SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue
Dance

This Is What Accessibility Sounds Like

Alice Sheppard seated in her wheelchair holds a book and speaks directly to the audience. Candace Davider is over Alice's left shoulder making the ASL sign of emotional struggle, two open clawed hands going up with one hand and down with the other on the body several times. Both of their faces have soft expressions of internal conflict. Photo: Mengwen Cao.

New York
Performance Space New York
I wanna be with you everywhere
April 11, 13, 14

Like a number of sighted people at the I wanna be with you everywhere festival at Performance Space New York, I had never used Audio Description (AD) during a dance performance. At every other dance show I had attended in my life, I had benefited from the assumption that the audience would be watching the dance. A dance was something one went to see.

The organizers of I wanna be with you everywhere, a co-production of Arika, Performance Space New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, made no such assumptions. The unifying idea of the festival—a commitment to accessibility in every aspect, from the various modalities of access for an audience of diverse abilities to the fund for transportation to the venue—wouldn’t have allowed it. For the organizers and the artists, accessibility wasn’t a begrudged afterthought or a decision made “in compliance.” It was the basis for every aesthetic choice. In a piece like Kayla Hamilton’s Nearly Sighted/unearthing the dark, that meant an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who got down on the dance floor while signing rap lyrics. In Jerron Herman’s Relative, that meant an open-floor staging so every audience member could join the group dancing in an “accessible club of our underground dreams.” For non-visual audiences of the festival, experiencing all this meant carefully prepared and skillfully delivered AD.

The night I attended the festival, I checked out my AD rig, a pair of headphones connected to a walkie-talkie-like device, and went to my seat. I put on the headphones and listened to a voice describe Alice Sheppard, the dancer and choreographer about to perform the dance Where Good Souls Fear. “Alice is a light-skinned multi-racial black woman with curly hair, sitting in a silver manual wheelchair and holding black and chrome forearm crutches,” the voice said. “She is wearing a gold metallic long-sleeved bodysuit with black mesh flowing trousers.”

After a few minutes, the pre-show loop switched to a live feed of the voice of our two audio describers, Michelle and Alejandra, whom I would meet after the show. A long, high-pitched note quieted the chatter of the audience and the performance began.


MICHELLE:
Upstage right
   diagonal wheels forward
Creature Alice lays on her back with curved torso.
Her arms are reaching up, the crutches crossing her body, forming
                               an X in the air.

The crutches separate and lower to the ground.
Creature Alice explores trepidly, tapping crutches in a circular pathway from wheels to top
    of her head.
       She inchworms forward.

Crutches raise, pass over her body, back to the floor.
Tapping the circular pathway.
Lifting pelvis.
      Pressing shoulders into ground.
         Wheels inching forward.
                       Creature Alice explores again.

Behind Michelle’s voice I could make out a shifting, sliding sound. I would learn later this was a feed from a live mic attached to Sheppard, capturing the sound of her entrance. The music became a driving pulse and the movement rapidly grew in intensity and athleticism.


MICHELLE:
Push. Cut. Turn. Turn. Tap. Tap.
   Skiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii cross.
Crutches.
   Roooooow across upstage.
High. Low. High. Low. High. Grab. Cut.
                Cut. Taptap.
High swing turn. Cut.
Turn.
Cut.
High wing reeeleeeasssssssssse.

Repeating circular pathways.
   Skiiiiiiiiis back downstage.
       Arms windmill.

Pause.     Press.     Pause.     Press.

Taptaptap.

Backwards-in-space-momentum-turning-Alice-with-crutches-high-in-the-air.

                  With back to audience.
Stomping front wheels down toward audience.
Wheel balance!
      Wheel balance!
         Wheel balance!


The bass vibrations of the music reverberating in my chest and through my chair amplified the intensity of the description. Some audience members felt even more of the sound than I did through the SUBPAC rigs provided by the festival, devices worn like a backpack that use an algorithm to translate sound into a tactile experience.

Alejandra’s voice joined Michelle’s when an image of “City Alice” rolling down a New York City sidewalk appeared in a projection on the wall upstage of “Creature Alice.” Alejandra described “City Alice” in the projection as Michelle simultaneously described “Creature Alice” on stage, creating a collage of voices.

As the dance reached its climax in the third section, Michelle breathed hard as though she were the one dancing. At its most vivid, her voice became the dancing body, rolling, collapsing, and fighting for air.


MICHELLE:
Head, neck, rocking, undulating.
Frenzied movements quicken and hasten.
            Quicken.
Releases hand in band.
            Quickens and hastens, frenzied.
Rocking left and right and left and right and left and right and left and
                              HUP!
High and low.
Reaching with the space.
Pounding with arms and feet on floor.
Frenzied.
      Collapse.

         HuuuuuuuuuHaaaaaaaaaaaa

         Breath.

         Fingers twitch.

Beyond the headphones, I could sense the audience around me, also breathing with Sheppard and rapt by the dance. We remained transfixed when Sheppard stopped dancing and spoke to the audience directly, calmly, through deep breaths.

Sheppard: “I know the rules of the world and I have found ways to live.”

After another section of dancing she addressed us directly again:

“This is an invitation to bend the rules and make space for ourselves.”

***

“What you experienced at this festival is what I would call a middle ground,” Sheppard told me over the phone the week following the festival performance, “A very broad and controversial and innovative and unusual middle ground.” Also on the call was Laurel Lawson, Sheppard’s collaborator and fellow member of the dance collective Kinetic Light. We were discussing Audio Description and the paradigm-shifting approach to accessibility at the festival in general—what the festival website describes as “access intimacy. [A point of view from which] access isn’t an individual’s need, but a common capacity shared between us all.”

On one side of the “middle ground,” explained Lawson, is traditional Audio Description: “In traditional Audio Description, it is very much a question of something that is a layer on top of an existing show. Critically, it is a second-hand perspective. You’re having the performance filtered through yet another person’s point of view and there’s not really any choice. You get what you get in this kind of single stream, narrated perspective.”

“Traditional” Audio Description has been around since its invention for television and film in the 1970s. Soon after its application in visual media, some theaters began experimenting with AD for live performances. Today, it is not uncommon for large venues to offer a few described performances, although there is much room for expansion.

When there is AD, it is usually in the traditional style—a describer narrates the visual elements of the performance or the film or the art object. Joel Snyder, a pioneer of AD for live performance, characterizes traditional AD simply as “a verbal version of the visual.” The traditional function of an audio describer is to create a layer of access. To provide a service. Interpretation and descriptive color are involved, but are not primary. Objectivity is the goal.

Alice Sheppard dances in her wheelchair. She leans forward on the front wheels while raising her arms and crutches straight above her. Photo: Mengwen Cao.

The “middle ground” I experienced at the festival went beyond the traditional approach to Audio Description—and other ways of thinking about accessibility—in several key ways. At a basic level, AD—and other modes of accessibility like the SUBPAC rigs, Assistive Listening Devices, live transcription, and ASL interpretation—was available for most performances at the festival and was integrated into the moments before and after performances. For example, each person who addressed the audience opened their statement by describing themselves. One speaker who forgot to describe herself at first, restarted her speech when she remembered. People cheered her on.

The approach to Audio Description at the festival was particularly unique. Whereas audio describers commonly become involved with a work from afar, as a “tacked-on” layer of accessibility, the describers at the festival worked closely with the artists to develop the AD for the various performances. This allowed the describers more interpretive possibilities and accuracy than they might have had describing the performances cold,without prior discussion with the artists, and it allowed the artists more control over how their work was represented in all modes of access. The descriptions were treated as works of art in themselves, like a kind of ekphrastic tone poem for each performance. An audience member I spoke with after the show said she was pleased to have had AD that wasn’t “medicalized and bland.”

But for Sheppard and Lawson, whose work to rethink accessibility in dance has led them to experiment with modalities of access in every register, their self-described middle-ground isn’t good enough. After being challenged by some of Kinetic Light’s non-visual audience members to expand their approach to AD, Sheppard and Lawson decided to develop a more immersive and immediate form of Audio Description. Their work has led to an app called Audimance.

Through the Audimance interface, audiences will be able to navigate among a number of audio streams synced with a live performance. Lawson likens the experience to moving through a giant virtual room with speakers playing different tracks mounted around the space. “It is complex. It is layered. And each track has different viewpoints, different kinds of information,” she said. One audio stream might be the tone poem-style description I heard at the festival, but it would be one among many streams. There might be a feed from live mics on the dancers. Poetry. Sound play. Musical interpretations. All at once. “We’re not describing. We’re rendering a dance in sound,” said Sheppard.

Unlike traditional AD, or even middle-ground AD, Sheppard and Lawson don’t want listening in Audimance to evoke an image of the dance. The sound is the image. It is the primary experience of the dance, not a version of something else. “What Audimance the app and the associated content that goes with it are doing is creating separate, strong, individual, sonic, auditory experiences…” said Sheppard, “The difference is understanding a description of something, which is a displaced encounter, and an encounter with a sound experience.”

Choice is an important element of an encounter in Audimance as well. Just as a sighted audience member can choose where they want to look on stage or close their eyes, a user of Audimance will be able to choose what they want to hear by navigating among the various audio streams. But analogies with a visual experience of dance can only go so far. “Audimance is for non-visual users and it truly centers a skilled auditory experience,” explained Lawson, who is also the product designer and engineering lead for Audimance, and has spent many hours testing the app with users. She suggested sighted users, less practiced in parsing multiple simultaneous audio streams, could find the experience overwhelming; whereas a non-visual listener, accustomed to an experience of hearing as the primary sense, would find the experience rich and multi-faceted.

Audimance is still under development, but Sheppard and Lawson plan to roll out a version of the app for a tour of the celebrated Kinetic Light show DESCENT beginning this month through November in Burlington, Wilmington, and Atlanta. There’s a lot left to be done to optimize the app before then, but Lawson was resolute, “If we can’t work towards this equitable experience then it would be a little hypocritical for us to demand it. And equity is absolutely what we demand. Equity is what should be present everywhere. Inequitable access is not sufficient.”

Audimance is one example of a way people working in disability arts are moving toward more equitable access. But whatever the methods, whatever the technology, Sheppard and Lawson stress the importance of thinking about accessibility from the beginning of any artistic process. “You can’t move forward without working directly with the artists themselves,” said Sheppard, “and for the people who are involved in facilitating that access to be included at that level as well.” It’s the ethos, all too rare, that made the I wanna be with you everywhere festival so successful. “It’s really about investing in the artistry of the experience from the top,” Sheppard said, who also helped organize the festival, “from the moment you make your work of art, to the moment you present a work of art, to the moment you find a physical environment or digital environment to display and communicate that work of art.”

Contributor

James Dinneen

James Dinneen is a writer and audio producer in Brooklyn.

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SEPT 2019

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