Building Healthy Boundaries in Creative Processes

This article by Stuart Waters, covers some important questions that are being posed about the safeguarding of the dance artist, most specifically within the pressures and demands of the creative process. The article was originally commissioned by Disability Arts Online,  www.disabilityarts.online.

Stuart Waters is a UK based performer, choreographer and teacher who recently presented at the Once Dance UK Healthier Dancer Conference held at TrinityLaban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (November 2017). His session “Mental Health and Issue-based Work” proposed the development of support mechanisms for dancers when using emotional triggers in the creative process.

” Safeguarding the artist, the studio and the creative process” by Stuart Waters

Photo: 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 wellbeing 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?

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

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. 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 then 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 that material any other way? Is the cost of these explorations worth it?

In January 2017 I began exploring these questions creatively when ROCKBOTTOM gained Research and Development 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 would I keep both myself and my collaborators safe?

I developed a safe guarding 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. These included:

  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 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 surprise 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 well being of an artist. If I can put these alterations into my art then so can large companies and organisation. 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.

For more information about Stuart and Rock Bottom please go to: https://www.facebook.com/rockbottomdancetheatre/

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