Every now and again a rare opportunity presents itself in New York City. An upcoming, all accessible, all-inclusive production called DESCENT has got Blind Motherhood ready to hit the theater! Performed on a custom-designed architectural ramp installation with hills, curves, and peaks, DESCENT explores the pleasures of wheeled movement and reckless abandon. This new evening-length duet takes audiences on a transformative ride and obliterates cultural assumptions of what disability, dance, and beauty can be. Carla Peterson, Director of Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) and former Artistic Director of New York Live Arts, calls DESCENT a “beautiful, intelligently wrought experience for audiences.” This limited engagement spans three performances March 22, 23, and 24 at New York Live Arts.
Inspired by the sensual writings and art of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, Alice Sheppard gives the mythological characters of Venus and Andromeda new life as interracial lovers in DESCENT. Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson perform in and out of the wheelchairs they use in life and performance, showing an entire spectrum of beauty and opening up new movement possibilities. Sheppard and Lawson employ, manipulate, lift, and bend their bodies in a signature choreographic language. The sensuality of this work is palpable, and risk is interwoven throughout as wheels fly precariously at the edge of the ramp.
The ramp installation is nearly six feet tall and spans 24 by 15 feet of stage space. It is more than a set piece: it offers an entire alternate universe for Venus and Andromeda to explore and inhabit. The ramp was designed by Sara Hendren, a Massachusetts-based artist, design researcher, and writer, along with physics professor Yevgeniya Zastavker and a team of first-year engineering students from Olin College. Hendren pushed to make the ramp a work of art by designing for beauty and wheeled movement potential, not simply for ADA (Americans for Disabilities Act) compliance and essential mobility needs. Dance critic Eva Yaa Asantewaa commented, “one could argue that, with Hendren’s architectural ramp, it is actually a trio—poetic, passionate and, frankly, haaaawwwt.”
“DESCENT is about movement pleasure: the joy of flying freely downhill, and the pleasure of pushing uphill,” stated Alice Sheppard. “I’ve been wanting something as risky, challenging, and beautiful as this for years. Finally, I knew that no one was going to make a dance like this for me, so I gathered a team and over the course of the past few years, we have thrown ourselves into a complicated creative process. We’ve created DESCENT specifically to celebrate disability arts and culture and to demonstrate how disability is an artistic and creative force.”
The team behind DESCENT is a uniquely-specialized ensemble of professionals, making Kinetic Light the first collective led entirely by professional disabled artists. Sheppard has been traveling the world dancing professionally for over a decade, performing with such companies as AXIS Dance Company from Oakland, CA, and Marc Brew Company in the UK. She started making her own work in 2012, and DESCENT is her most ambitious project to date. Laurel Lawson, Sheppard’s collaborator and fellow dancer in DESCENT, is a dancer with Full Radius Dance, a sled hockey athlete, and a software engineer. She has trained extensively with Full Radius Dance since 2004 and is one of the only performers capable of partnering Sheppard in the adventurous athleticism demanded by the DESCENT ramp. Michael Maag, an accomplished lighting designer and disabled artist, has served as Resident Lighting Designer at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) for over 15 years; he was also pivotal in the building of OSF’s new accessible outdoor stage. In DESCENT, he performs more than 300 responsive light and video cues.
Access to dance for non-visual audiences has historically been in the form of audio description, commentary and narration which guides the listener through the movement occurring onstage with concise, objective descriptions of choreography, projections, and costumes, transmitted through a small receiver and earphones. Motivated by audience members’ desire to supplement this practice by expanding to a more encompassing aesthetic experience, Kinetic Light is pushing beyond the traditional practice of audio description. They are developing a custom mobile/web app, titled AUDIMANCE, which will offer a multiplex sound experience of DESCENT for non-visual and visual audience members alike. Led by people who are blind, visually-impaired, and sighted, audio content is created by sonifying dancers’ bodies and by rendering the dance itself in sound. This innovation is in-progress, and aspects will be tested during the NYC premiere performances.
While many theaters in the U.S. comply with the minimum accessible seats required by ADA standards (ex: six seats are required for houses of 300-500 seats), Kinetic Light works with presenting partners to make available at least 20% of seating for disabled audience members. Kinetic Light offers an audio version of the in-house program for those who have a visual impairment, American Sign Language interpreters are present at every show, and the collective works with presenters to employ accessible marketing strategies such captioned videos and photos. A tactile 3D lobby exhibit offers audience members an entry point into understanding the ramp installation as a landscape of physics and can be experienced through sight and also through touch. The artists also offer access training and engagement programming for theater staff as part of the learning curve to welcoming DESCENT fans.
New York Live Arts is an accessible venue. The lobby is accessible via the double doors to the left of the revolving door at 219 W 19th Street. All-gender wheelchair accessible restrooms are available in the lobby. The front row wheelchair seating dedicated for these performances can be accessed by elevator. Questions about access should be directed to NYLA’s Client Services Coordinator via email at [email protected] or phone at 212.691.6500 (voice only).
DESCENT has received notable creation support including a choreographic residency at MANCC, an arts entrepreneur incubator membership at NEW INC, a design/engineering residency at Georgia Institute of Technology, and a residency at Gibney Dance Center, as part of its Dance in Progress (DiP) program. Kinetic Light is supported, in part, by Dance/NYC’s Disability. Dance. Artistry. Fund, made possible by the Ford Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. Alice Sheppard/Kinetic Light researched, developed, and honed DESCENT with financial, administrative, and residency support from the Dance in Process program at Gibney Dance, with funds provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Kinetic Light is in the process of booking a 2018-2020 national tour of DESCENT, with support from NEFA’s National Dance Project, beginning with a Fall 2018 engagement at EMPAC, The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, in Troy, NY.
DESCENT will be performed at New York Live Arts (NYLA) Thursday, March 22, Friday, March 23, and Saturday, March 24 at 7:30pm.
Tickets are now on sale via New York Live Arts in person at the box office, via phone at 212.691.6500, and online at https://newyorklivearts.org/event/descent/. Kinetic Light embraces an equitable approach to ticket pricing and strives to challenge the traditional of hierarchy that can come with tiered pricing structures and assigned seating. Therefore, tickets for the NYLA performances are available in a choose-your-own-price model.
Tickets for DESCENT are $20; all tickets are general admission and at least 20% of theater seating is reserved for people with disabilities.The actual cost of producing and performing DESCENT at NYLA is $65 per seat and a $65 ticket is available for those who wish to support Kinetic Light at this level; these tickets are also general admission. If cost is a barrier, audience members are welcome to take advantage of $10 tickets. According to Sheppard, “Maybe you’re dealing with financial challenges; are a student or artist; or maybe you’re just not sure if dance is your ‘thing’. Whatever the reason, we welcome you. No questions asked.”