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'Steel City Man' set to open Special Olympics and bring disabled artists to the fore
Date posted: 03 August 2017
It was a special time for Artistic Director Nathan Geering as he prepared to stage one massive Olympic show in his adopted home city of Sheffield…
Nathan Geering - Artistic Director
On 8 August 2017 the Special Olympics will be coming to Sheffield. I am the artistic director of the opening ceremony, which will be held at Sheffield United football ground in front of 20,000 people.

This is a huge honour for me since Sheffield has been my hometown for a number of years. I first moved to the Steel City to study a degree in Psychology and, like many students, fell in love with the place and decided to stay here. It was in Sheffield that I first learned bboying, aged 21 and honed my skills as a dancer. So when the opportunity arose for me to be the artistic director of the Special Olympics, I jumped at the chance.

My job is to provide the artistic content for the opening ceremony, ensuring a strong sense of cohesion. This is a huge job and many factors have to be taken into consideration. I have had many round table meetings with the Special Olympics CEO, Sheffield United football ground, Liz Hobbs Group (the production team for the opening ceremony) and Sheffield Public Transport, plus a host of other organisations, to grasp the enormity of this project, both logistically and artistically. Even getting the athletes to arrive at the venue is a choreography in itself - moving 2,600 people to the stadium by bus is something that requires timing and formation and consideration of traffic flow.

So it was by attending these meetings and talks that I formulated my artistic vision for the event. In my time working with people with intellectual (learning) disabilities, I have attended many sporting events and have been shocked to see how many non-disabled people don’t believe people with intellectual (learning) disabilities can be athletes, let alone Olympians. I want to help change this perception through the content we showcase at the opening ceremony. I want to raise expectations of what is possible for people with intellectual (learning) disabilities and also to inspire a nation to achieve greatness in whatever it is they do, regardless of them being disabled or non-disabled. 

It is because of this I devised a creative brief that looks at the artistry within athletes and the athleticsm within artists. This brief isn't just trying to transform audiences’ beliefs and expectations but also artists’ expectations. Because it is the Special Olympics, artists with intellectual (learning) disabilities have to take ownership of the Opening Ceremony and I am passionate about ensuring they have a strong performance presence where, in many cases, they will take the artistic lead. I feel strongly that non-disabled artists can learn so much from artists with learning difficulties.

For example, I have paired a Down’s Syndrome dance group with a non-disabled streetdance group that perform both nationally and internationally. But I have insisted on not simply having the non-disabled dance group impose their choreography on the dancers with Down Syndrome. Instead, I have asked that the intellectually (learning) disabled group teach the non-disabled group choreography and that this is to be the creative starting point for the dance performance, with both groups then continually feeding into the choreography. With another act, I am pairing a group of drummers with autism with pole artists. The drummers have created a piece of music and the pole artists make choreography that fits the music. This means the artistic content is again being led by intellectually (learning) disabled artists, hopefully inspiring both groups to find new and exciting ways of creating art. 

I have also progammed DJs with intellectual (learning) disabilities to provide the musical content for the parade of delegates at the opening ceremony. They will choose the playlist and DJ live for two hours, setting the lead for all the other artists. So disabled artists will be at the forefront of much of the creative process.

To put a Sheffield stamp on things I have drawn on the strong identity of Sheffield's steel industry, creating a dance piece inspired by this. The dance piece centres around the people of Sheffield building a ‘Steel City Man’ as a beacon of hope and inspiration. The Steel City Man comes to life and wields his power over all the Steel in Sheffield, resulting in an explosive choreographed dance piece. The musical score, too, will be inspired by popular music created by Sheffield artists. 

A challenge I’ve faced in creating this work has been the restrictions over which part of the venue - Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane Stadium - we can use for performance. This means that most of the artistic content will take place around the edge of the football pitch, making it quite difficult to achieve large-scale unison choreography. I have welcomed this challenge. It has pushed me artistically to think of innovative ways in which I can achieve the same impact and quality that is associated with the reputation of other opening ceremonies, while working with significant spatial restrictions. Lessons can be learned, and I choose to see this as an opportunity for me to grow as an artist.

This is a massively exciting project and a huge honour to lead. It will give so many artists (both disabled and non-disabled) the opportunity to work with people and in ways they have never before experienced. It will open the public’s eyes to what people with intellectual disabilities are truly capable of, giving them a platform they will own and where they can shine.


Nathan Geering
Artistic Director


The Special Olympics GB National Games Sheffield 2017 took place 7–12 August 2017. http://sheffield2017.org.uk/

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The term Intellectual (learning) disability is used by the Special Olympics organisation - you can find more out about this at http://sheffield2017.org.uk/athletes/