to that difficult moment, he felt the emotional taxation of this embodiment, which isn’t always addressed in the studio. As dancers, we’re often expected to “leave our shit at the door” and execute what is being asked of us. To create a safer space to explore these levels of intensity, Stuart worked with therapists and coaches to enquire and design new practices and approaches that address entering and exiting the work. He’s since shared these through workshops, talks and training at conservatoires, universities, conferences, producer networks and community settings to promote better practices for the next generation.

It was on the tour of ROCKBOTTOM that elements of accessibility in captioned panel discussions of mental health and recorded audio description of the performance sparked an interesting thought. In conversation with audio describer Willie Elliot and Vicki Balaam who co-produced Stuart’s latest work Queer Collision, they wondered how they could embed audio description more authentically from the onset of the creative process. At this moment, as Stuart was ‘coming out’ as a disabled artist, he realised there was a community he wasn’t yet dancing with. Stuart began alignment and collaboration with the disability communities; a quest for understanding, empathy and support. This led to the beginning of a unique layer of communities and access woven in a poignant and playful approach.

Now, I first met Stuart in a workshop at the University of Roehampton where he led us through the process to do exactly that: embed audio description into a movement phrase we created, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that is hard. Descriptions of actions can mean so many different things and language couldn’t be more important. E.g. they make a circle with their hand vs they draw a circle with their hand. Additionally, the context of where the performer is, the quality of the movement or what is in the space change the interpretation entirely. To make a work that incorporates this into the script is a hefty task, which Stuart Waters and Willie Elliot were able to accomplish in Queer Collision, which was created between 2022-23. Queer Collision premiered at the Brighton festival 2023, went on an autumn tour in 2023 and Eastbourne Alive (as part of the Turner prize) and headed to The Place earlier this year, reaching so many audiences.

With the support of Choreodrome at The Place and Wellcome Collection Stuart, alongside director Tom Roden, composer Andy Pink and Willie Elliott, started to bring Queer Collision to life in 2020. They explored how audio description can not long be ‘live’ in different and unique ways but also how composition would support visually impaired and blind audience members. This was, again, a unique way of bringing the audience into a more equal way as everyone experiences liveness and how composition creates space for processing and inclusion. (It seems like Stuart has a wonderful way of bringing people together, whether they are creators, performers, audience members or whoever wants to join in the space he creates). The subject matter of the piece was developed during the Covid-19 pandemic as Stuart and Willie noticed links to the feelings and experiences of their pasts. Wanting to build a work upon LGBTQIA+ social history, they started by gathering stories that could build connections between past and present, individual and universal, and performers and audience members. Flowing between joyous tales of coming out and deeper struggles, the work presents a journey where audiences “can see themselves on the stage” through these stories.

Image of Stuart in the studio during Choreodrome. Photo by Henry Curtis.

Staying true to the values of his practice, Stuart asked himself who was missing in this work, who wasn’t being seen. Wanting to push against conventions, he provided space within the work to share the platform with queer and disabled artists by blending the boundaries of performance and incorporating cabaret performers like Venitia Blind, Ebony Rose Dark and Rajan Das. Stuart developed and brought new and marginalised audiences into the venues throughout 2023 by engaging deeply with local communities, and local queer and disabled artists, digital and live workshops, as well as Stuart’s characteristic approach to collaborating with aligning charities, therapists and pastoral care. 

Overall, Queer Collision serves as a wonderful example of the sort of work Stuart is contributing to in so many communities. He is creating pieces that challenge the audience in a safe way and making real “accessible dance theatre”. Inviting audiences on this journey with permission for them to experience it how they need to and making them feel held as they do. From the work, Stuart said he felt it was important to leave a legacy, in a way, leaving the space better, perhaps more open or more filled, than it was before. 

I wrapped up our interview with the classic, “What’s next?” (original, I know). Stuart said that Queer Collision is having a rest as he works to deepen the learning from that process and develop different types of events to satisfy all of his many inquiries. In summation: continuing to feed that “living” process while attempting to encompass all the things – a worthy challenge that we all take upon ourselves at some point or another.

For more information visit Stuart’s website. Header image by Anthony Edwards.