When discussing 32 year old professional dancer Chris Pavia with his colleagues and friends at Stopgap Dance Company they tell you about a jovial, committed, diligent dancer, choreographer and teacher who’s abilities in all there fields have progressed steadily over the last 18 years he has spent with the company.
Chris is also imbued with an infectious personality, a penchant for practical jokes and, according to founding company Artistic Director Vicki Balaam, a love for sleep;
“When I started working with him, the first thing that I noticed about him was his love of sleep! The first thing I had to teach him was that if he wanted to go to sleep, it couldn’t be in the middle of the room it had to be to the side, ideally under a table. When I first asked him, he grinned – sleepily – and was snoring under a table within seconds.”
Chris has been dancing since he was 16 years old when he was introduced to StopGap after he met Vicki in 1999, while taking part in dance classes at Ridgeway Community School in Farnham. Given the complete lack of pathways for dancers with learning disabilities to train in the profession (a problem that was even more pronounced 15 years ago) it was fortuitous that the two would meet. Vicki, a University of Surrey graduate had, four years previously, become fully committed to starting an inclusive dance company.
“Chris learnt to become a dancer at the same time that I learnt how to perform in the ‘real’ world, to teach and lead a dance company (and we both grew alongside Stopgap ‘learning’ to be a dance company in a way). So from the beginning we were all learning from each other. Chris taught me how to “see” … to ‘clean my eyes’ each rehearsal and see the young man that moved before me, and it took me a while to gain the skills (and discipline) to actually see what he was achieving in each rehearsal and to understand his developments each day, rather than relying on what I thought I knew.”
Formal training, a foundation GNVQ in performing arts at Brooklands College in Surrey, was available to Chris and he has fond memories of his time there but most of his training took place within Stopgap Dance Company.
Stopgap Dance Company
The story of Stopgap Dance Company itself is both rich and colourful and we could easily compose an entire piece about that but for this story we shall be brief. Stopgap is an integrated dance company based in Surrey that specialises in working with dancers with both physical and learning difficulties. Founded by Vicki Balaam in 1995 the company was originally a community dance project set up with the assistance of dancers David Toole (formerly of DV8 and Candoco) and Kuldip Singh-Barmi, a dancer with Candoco in the 90’s and currently a lecturer in dance at Falmouth University in Cornwall.
Hannah has been working with Stopgap Dance Company since 2010 following a stint with the company's youth dance company and completing a BTEC in performing arts at Kingston College.
She talks to us about her experiences with the company and about how Chris has helped and inspired her during the time she has worked with the company.
Since that time Stopgap has grown into a fully fledged touring company, initially using a rep based system with visiting dance makers but recently switching to an in-house choreographer approach. The latest product of that new system is the company’s touring work ‘Artificial Things’ a work that Chris played a significant part in creating along with dancers David Willdridge, Amy Butler and David Toole.
The current Artistic Director of Stopgap, Lucy Bennett, recalls the first time she met Chris;
“I first met Chris when I auditioned for Stopgap. It was quite early in the morning in a cold school hall and Chris was teaching a phrase for the audition. I remember a lot of the other [auditionees], there weren’t very many of us, were getting a little bit worried about which foot it started on because Chris changed his mind quite a lot and changed how many steps [were] in each phrase. I remember being quite surprised that they were so worried about it because it was quite obvious Chris didn’t care what foot it started on and we could find the flow and the energy of the movement. I think that was one of the reasons I was attracted to Stopgap, it didn’t matter which foot you started on (laughs)”.
Although the idea at the very beginning was to train Chris as a teacher within the company, Vicki Balaam was also enamoured with his ability to move, to dance;
“When I first saw him move, I held my breath. There was something about the honesty in his movement, the softness in his transitions, his concentration and the joy that rippled out of his body that made me want to just stop and watch. It was very exciting! He was very charismatic - he still is - and is far better at networking than I ever have been! I think he knows every member of staff and regular passengers on the trains that he regularly travels on!”
It is perhaps his natural people skills working in tandem with his creative and performance skills that serve Chris and the company so well from the studio to the stage. David Toole, a founding company member and currently performing in a number of productions with Stopgap, describes working with Chris on 'Artificial Things';
“When we made 'Artificial Things' for example, working with [Chris] was quite an eye opener because I’ve watched him in rehearsals and, in the past, been rehearsal director and have to give him notes, sometime being very hard on him, probably too hard in some cases. He’s taught me a lot of things about being aware of his abilities, and me being able to [understand] that I can’t think like that, he works in a certain way and [you] need to give him the freedom to do then things that he’s good at. So when we worked together, we do a duet in 'Artificial Things', that is, kind of, based around Laurel and Hardy and he’s the perfect foil for that, he’s so generous. We do take turns at doing things wrong [and] each of us picks those things up almost instinctively now because we’ve done it so many times."
Finding a Path
Although Chris is not too sure what his future holds in terms of working in the dance world, at the moment he is content with his position at Stopgap, Lucy Bennett does see a pathway to working with other companies, dancers and dancers with learning disabilities;
“Sometimes we might have to go with him and he would have to have an assistant there to help him with time management and, also, managed people is a really difficult skill that not all choreographers have but that’s something that we would have to help him with. [Chris] works particularly well with other dancers with learning difficulties because [the] imagery that he uses, they can relate to a lot so I would love to see him choreographing on another inclusive company or even a solo on somebody that has a learning difficulty, I think that would be quite magical to watch.”
Finding that path does depend a lot on other dance companies and their own thinking and policies toward dancers with disabilities and learning difficulties. Things have come a long way over the last 15 years, thanks to companies like Stopgap, but there is still a very long way to go for dancers like Chris Pavia and his contemporaries.
Vicki, much like Lucy, is very upbeat about Chris’s future prospects however and, once again, it is strength of character that comes to the fore, as it is for so many professional dancers;
“What impresses me about Chris is how he is able to keep “grounded” and keep focused on being the best he can be, and that is a remarkable work ethic which has resulted in him being the accomplished star he is! I remember how hard it can be when you are buffeted by some people saying how amazing you are, and others disappointed you are not delivering their expectation of you … it is very hard to keep your head down and keep traveling in the direction that makes sense to you and your principles, ideals and instinct. Chris is able to do that. He is ambitious for himself, but also for his colleagues, and being able to juggle the two priorities is why he was glorious to dance with when I was performing, and why he is a terrific friend who my children adore. As a dancer, his skill, the quality in his movement, and now as he becomes the choreographer he has always wanted to be, is just outstanding. I have always had high expectations of Chris, but he continues to prove the limits of even my most expansive imagination. I am left cheering very loudly and incredibly proudly as he continues his breathtaking development, which just seems unstoppable!”
[ Download The Complete Interview With Vicki Balaam (PDF) ]
[ Stopgap Dance Company Website ]
[ 'Artificial Things' on Article19 ]