The Dance Edit

Transcript, Episode 40: “Nutcracker” During COVID, Decentralizing Dance, and Alice Sheppard


[Jump to Alice Sheppard interview.]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends. Welcome to The Dance Edit podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:
I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we’ll get into the Metropolitan Opera’s offer of paychecks for its employees if their unions agree to long-term pay cuts, which raised many an eyebrow. We will talk about Nutcracker in the time of COVID, how the pandemic has forced companies to cancel or completely rethink their Nutcracker productions and what that means, financially and artistically. We will discuss how the pandemic might move dance out of major cities and what the effects of that shift could be. Then, we’ll have our interview with Alice Sheppard, the disabled dancer and choreographer, who is challenging conventional understandings of disabled and dancing bodies. We are really eager for you to hear from her.

On a related note, before we start the show, we wanted to say that we’ll be providing full transcripts of this episode, and all future episodes, on our website. Accessibility is an integral part of Alice’s work, and it’s also a part of our mission and values here at Dance Media, to make sure that all of our content can be accessed by people of all abilities and disabilities. So from here out, you can find transcripts linked in the episode description, and also at thedanceedit.com/podcast.

Now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown. We’re playing a bit of catch up after a week off from newsy discussions, so we have a lot to talk about. Let’s get right into it.

Courtney Escoyne:

American Ballet Theatre has canceled its 2021 spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which was slated to begin in June, citing the ongoing pandemic and recent surge in cases, which they determined made staging a full slate of indoor performances in New York City unfeasible. The company is working on plans to perform outdoors throughout the US this spring before returning to New York City in the summer. Details on that are still to come.

Lydia Murray:
The recent coronavirus surge in Hong Kong has been partially linked to dance clubs where wealthy female students take lessons from young male instructors.

Courtney Escoyne:
In cheerier news, the New York Dance and Performance Awards, better known as the Bessies, announced this year’s nominees. Now, as previously announced, they’ve decided to forego declaring winners this year out of respect for the artists who are unable to stage their shows due to the pandemic, but each nominee will receive the traditional $500 honorarium and be recognized during a virtual ceremony taking place December 14th. It is, as always, a wonderfully varied group. I always feel like the Bessies exists to remind us that no matter how closely you follow the New York City dance scene, there’s always something brilliant happening that you just don’t know about.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That you missed.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, always. “Dancing with the Stars” has a new winner. Former Bachelorette, Kaitlyn Bristowe, and her partner, Artem Chigvintsev, took home the mirror ball trophy for the show’s 29th season. The winning dances were a repeat of their Argentine tango to “Toxic” by Britney Spears, whose birthday is today, and a dance to “Sparkling Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge.

Courtney Escoyne:
Moulin Rouge and Britney? What?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. And “Dancing with the Stars,” congratulations, made it through a whole season with nary a COVID outbreak.

Lydia Murray:
Impressive.

Courtney Escoyne:
Really impressive. Some more good news out of Pacific Northwest Ballet. It was announced during the company’s recent virtual gala that Dylan Wald and Angelica Generosa have been promoted to Principal Dancer. Cecilia Iliesiu has been promoted to Soloist. Congrats to all three.

Lydia Murray:
Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list for 2021 is here and it is quite dance-y this year. Honorees from the dance community include the viral TikTok star, Jalaiah Harmon, and speaking of TikTok, Charli D’Amelio is on the list. She recently made TikTok history by becoming the first user to reach 100 million followers. Rising pop star Tate McRae who gained fame through “So You Think You Can Dance” nabbed a spot as well. Last, but certainly not least, is Ariana DeBose, our December cover star over at Dance Magazine. She’s been crushing it from Broadway to Hollywood. She’s widely known for her performance as the Bullet in Hamilton, but this month she’ll play Alyssa in the film adaptation of The Prom on Netflix. Next year, we will finally get to see her as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story after the film’s release was delayed due to COVID.

Courtney Escoyne:
Not going to lie: Ariana as Alyssa Greene is the main thing that I’m excited about for The Prom film adaptation.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which is saying a lot because there’s a lot to be excited about in that adaptation.

Lydia Murray:
There’s so much to be excited about!

Courtney Escoyne:
Slightly less cheery news now. Denver-based contemporary dance company Wonderbound has been forced to move to new premises after the studio space they’ve occupied for the last five years was vandalized. Unfortunately that means paying rent is having to be factored back into the company’s budget. Their previous space was donated by the building’s owners, but they are hoping to be able to premiere their new holiday show Winterland: a Discotheque Cabaret, originally slated for this month, in January, local COVID-19 restrictions allowing. If you’re able to support, this is definitely a company that is really hurting and could use a little help right now.

Lydia Murray:
The dance world lost four towering figures recently. Canadian modern dance pioneer, Patricia Beatty, the former Limon star and teacher Betty Jones, world-renowned dance accompanist and author Harriet Cavalli, and former New York City Ballet star, Sara Leland.

Courtney Escoyne:
Shockwaves were felt in the tap community at the death of master teacher Gregg Russell at the age of 48. Russell was an Emmy-nominated choreographer whose resume was chock-full of pop culture icons, and who was beloved for his infectious, energetic teaching style. As Jason Samuels Smith put it in a tribute on Instagram, “Russell was optimism personified.” He is survived by his wife and young daughter, and there are a couple of GoFundMes [find them here and here] currently ongoing to help support them.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He reached so many people as a dancer, as a choreographer, but especially as a teacher. We should remember too, as a teacher of not just tap. He actually taught in a variety of styles. He could seemingly do anything. He’ll be dearly missed.

In our next segment, we’re going to get into a piece of news that came out a little more than a week ago now, but it’s major enough that we wanted to sort of circle back to it in this episode. The Metropolitan Opera’s employees, including its dancers, have been furloughed without pay since April, but the Met’s administration recently said they would start offering many of those employees up to $1,500 a week for the duration of the pandemic on the condition that their unions agree to longer-term pay cuts. So, in this proposed deal, employees would have to sign new contracts, reducing their take-home pay by 30%. Then half of that cut would be restored once the Met’s box office returns to its pre-pandemic levels.

I mean, these are desperate times for arts organizations of all sizes. Obviously the Met has not been spared the effects of the pandemic. But this proposed compromise rings all kinds of alarm bells. Like, using COVID to union bust? Is this really what it looks like it is?

Courtney Escoyne:
#2020?

Lydia Murray:
This of course can easily come across as an attempt to take advantage of an incredibly unfortunate situation to cover deeper problems. The Met was already in a somewhat strained financial position before the pandemic. The New York Times reported in November of last year that the opera had run a minor deficit for the previous two years and that S&P had found its endowment to be low for an organization of its scope and reduced its outlook from stable to negative. Even before COVID, the Met earned less than a third of its $300 million annual budget through the box office, which made it overly reliant on donors. If the unions accept the proposed deal, the short-term pay for workers would only amount to 70% of their base salaries. As you said, Margaret, that would be capped at $1,500 a week, which is challenging enough. The fact that Met employees are being offered what will amount to a 15% pay cut after the box office returns to pre-pandemic levels in exchange for not much more than a livable wage in a highly expensive city in the wake of an economic and public health disaster and after months of furlough sounds extremely questionable to say the least.

Courtney Escoyne:
Essentially what is being asked to happen is if you want to keep working, you have to bear the burden of this budget shortfall. They’re saying that to the artists—the artists who are the ones who are making the work that is the whole reason for this organization’s existence. That’s not cool. Also I think dancing for operas is one of those concert gigs that actually pays really quite well in the dance world because it is unionized. I know a lot of dancers who are very much in the experimental scene, but who will take opera gigs when they get them. That’s what pays the bills, so the idea of making… The calculus you have to do to live as a dancer in New York City, making that even more unlivable in the way that this proposal will is really not cool at all.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s not a great look. As Lydia noted, the idea that even once they are back to pre-pandemic box office levels, you’re still 15% down from where you started…oof.

Courtney Escoyne:
Then I think it’s also interesting that again, only a third of their budget comes from box office. So hello, the donors who make up the other two thirds of that. Would you like to actually fund the artists? Hello?

Lydia Murray:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Step up to the plate. Yep. In our next segment, we’re going to talk a little about The Nutcracker, which is not surprising. It’s December. This is a dance podcast. But this year, everything Nutcracker is so much more complicated. Dance Magazine just published two thought-provoking COVID Nutcracker stories. The first talks in a bigger-picture sense about the effects of the pandemic on the whole Nutcracker industry. Going without a traditional Nutcracker run was essentially unthinkable for most ballet companies previously. When they were forced to abandon their traditional productions, how did they end up thinking about the unthinkable?

Then, many companies’ COVID Nutcracker solutions involve broadcasting footage of a previous year’s production. In the second Dance Magazine piece, Phil Chan of Final Bow for Yellowface talks about what those companies can do if that footage includes offensive racial caricatures in the second act. What responsible actions should companies take in that scenario?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, so starting with the first of those two pieces: Dance Magazine took a pretty broad look at, What does a year without Nutcracker even mean? Looking at it from a budgetary standpoint, as Mikko Nissinen, the artistic director of Boston Ballet, put it, “Everything else loses money.”

Lydia Murray:
According to a Dance/USA survey, it brings in on average 48% of total performance revenue for a year, or an average of $2.8 million in ticket sales. That money enables companies to experiment with more cutting-edge work. So the longterm financial and artistic implications of a Nutcracker-less season are dire, as I believe we’ve discussed on previous episodes.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think it’s easy to be jaded about Nutcracker, but it does provide opportunities for so many up-and-coming company members to show their mettle, to step into new roles, to step into featured roles. It allows students who are looking to go professional opportunities to perform alongside them, or even students who aren’t looking to go professional to get performing experience. For freelance dancers, it allows them to pad their income in December by doing guesting performances.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s also—sorry to interrupt you—it’s also important to the wider community. I mean, Nutcracker is the way that many people first discover ballet or discover dance entirely, and you don’t want to cut off that entry point.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Then also just looking at what it means to companies and to communities. Looking at Ballet West, which does Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker, the oldest Nutcracker in America. Talking to Julie Kent at the Washington Ballet, who was actually—her American Ballet Theatre career started whenever they needed extra people in the corps. She took time off of high school to go and dance with them when she was 16. It’s a really key part of the ballet ecosystem. The question has now become, what do we do in this year when everything has been turned upside down and traditional Nutcrackers are out the window?

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. This season, companies have been forced to get even more creative than usual about these productions, adopting everything from small, socially distanced performances with dancers who work together in pods to streaming past performances.

On the topic of streaming: I think I can speak for all of us when I say, please read Phil’s piece. To sum it up, he suggests dealing with harmful, outdated Nutcracker footage by acknowledging what’s problematic about it, as well as the impact of racial caricature, encouraging conversation, demonstrating how you’re making positive changes in this area. But I do want to point out this one quote that resonated with me: “Showing an outdated Nutcracker without context will give a first impression that our world is backwards and racist and therefore not worthy of further investment.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. One of the reasons that the Nutcracker is the ideal production to introduce the idea of evolving a ballet to keep up with the times—whether that be by eliminating terrible racial stereotypes, or by doing a more complete overhaul, the way some of these companies have been forced to do this year, since they can’t mount traditional productions—The Nutcracker is a great vehicle for that, because it’s embedded enough in the cultural consciousness to be flexible. Because of its mainstream appeal, it can absorb changes and updates, and the audience will still kind of come along with you. They’ll still understand the core references, the music and the story and the spirit of the whole thing.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s also very bits and pieces-y. There’s so many divertissements, so you can really, like, “Okay, if this one is the one that’s the issue, we can grab that and we can edit that and we can change that and we can evolve it.” Without having to just throw everything out necessarily.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Oh, I was trying to come up with a good “baby with the bathwater” analogy that was Nutcracker-specific and I couldn’t do it fast enough. Don’t throw out the Nutcracker…no, I’m not going to try. But by the way, a great resource, if you do want to get a better sense of the ways U S companies are approaching Nutcracker this year, is the Dance Data Project’s Nutcracker Status Updates page. Just a full rundown of what everybody is actually doing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which as a news editor, I can tell you it’s changing constantly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh gosh. Yeah. Now we want to address another think piece that Dance Magazine published recently. This one asks whether the pandemic is effectively decentralizing dance, if it’s shifting it away from bigger cities. A lot of former city-dwelling dancers have relocated in the period since theaters shut down, and many of them might not be able to or might not want to return the major hubs after COVID subsides. So what would that mean for the dance industry? Would decentralization necessarily be a bad thing? Do smaller cities and towns have the infrastructure and the audience to support dance companies? There’s a lot to unpack in this story.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I think it’s fair to argue that at this point, it’s still too soon to really say. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to really properly answer this question, did it or did it not, for at least another couple of years. I think the next several months, how the pandemic response goes, how vaccines, et cetera, pan out, how much longer we’re in this unknown state—I think that’s going to be informing a lot of what ultimately happens.

But looking at this story, it ended up being rather New York City focused. One of the things that was mentioned in it is that Dance/NYC, which is a local service organization, started collecting data on how COVID-19 was impacting the landscape. Some of the respondents to the surveys they were doing volunteered the information about whether or not they were relocating from the city. In that initial survey back in March, 7% said that they had relocated to stay with family and quote escape the virus and additional respondents stated that they were considering leaving. As it was also pointed out in the story, in addition to that, as we all very well know, dance work largely dried up in the spring here in New York City. Also a lot of the gigs that dancers use to pay the bills dried up. Catering’s a no-go. Anything retail industry, all these side hustles also dried up. So the reality is without some sort of economic intervention, being a dancer in a place like New York City right now is economically unfeasible. It was pointed out that a lot of dancers might end up changing professions simply because they have to eat.

But the more positive potential is: Okay, so let’s say looking at all of that, dancers decide, “I’m going to move back to my hometown, which might not be one of these major cities.” It might not be a major dance hub, but it probably has some dance presence. What happens if a lot of that happens? What is that going to do to the dance field? If we diffuse the expertise into a lot of different places, will we start seeing new wellsprings of talent and creativity? Will we start hearing from places that we don’t necessarily think of as being hotbeds for dance? Now, a lot of infrastructure has to come into place and there still is the issue of how do we make sure that dancers can actually afford to live, but it is definitely a possibility that is intriguing.

Lydia Murray:
I can sort of picture dance staying somewhat the same as it is now, in the sense of dance happening across the US with the most prestigious opportunities still being concentrated in a few major cities. Because in the concert dance world, I think dancers will still want to go to big-name companies that are likely to survive the pandemic. But I’ve wondered whether we’ll see more dancers finding it advantageous to move to smaller, more far-flung regions and maybe traveling farther for specific jobs. Maybe like in the commercial world, where it’s a little bit more gig-based.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think that was a point that was made in the story too. Spreading out the dance wealth—it’s not going to actually hurt these major dance hubs in all likelihood. People are never going to stop coming to New York, coming to Los Angeles. It’s just going to spread more talent around to more places in a way that some see as actually an ideal to aspire to, to bring more world-class dance out into smaller communities. There’s a lot of potential in that kind of shift.

Anyway, a lot of interesting ideas to consider. And, as Courtney noted, a lot to sort of keep tabs on, especially once the dance world begins to reopen post-pandemic. It’s going to take a while for us to really see what’s going on here.

Okay. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Alice Shepherd. Stay tuned.

[pause]


ALICE SHEPPARD INTERVIEW


Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. Our guest on the podcast today is Alice Sheppard, the disabled dancer and Bessie Award-winning choreographer who is a leader in the disability arts community. Alice was a member of AXIS Dance Company for several years and has collaborated with numerous other companies as an independent artist. And in 2016, Alice founded Kinetic Light, which is a project-based ensemble of disabled artists—it’s Alice, Laurel Lawson, Michael Maag, and now also Jerron Herman—and they explore the intersections of disability, dance, design, identity, and technology. Alice also recently became one of the first Disability Futures Fellows; that’s a new fellowship that aims to increase the visibility and elevate the voices of disabled creative practitioners. So welcome, Alice. Thank you for joining on the podcast today.

Alice Sheppard:
Hello, Margaret. Thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be talking with you. And hi, everyone out there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Would you start by telling our listenership the story of how you entered the dance world? Because you started out as a medieval history professor, is that right?

Alice Sheppard:
Almost. I was a professor of medieval literature and language, meaning that I spent a lot of time thinking about origins of words and Beowulf. Yeah. But it’s a magic world to exist in, and I started there. In 2003, I was finding my way into disabled life and went to a conference on disability studies in the university, held by the MLA at Emory University. I don’t really know what I was doing there, except that I thought it was necessary to go; I didn’t know what I would find. When I got there, I recognized that I was out of my depth. I was so out of my depth.

And then over the course of the three days or four days, I had these transformative life experiences, one of which was seeing Homer Avila dance. I had wondered how a dance performance was going to happen when I learned that the dancer was the figure I had seen bopping around on crutches—I didn’t know how that was going to happen. Simi Linton asked if I would read text for Homer to dance to, and I was like, “Sure. I’ll do that.” And I did. And [Avila] danced and…every time I tell the story, I recognize how much I’m still not finding the words for it. It was gut wrenching, soul searing and magic, it was all of those things. He danced, he left nothing behind.

I caught up with him in the bar afterwards, talked for a couple of hours about disability and dance and aesthetics and integrity and work and what these things look like. And I found I had strong beliefs about what disability can be in the arts, and he did too. Then at the end of the night, a group of us were there who had been in and out of the conversation, and he dared them to take a dance class. He turned around and dared me to take a dance class. I said yes. And then six weeks later he was dead.

I wanted to honor that dare. But then I was like, “Well, how do you learn to dance as a disabled artist?” And I found that where I was, I couldn’t take a dance class, and didn’t really know how to execute or operationalize that. And then I saw a performance in the Bay Area by Light Motion and also by AXIS and I was like, “That’s it. That is it. I can do that. I want to do that.” So I found a studio that was inaccessible and I tried to take a dance class there, and the teacher said, “Well, you can’t do anything, but maybe you can just get the port de bras right.” And I was like, “Okay…” but I tried. And then I saw a flyer for a class by AXIS, and I signed myself up, and there I was, that was it. I got started and I never wanted to stop.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And you went on to have this extraordinary career as a performer. And then can you talk a little about—I don’t mean to fast forward through a lot of your history as a dancer—but about the origins of Kinetic Light, specifically, about how it came into being and how you would describe its vision and its mission?

Alice Sheppard:
All right. Let’s begin with the origin story of Kinetic. So we got started because I met Michael on a panel and I was like, “I don’t really agree with this guy’s opinions.” And then I met Michael again on a second panel a couple of months later, I was like, “Oh, this guy’s really interesting.” And we have got into these conversations and I was like, “Oh, we’re really going to make work together.” And then Laurel and I had known each other over the course of years through internet connections. And I’d actually been down to work with Full Radius in a guest artist capacity, and it had been fun, and I was like, “Oh yeah.” And then I emailed Michael said, “Let’s make this happen. Here’s an idea for us to make it happen.” And then I was like, “Michael, we need another dancer.” Then I emailed Laurel, I was like, “I have an idea. We’re going to do this.”

And so eventually we were just three people trying to get a piece made and get the piece on stage. And then I realized that the piece was big and we would need money. And so Kinetic Light—we didn’t start as a company or to make a thing happen, we just started because we needed a name for the group and a way to get a work onstage. And then it just grew over the past three and a half, four years, we’ve made in some ways a ton of work and in other ways, not very much work and in other ways, an incredible amount of things have happened.

And we’ve found ourselves in a place where the company has a mission and a vision for how disability and arts and access go together. Where we’ve built an environment for ourselves to work, a philosophy of working in disability arts. Where the work that we have accomplished together is incredible in itself and also I look at it and I’m like, this is just the beginning, we have so much more work to do. You’re catching us at a moment of both looking backwards and forwards in our time together, and recognizing all of the folks who have got us to this point, and dreaming out the future.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Speaking of looking to the future, congratulations on the Disability Futures Fellowship. Can you talk a little about how this fellowship addresses some of the problems you’ve seen in the funding landscape?

Alice Sheppard:
Yeah. Okay. So I think one of the questions is: disabled artists have always made work—be it dancers or whatever you want, we’re different—we have always made work, and that work has not been recognized as fundable. And in the dance world, we have 40 years, depending on how you count, of practice, but it is mainly company practice. But in addition to company practice, you also want independent artist practice. And the funding structures have not recognized that. It has been hard enough for the companies to find a home, that has been a tremendous battle. And without the work that the companies have done, there wouldn’t be a moment for independent artists. At the same time, we cannot fund only companies. The independent artist practice also needs to be there. It’s both/and. And so this is one of the ways of saying: Okay, we have not thought about disabled artists and we have not recognized practice in this way, we’ve not recognized work in this way, and now we want to attend to this, but the question is how to attend to this. And that means recognizing diversity of practice. It also means recognizing the impact of funding, and when funding appears and when it’s drawn away, both on the field and on the individuals. It means recognizing the social and political structures by which disabled people live, in terms of the funding not necessarily undercutting, removing, or rendering them ineligible for other kinds of support, critical life support. And it’s thinking through, how do you know what a practice is if for 40 years or more, you have not educated yourself in the field? If I were to say to you, could you name disabled dancers going back 40 years?

Margaret Fuhrer:
No. And that’s a failing on my part. It’s all part of that same system that we need to fix.

Alice Sheppard:
So this is part of what the Disability Futures Fellowship does, is recognize practice that is existing, and then we work through a number of different ways to support artists across a diversity of practices and a diversity of ways of making work. And some are longstanding practices and some are shorter-standing practices. I don’t like emerging, established, mid-career labels, but it serves us better—the fellowship is recognizing all of that. And I believe it is a transformative way to look at disability arts, which is where I place Kinetic Light and my own practice.

Margaret Fuhrer:
One of the reasons that we are talking right now is that your work DESCENT has its online premiere, actually the day this episode is premiering, December 3rd. Can you talk a little bit about that work, how that came to be? And I want to talk especially about its use of the ramp as an aesthetic.

Alice Sheppard:
This has been part of the political work of DESCENT, part of the political work and aesthetic work of Kinetic Light. So, we are not a physically integrated dance company. Kinetic Light is led by disabled artists, and most of our work has no normative, non-disabled body or mind as a reference point. So, there’s a shorthand: we could say, “for us, by us.” But we could also say—and this is the definition that I am currently tossing around, it’s the disability arts as I understand it, not a field-wide definition, this is my personal definition: Disability art features work made by disabled artists, that features disabled artists, that is intersectional, rooted in the intersectional histories of disabled people—BIPOC disabled people, queer, trans disabled people—there’s an intersectionality in the work and in the thinking of disability arts. It features disabled artists, is made by disabled artists, and is rooted in the intersectional histories, cultures, aesthetics and politics of disabled people. So it’s very much a 360-degree look at the world that disability art can exist in and shape. Within that world, access is critical. And access is not a retroactive accommodation, it’s not a service, a burden—it’s a creative force in the work itself. And it is relational, exactly as the disability justice leaders have articulated it. It is relational, it is a promise and it’s a culture, a way of moving to be with each other.

All of that said, that is how we get the ramp. If you imagine ramps in your world, you see ramps at the sides of buildings or the back of buildings and they’re deeply ugly things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Ugly. Yeah.

Alice Sheppard:
Right. So we know—remember Brown v. Board of Education, we know that separate is never equal. There was this whole hullabaloo in New York when people realized there were going to be rich doors and poor doors. But we continue to construct ramps and separate entrances for disabled people because they are compliant with the law or not. And the thing about it is that prior to a ramp becoming an access device, ramps were gorgeous architectural features. All through the early 20th century, ramps were beautiful—in galleries and museums and buildings and houses. So as soon as they become access devices they become ugly and functional.

And so the DESCENT ramp actually asks, What is pleasure? What is movement pleasure? What is this thing when it is a work of art, a sculpture? What is this thing when it is not just a slope that gets you into a building, but is a dance partner that generates new movement that helps you build a new world? That fishes the kinds of expression from wheel movement, that patches and enhances and deepens wheel potential? That’s what the ramp is. And so when Alejandra Ospina saw it in New York, she called it ramp porn. It is sexy. It is what ramps should be. It is inviting. It is mysterious. Why isn’t that the case everywhere? That’s the ramp.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s funny because even the ugly, just-there-to-meet-the code access ramps, I remember my daughter, when she was a little bit younger, she would see them and say, “Oh, Mommy, this building has a slide. Can we go down the slide?” And she found this joy in running down the ramp that I remember being slightly embarrassed by at the time. And now I’m more embarrassed at my own embarrassment at the sense that a ramp could be a source of pleasure.

Alice Sheppard:
It should be. You should design for pleasure. You should design for maximum expression of… in dance we’re always saying, “Oh, the floor is our first partner.” But what if the floor really is not an invisible partner, but an active partner? We found this, we would be on this ramp for hours at a time being like, “We could just do this.” And the ramp would just say, “Nope, you can’t do that.” It would pitch us out and it would turn us over. There’s an incredible video of us for hours on end trying and trying and trying to nail this one move that should’ve worked theoretically, but wouldn’t because the ramp wouldn’t allow it. And the ramp, it just reversed all the rules. Like when you’re coming down a curve you don’t lean into the curve, you lean away from the curve—but now this ramp makes you want to lean into the curve, and if you don’t lean into the curve, it pitches you out. And so the ramp had its own rules of engagement.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Like any dance partner.

Alice Sheppard:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little too about how you adapted DESCENT for this online presentation? Did that process present challenges, present opportunities, a little of both?

Alice Sheppard:
Both. We did not film DESCENT as a film. If we had been able to film DESCENT, we would have done something entirely different. This is performance footage. On the other hand, it’s five-camera, TV shoot performance footage. So we are able to create the world of Venus and Andromeda in some really, really fantastic angles. There’re things that we know as artists that are happening back there but suddenly you get to see them. And there’s—I won’t give that away, but there’s some incredible angles. We were also able to work with Shaina Ghuraya, who is a film editor on the West Coast. And she was able to take the performance footage and edit it in some ways that picked up the projections and some of the video of the work that’s already present. And so it’s a new genre. It is not shot intentionally as a film, but it is rendered as a film from performance footage—it’s sort of in between the gaps. And I think it is a wonderful invitation to the work and incredibly beautiful visually. It is a visual feast.

Which then sends us to the next question, which is: Well, we do access. So what is a visual feast if you’re listening to it? And one of the things that Kinetic Light has been doing is thinking about the practice of audio description. And so for this, in live performance, we have Audimance and some specially developed content for that. Now Audimance is an app that enables the blind or non-visual user to listen to dance and to listen to it in a really revolutionary way. This is not just description of the work, like what happens. We offer five, six different ways to encounter the work as a soundscape, as poetry, as a poetry cycle. There’s description of the light, description of the projections, description of the movement, there’s a dramatic dialogue. And we sonify the dance so you can actually listen to the bumps and the bangs and the squeaks. We took all of that content and connected with Andy Slater, who is a sound editor in Chicago, and said, “Okay, we are going to make this accessible for an online performance. What does that look like?” And so Andy took all that content and composed a new sound design, and we commissioned new description from Cheryl Green. And so we have an experience that is deeply intimate and deeply personal that you can listen to the film.

But we should point out that one of the things that is interesting about this work is that it is made in large part for expert listeners. And I think something that Zoom culture has revealed is that some people are expert listeners and other people are not. And blind and non-visional listening cultures are very different from sighted listening cultures. So we’ve been working with a blind and non-visional focus to make work that resonates within that culture. And that’s our intended audience. When sighted audience members pick up this content, they’re eager to explore, but it’s not centered around sightedness. And so if you’re not an expert listener, what we get is, “This is overwhelming, this is too much, no one could possibly listen to this.” If we get a blind listener who is deeply rooted in culture, we get, “Oh, you have five tracks? Oh, we can listen to that. This is the first time someone has created art for us, instead of just telling us what is happening on stage.”

So with that caveat, I would say that there are going to be three versions of DESCENT streaming. One is the film, for which there’ll be captions for the sound, so you can have the film with captions or no captions. There is a mono track audio description, which is by Cheryl, and that is a beautiful, poetic prose rendering of the dance and text. And one is this polyphonic sonic installation of the work.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little—you touched on before the fact that intersectionality is central to the mission of Kinetic Light and also to DESCENT as a work. And it’s one of those ideas that the dance community is now very belatedly beginning to think about in a more active way, particularly during this moment of racial reckoning that’s been happening over the past few months. So can you talk a little more about how you apply intersectional thinking in your work broadly and how it shapes DESCENT in particular?

Alice Sheppard:
Can I come back on the question slightly?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, please.

Alice Sheppard:
With deepest respect, this isn’t intersectional thinking. We don’t apply intersectional thinking, because what would that mean? The worlds that we are building on stage and in sound and in visuals are necessarily intersectional because the artists bring that with us. It’s not an application from top down, it’s a recognition that these are fullnesses that have been there, but had been obscured or erased or ignored by mainstream worlds. But it’s not the application of something new. This is the thing, this is it, this is the center for us.

So in DESCENT, we’re seeing… this is my two-sentence answer: DESCENT is an interracial love story between two disabled women in which the mythological figures of Venus and Andromeda are both, we would say, “cripped,” meaning that we spent a long time thinking through the disability aspects and aesthetics in Auguste Rodin’s work. And also racially recuperated, insofar as we went back and figured out why and how Andromeda, who’s Ethiopian in the original myth, is rendered—all the way through the Western period after the first century—she’s rendered as white. And so what does it mean to actually attend to that origin? It’s not application, it’s just—

Margaret Fuhrer:
In there.

Alice Sheppard:
It’s not like we went, “Yeah. Now.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m wondering how you feel about—again, we were talking before we started recording about the fact that attention for the disability arts community seems to come in waves. How do you feel about that, and about the nature of the attention that that community is getting at the moment?

Alice Sheppard:
Yeah. I think this is a deeply complicated time. You referred to it as a racial reckoning, and I think you can’t do a racial reckoning without also doing a disability reckoning. And your disability reckoning does not undermine or detract from your racial reckoning. And you can’t do a disability reckoning without also doing a race reckoning. And your race reckoning does not detract from your disability reckoning. These things are embedded and necessary together, and that’s this work that people have to do.

I’m very scared that this is going to be a checkbox thing: We’ve programmed our Black artists, we programmed our queer artists, we got one disabled artist check, done. That’s not it. The work here is addressing the injustices. It is going back—you can’t change the past, but you can look at what did and didn’t happen in the past and you can address that to make a better future. Are people ready to do that? And that means more than putting people on the stage or putting people on magazine covers. If your argument is that you don’t know of a single disabled artist whose work you think is good enough for your stage, you should then take that programming money and nurture an artist. Build the world that you want, don’t walk away from it, build the world that you want. Use the time, use the money to build a better future. Take it apart. Don’t just walk away from what you perceive as absence. It’s not absence, it’s building.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This isn’t your job, but can you speak to some specific changes—and you’ve already laid out a few—that need to be made most urgently by dance companies and organizations as they work toward accessibility and equity? What are the biggest problems?

Alice Sheppard:
I have questions. So I don’t actually know how to answer that question, but I have questions. People are getting accustomed on the Zoom world to providing a self-description. Is that actually an accessible description, or are you in a routine performance in the same way you’re making a routine performance of a land acknowledgement? If you have CART or an ASL interpreter, is that a commitment to accessibility or does that stop when you hang up the Zoom call? If someone shows up to your online class, are you prepared to teach them accessibly? And that’s a really big one, because if your argument is the disabled dancers aren’t ready or disabled artists aren’t ready, then how are you addressing that? If you are a dance artist or a dance company, 25 percent of your audience—25 percent, according to the CDC, of the American population identifies as having a disability in some way. What are you doing to reach 25 percent of your audience? And if you’re a venue, what are you doing? It’s not just about having the access ramp. It’s not just about—just to look at big venues for a second: It’s not just about having an access ramp and knowing that you could pull the seat, it’s about, is the seat available? Are you doing ASL interpretation? Okay, but the one night you’re offering it, I can’t come. Does that mean I don’t see the show? I’ve only found out about the show four days ago or a week ago, but you won’t hire an ASL interpreter because I didn’t give you two weeks notice. Who gives two weeks notice to go to on a show? If you can put captions for lyrics on the seat of every chair in an opera, you can put a captions box at the side of a theater. What are you doing?

And if you’re an independent dance artist, yeah, I know access costs money. But there’s a way in which the way your work gets presented is also part of your job. You don’t necessarily want to hand over access to some service provider who’s going to make it ugly and not what you want. The work of access is all of our jobs, it doesn’t just happen, we all have to work at it and have these conversations. Venues and presenters can’t foist it off on to artists. Artists, you shouldn’t be trusting the venue to do it. It’s got to be from the top. We just have to take the world apart and start again and meet each other in these conversations. And someone out there has just funded.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s of course part of our job as a media organization to do this work as well. And we are figuring it out, slowly.

Alice Sheppard:
My question really is—this is a leadership question. It’s not enough for anyone out there to put me or anyone else or on the cover, or to invite us to give a talk and record it and stick it in the archive. Because who are you talking to? If a disabled student on campus comes to the archive and finds that there was a talk given by a disabled artist, or a cover or a story, or even an image post on Instagram, and then finds that inaccessible, that is beyond my level of… yeah.

So we’ve come a long way, everyone’s come a long way. Even before I got to this position—and let me just back up this: I’m here right now with you, and I am able to say these things to you, but before all of that happened, access was a thing. And some people were doing it and they have not been recognized, and other people were not doing it and they haven’t been brought into the fold or called out for it. I happen to be here in this moment with you not as an access leader or revealing this new thing, but to point out an injustice that has been true since the beginning of the internet, since the beginning of dance writing and stories. Since the beginning access has been an issue, it is only now that we’re paying attention to it. And the injustice needs rectifying. And if our conversation in this moment can change the future, great, but it’s not because I’m anything special, it’s because right now I’m in the room with you, or on a Zoom call with you, and people are listening. This is longstanding.And it shouldn’t be that access is only restricted to disability content. Imagine a world in which someone decides for me, okay, the only content we’re going to make accessible to you is the content that we think is relevant to you. “Oh, you’re disabled. You’re only interested in this kind of content. We’ll make the disability-relevant content.” What kind of discriminatory nonsense is that? The world has to be taken apart and rethought.

And here’s the other thing that Zoom teaches us, and I feel two ways about this. There are disabled people who are requesting accommodation—captions, ASL interpreters, transcripts, audio description. There are people who do not identify as being disabled who are using those services. So what we know from years of disability activism is that access modalities, when passed into the mainstream, benefit everyone. It is the disabled activists who sometimes literally lay their lives on the line to get them, but everyone benefits. So take the world apart and then bring it back together in an accessible way and you’ll be making a better world.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to thank you for your patience with me and with all of us, because I’m sure it feels like you’re in the twilight zone, giving the same kind of interview over and over again. But we deeply appreciate it and we hope that our listeners hear what you have to say. And I appreciate your patience with me specifically as I learn more.

Alice Sheppard:
Not at all. These are issues that are longstanding and it’s not about me at all.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, thank you again for sharing with us. And please go see Kinetic Light’s DESCENT. It’s premiering online tonight at 8:00 PM, presented by the Walker Arts Center and Northrop, the University of Minnesota. The performance will be available through December 5th, is that right?

Alice Sheppard:
Yeah. Tonight is live, and then it will be available from the third to the fifth. And I definitely want to give you a heads-up about Kinetic Light’s offerings in access. We are beginning a new initiative, a series of workshops called ALLways—for access always in all the possible ways. And in this, Laurel Lawson will be teaching you how to do what we do and getting everyone set and prepared to make their work accessible. Join us.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much, Alice. Really, truly appreciate it.

Alice Sheppard:
Thank you Margaret, for this wild ride of a conversation. And thank you everyone for listening.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The wild rides are always the best rides.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s not often that a 40-minute interview transforms one’s worldview, but that conversation was truly transformative for me and I hope for everyone listening too. In addition to watching DESCENT and participating in the ALLways workshop, please make sure to visit Alice’s website, alicesheppherd.com, and the Kinetic Light website, which is kineticlight.org. If you’re wondering about accessibility in a social media context, the Kinetic Light social accounts are great models and also great follows. They’re @kineticlightdance on Instagram, and facebook.com/kineticlight.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go friends.

Lydia Murray:
See you next week.