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Rachel Gadsden: Starting Line

Posted by Colin Hambrook, Thursday 27th September, 2012

‘Starting Line’ has been one of Accentuates finest commissions. A combined performance art, dance, visual art, film and sound extravaganza exploring the history of the Paralympic movement, it encapsulates many of the Paralympic goals and features work from Accentuates projects: Creative Junction and Driving Inspiration amidst a multiple-layered blend that weaves in and out alongside onstage BSL and audio-described commentary.

I spoke to Rachel Gadsden who has been commissioned as an artist in several Accentuate projects over the last few years, asking her about how the commission for Starting Line came together.

“Starting Line was an incredibly ambitious project. Having the capacity to take on board the commission and for it to have all the layers we wanted came about due to a remarkable level of support from Accentuate. They helped us see our way through the production process and gave us mentoring to talk through how to make things work. My ability to make it happen was never questioned. They always believed in what we were trying to do.

Early on we began working with Creative Junction. They deliver massively creative projects in terms of outreach but the demand for Starting Line was to come up with a polished professional product. The two agendas, balancing community work alongside producing a major piece of work for a non-disabled audience, don't necessarily sit side by side. So immediately we had a challenge. Our remit was to work with young people inspiring a future generation to make a cultural shift. Initially we worked with young people with severe learning difficulties from Stocklake Park School as well as Shed at the Park and the Spinal Injuries Unit. There were logistical problems in terms of accommodating all of the students full-time carers, so they could be in the final performance. It was a blessing finally to work with Candoco2’s young dancers with the support of Luke Pell.

After Ryan Laight came on board as Artistic Director we began working on the narrative together. Early on we decided Starting Line had to have a historical perspective. I knew a lot of the history of Stoke Mandeville having done a few workshops at the hospital with people with spinal injuries. We looked through some key images from Stoke Mandeville’s history and looked at early day footage. During this research period a woman came forward with film of the first helicopter to bring soldiers to the facility. I had a drawing of a figure shooting out, conveying the idea of freedom. In putting the story together we created a structure around the idea of impairment not stopping you from achieving what you want to achieve.

When Abby Norris and I set about doing the animation work for Starting Line we thought about using the structure of the hospital and archival material as the basis for the film. Then Abby filmed several of the young people at workshops. She slowed down footage of their movements and we drew on tracing paper using the shapes as a backing. In all we did about 300 drawings. Each 8 seconds of footage amounted to about 80 drawings. We then set about incorporating other elements: swimming and the freedom of swimming, and Paralympian John Harris coming out of the blocks in his wheelchair. We were responding to the film and the film responded to other aspects of what we were doing.

Through the performance elements of Starting Line we were looking to create an evocative, moody piece about being restrained, contained and then let free. We thought of the live canvasses we were working on as people, as beautiful objects that had to be treated with grace. The dance and live art-making were integrated. I wasn't there creating dance movements as the dancers weren't there to create marks. But each movement and each mark became an echo of each other. In my role I became Guttman wearing a fencing costume and fencing in turn became a metaphor for being prone to medical intervention.

Freddie Opoku-Addaie choreographed the torch piece. He is a very physical performer, which was what we needed to convey sport as dance movement. We spent a lot of time working with him at every rehearsal to bring the project to realization.

It was very important to me that we make Starting Line as accessible as possible. So we created a part for Ben Owen Jones as a 1940s commentator to audio-describe the performance and commissioned Caro Parker to create a BSL interpretation.

Key to the way the piece came together was the way in which everybody supported everybody else. It shone through the project as a whole. If possible we’d like to find more opportunities to show Starting Line further. It should have some longevity to it because it tells the story of Stoke Mandeville – rather than simply of the Paralympics.

As a mark of how successful the production of Starting Line has been Artistic Director Ryan Laight have been inspired to think about the possibility of setting up a company. We’ve been thinking about producing a model, which draws on the nature of young disabled people’s impairment and physicality to produce work that plays to the individuals’ strengths.”

To find out more about Rachel Gadsden's work go to

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Friday 28th September, 2012

Kristina Veasey

Sounds fantastic and wish I had been able to see it. Is there a video of it anywhere?

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