Alice Sheppard Is Moving The Conversation Beyond Loss and Adversity
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
"Often for non-disabled audience members," she says, "the work isn't real until they see the chair." Curious requests to know why Sheppard uses a wheelchair are telling of how disability typically traffics in the public imagination. "The movement and the art somehow challenge what they think is possible," she says.
Alice Sheppard photographed by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine
Excellence in dance is often defined at the exclusion of disability. The idea of virtuosic performance involves dancers with precise technical control over each body part. The best dance, it's often assumed, is performed by artists who are intensely able-bodied.
But Sheppard's work models a truth that is rarely understood among dance audiences: Disability does not signify incompleteness. In fact, it offers novel pathways to several movement styles, each of them whole and generative of unique choreographic forms.
Disability Is A Creative Force
Sheppard took her first dance class on a dare from Homer Avila. Photo courtesy MANCC
Alice Sheppard initially became a dancer to make good on a dare. It was 2004 and she was a professor in medieval studies at Penn State. During a conference on disability studies, she attended a performance by Homer Avila, a renowned dancer and choreographer who had lost one of his legs to cancer. Sheppard got to talking with him in a bar after his performance. He dared her to take a dance class. About a year after Avila died, she did—and shortly after resigned from academia.
What hooked Sheppard was a question that has motivated her work ever since: How can we move beyond questions of ability to culture and aesthetics? In popular culture, disability often stands in for a vague and generalized adversity. Sheppard wanted to find a radically different process.
"Disability," Sheppard writes in her "Intersectional Disability Arts Manifesto," "is more than the deficit of diagnosis. It is an aesthetic, a series of intersecting cultures and a creative force."
After leaving academia, Sheppard began exploring the techniques of dancing in a wheelchair and learning how disability can generate its own movement. She trained, performed and toured with several physically integrated dance companies, including AXIS Dance Company, Infinity Dance Theater, Full Radius Dance and Marc Brew Dance Company.
Eventually, she launched the New York–based Kinetic Light, which has been invited to residencies at places like the prestigious Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and Gibney, and to perform at Jacob's Pillow's Inside/Out. She chose to form Kinetic Light as a production company rather than a dance company in an attempt to bring the work "outside of the arts bubble," as she puts it on her website.
The Pursuit Of Wheel Joy
Sheppard and Lawson in DESCENT. Photo by Jay Newman
Intersectionality—a term that has become increasingly conspicuous in the dance world—is what activates Sheppard's work from content to process. As a queer disabled woman of color, she makes dance that explores the multiple identities she inhabits. DESCENT, for instance, imagines a queer and interracial love affair between the mythical figures Andromeda and Venus, performed through the disabled bodies of Sheppard and Lawson.
In their wheelchairs, the dancers pursue what Sheppard often calls "wheel joy." The pleasures of wheeled movement are palpable when the chairs produce beautifully tight and precise turns, often using inclined planes to harness momentum.
During one sequence, Sheppard lies downstage on her back. Lawson tips forward and launches over Sheppard as her wheels lift behind, her stomach resting on Sheppard's shins. The dancers spread their arms and hold each other's stare with intimate tension. Lawson's wheels spin silently, each spoke catching the cool hues of the lights.
The movements do not represent the triumph over disability. They do not shore up myths about independence. And, even when Sheppard and Lawson dance without their wheelchairs, they do not scorn the wheelchair.
The intersectionality that drives Sheppard's work also leads her to collaborate with other artists. To design the ramp for DESCENT, Sheppard tapped Sara Hendren, an artist and design researcher for the Accessible Icon Project, which seeks to dislodge the staid blue-and-white wheelchair symbol as the central iconography of disability. And Sheppard turned to Michael Maag, also a wheelchair user, to design the production's intricate projection system.
Just as she dispenses with the notion that one's identity can be simplified to just one thing, Sheppard dispenses with the idea that disability artistry must be produced by a sole pioneer. She stresses the interdisciplinary nature of disability art, and recognizes the lineage, influence and conversation amongst artists of the past and the present.
Making Dance Less Dependent on Sightedness
Audimance allows nonvisual audience members to experience dance. Photo courtesy MANCC
The team for Sheppard's DESCENT wanted to think about how to decenter sightedness in the show. They were challenged by some of their blind audience members to think beyond current practice in access for nonvisual audience members.
In response, they began developing an app called Audimance. Designed by Lawson, who is also a product designer and user interface architect, it translates movement into a sonic experience with multiple content streams, including poetry and sonic renderings of dance alongside traditional audio description.
"Expert listeners can choose where to focus," says Lawson. Audimance will be released as an open-source app that others in the dance field can use to make their work accessible.
It's Time To Acknowledge The Many Disabled Artists Making Work
Alice Sheppard wants to lift the entire field for disabled artists. Photographed by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine
When I ask her how she feels about the attention disability is getting within the dance field today, Sheppard isn't sure. "It's too often the case that disabled artists are thought of as exceptional," she says. "Maybe two or three artists get lifted, but everyone else gets ignored."
Sheppard dreams of a broad and sustainable landscape for disabled artists. And she works closely with several organizations seeking to make the arts more inclusive. She sits on the Disability. Dance. Artistry. Task Force, a key initiative of Dance/NYC that gathers resources and publishes research about disability equity in the arts. The advocacy efforts are numerous—from accessible training and venue access to funding and curatorial literacy in disability aesthetics—and Sheppard is a powerful presence in the work.
It's not the shine of a single star that Sheppard counts as success. It's the brilliant glow of a constellation of artists growing together that she imagines.
- Disabled Leaders in Dance - YouTube ›
- Dancing with Disability | NEA ›
- Study Sessions: Alice Sheppard | Whitney Museum of American Art ›
- Alice Sheppard on Disability Dance and Access - YouTube ›
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.