Safeguarding the artist and the studio within the creative process

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At a time when mainstream media discusses mental health it is time to examine what we expect from our dance artists in the 21st century and how they are treated in the name of Art. Stuart Waters asks how does the artist find time to excel professionally and look after their mental health?

Stuart Waters and Stuart Waters and Wendy Hesketh-Ogilvie in ‘Rockbottom’. Image © Joe Armitage

My personal “rock bottom” was a near death experience, ironically, when I was at the peak of my dance performance career. It was a period of 35 days in ICU and 8 months recovery, during which my new dance theatre piece, Rockbottom was born.

But I am not alone, and I challenge us to consider mental health in the dance sector. Are people working with awareness, balance and well being or do people work to the point they feel stressed, demoralised and emotional? Are dance works devised with compassion or by harvesting personal experiences in an exploitative manner?

As I approached my “rock bottom”, my vulnerability was being used as a theatrical tool for authentic moments in creation and performance. I was peaking professionally but imploding as an individual.

Rockbottom by Stuart Waters. Image Joe Armitage

As I experienced the extreme highs and lows of creation and touring, I became increasingly vulnerable as a member of society. When I returned from tours I felt an emptiness. Over time this led to increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety and bursts of depression. I turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to deal with the growing confusing feelings that were rising inside me. You could argue this lead to additive and self harming behaviours that only made everything worse.

But whose responsibility was my safety? Was it mine? The choreographer’s? The office staff? My colleagues?

Why was it so hard to discover my illness than to disclose my struggle to my employers – especially when we were working so closely and intimately and knew each other well? Then when I did disclose my situation, even though they worked hard to support me… why didn’t it work?

Ultimately, how could the worst have been prevented?

Why do we need and want vulnerability from artists? What does it achieve and how? Does it create great art or are dancers needlessly suffering because the choreographers don’t have the skills to get the material they want any other way? Is the cost of these explorations worth it?

In January 2017 I began exploring these questions creatively when ROCKBOTTOM gained R&D funding from Arts Council England. I wanted to use my experiences, but I knew it would be an emotional process, diving head first into vulnerability as I revisited what had happened. How do I keep myself and my collaborators safe?

I developed a safeguarding model to protect our emotional and mental well being during creation, curious to see if these measures resulted in a deeper exploration, enabling us to safely push the boundaries. In conclusion the safeguarding model brought an atmosphere of lightness. An open process of checking in and out brought honesty and trust to the room. Without much probing we all had an idea of where each other was emotionally and could keep track of the journey and changes in mood.

Rockbottom by Stuart Waters. Image Joe Armitage

The process includes:

1. Skype sessions with a therapist to support trigger moments and overwhelming anxiety. We were surprised by how much we were triggered so this was a private and safe way for us to gather fresh perspective without being consumed or creating anxiety in each other.
2. Each day began and ended with a “check in” and “check out” that helped us understand where we were emotionally, strengthening the sense we were held in a safe space. Every rehearsal finished with reflection and meditation together. This became invaluable as it gave us closure on the emotions that had been ignited through the day, enabling us to leave the work in the studio and not be haunted by it when we were alone.
3. Selecting and editing our stories so we could choose when truth needed to bend and flex to serve the art and keep us safe.
4. Some creation took place in a retreat-like environment, deep in the countryside. Free from traffic jams and in a protective bubble we felt private and safe to re-visit trauma in a productive way.

Now Arts Council England is funding the creation of Rockbottom. The strategies I initially devised have been developed further and the choreographic process feels empowering, with a light feeling that is joyful, clear, honest and safe. It has informed the participation sessions I lead, creating an empowering approach that evokes profound responses in participants that surprises everyone with their clarity and revelations.

Far from compromising the quality of the art work I am creating, working with compassion is enabling us to reach depths I never thought was possible. I am proving you can keep artists safe whilst creating great art that is thought provoking and at times shocking.

I now want the dance industry to join me, and pledge to:
• Develop and embed protocols for safeguarding emotional and mental well being in artists
• Value maintaining good mental health on a par with maintaining good physical health
• Ensure dancers have awareness and skills to do this through training and support
• Interrogate how dance work is created and challenge when methodology is exploitative
• Develop communication between dancers and organisations/directors and ease the fear of being replaced if you are honest about a difficulty
• For dancers to feel its ok to say no; to be able to say “I’m not in the right place for this today”

Some of these changes are small and simple but have an impact on the working atmosphere, happiness and wellbeing of an artist. If I can put these alterations into my art then so can large companies and organisations.

In terms of future I’m having interesting conversations and am building relationships with universities, vocational performing arts colleges and conservatoires. There is a need for support within industry days for directors, choreographers, makers and performers. One Dance UK have supported my research and created a platform and we continue to talk to create awareness around this issue.

Together we can evolve with the times and be a better inclusive place. Art is a great platform for this and dance could lead the way.

Please click on this link to the project FB page to find out more about Rockbottom