EMPAC Presents Disability Arts Innovator Alice Sheppard & Kinetic Light In DESCENT

The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute presents choreographer and disability arts innovator Alice Sheppard, along with the Kinetic Light collaborative, in DESCENT, November 15 and 16. Performed on a custom-designed architectural ramp installation with hills, curves, and peaks, DESCENT explores the pleasures of wheeled movement and reckless abandon. Combining dance, architecture, design, and technology, this new evening-length duet takes audiences on a transformative ride and obliterates cultural assumptions of what disability, dance, and beauty can be.

Brian Schaefer of The New York Times comments, "Ms. Sheppard has been an innovator in disability arts, and this work illustrates just how much she's expanded the notion of physicality in dance." Kinetic Light will be in residence at EMPAC for ten days prior to the performances, exploring immersive sound design including sonification of dance for Audimance, a new audio description app currently in development. In addition to the live performances; both shows will be livestreamed online.

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. This unique approach to set design has received recognition in the field, DESCENT won a production design award and will be featured at USITT Design Expo and Prague Quadrennial in 2019.

"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. Sheppard was featured on the July 2018 cover of Dance Magazine, the first disabled artist to be featured since 2003. 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 well matched for partnering with 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.

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 experience 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 learning curve to welcoming DESCENT fans.

EMPAC is an accessible venue. The lobby is accessible via the double doors facing RPI's campus, with an entrance off of College Avenue. All-gender wheelchair-accessible restrooms are available on all public-access levels of the building. The main audience entrance to the theater is wheelchair accessible and located on EMPAC's 5th floor, which can be accessed from the lobby by elevator. If you have any questions about access, please contact EMPAC Box Office Manager John Cook by email at COOKJ4@rpi.edu or call 518.276.2822 (voice only).

Kinetic Light is in the process of booking a 2018-2020 national tour of DESCENT, with support from NEFA's National Dance Project. The production will tour to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA and Wilson Arts Center in Wilmington, NC in Fall 2019, with aims to bring DESCENT to Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, and New Jersey.

DESCENT will be performed at EMPAC Thursday, November 15 and Friday, November 16 at 7:30pm. Seating is general admission, with the first two rows reserved for audience members requiring accessible seating.

Tickets for DESCENT are $18; all tickets are general admission and at least 20% of theater seating is reserved for people with disabilities. Discounts are available for senior citizens, and RPI students and faculty.

Tickets are now on sale via EMPAC in person at the box office, via phone at 518.276.3921, and online at http://empac.rpi.edu/events/2018/fall/descent.

Recognizing that disability access is often about more than the venue hosting a performance-it includes transportation, health, and financial access as well-EMPAC and Kinetic Light have partnered to livestream both performances using EMPAC's state of the art 4-camera set up and broadcast station.

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