Pictured: A still image from test footage of an untitled film project choreographed by Alice Sheppard in collaboration with the dancers. Alice races downhill on a ramp in her wheelchair with arms stretched behind in a forward dive and eyes locked on the shadowy silhouetted wheelchair user four feet ahead and downhill and in the foreground of the image. A glimpse of wheels and spokes are reflected in the glass that lines the ramp. The environment and lighting imply an institution such as a school or hospital. The frame is cropped for Alice’s hips and wheels to be coming directly at the viewer.
Guest Post by Lisa Niedermeyer
When I was invited along to make a dance film with Alice Sheppard and Danielle Peers on location at the University of Alberta, I was most excited to learn and experiment with disability gaze in filmmaking. I have a background in film as a dancer, editor, and co-curator of Dance Interactive video clips for Jacob’s Pillow. My eye is familiar with composing shots, and my stomach has a great sense of when movement is captured in a way that the viewer will also feel it (something I bring to my Intro to Immersive Video & VR workshops). However, crafting dance film with a disability gaze is relatively new to me. Most of my learning about gaze so far has been in my role as a promoter of Alice’s work and in educating photographers and journalists on what images get selected for public distribution and how those images get described for access. Being included in this film project was a chance for me to expand my film background and explore the concept of disability gaze in active motion.
Gaze is often discussed in filmmaking, most notably the male gaze and how it positions women as objects only for male pleasure. The concept of an ableist gaze in film or photography positions disabled bodies as objects of inspiration for a non-disable viewer and the camera lens as an eye that can stare. Disability gaze offers up the possibility to invert the power of staring and assume the agency and equity of disabled bodies.
Alice and Danielle, the key collaborators on this short film, had previously worked together with the Edmonton based dance, theater, and disability arts company CRIPSiE a few years back. They so enjoyed the political and art-making rigor between them that they wanted to collaborate again. I was invited along to assistant direct and work with the director of photography, Mike Robertson, so Alice could choreograph and dance and Danielle could produce and dance.
Over a ten-day residency, we shot on location in the Van Vliet Complex building which has a long concrete ramp with a sturdy metal railing down the center creating two lanes. The just under 100 foot ramp was ideal for choreography coming from wheeled embodiments and also ideal for sparking conversation about the social politics of ramps. How often do you see four wheelchair users going up as a group of friends on a ramp? Or tearing ass downhill together in a pack for fun?
We had four dancers on set: Alice Sheppard, Danielle Peers, Harmanie Taylor, and John Loeppky. And four crew on set: Mike Robertson, Lindsay Eales, Bob L’Heureux and myself.
A formal research paper written by Alice and Danielle will come out of this, so look forward to that in terms of getting a detailed dive into the process. The short film, still untitled, will be submitted to festivals for screening and then eventually made publicly available.
To stay in the loop on both of those things, please sign up to our email list. In the meantime, here are some behind the scenes photos.
Choices about point of view of the camera/audience eye are essential in communicating a wheelchair user’s center of gravity and in portraying the chair as body. This meant the camera operators setting up at a seated hip level for extended choreography shots and being really mindful of cropping below the axle.
Pictured: Alice and Mike looking into the camera monitor, the tripod is set up at Alice’s eye level and Mike is kneeling.
Gaze is as much about what is captured and what is left out. At times, we included all of the dancers in the viewing of the footage on set to check in on how things were reading and make adjustments.
Pictured: Cast huddles around the camera on set to view film footage.
Yes, it is obvious that dancers need to warm up on set before performing for the camera. For some of these dancers, however, it was their first time ever being led through a warm-up by another wheelchair user. The rapid absorption of the knowledge share and nuanced discoveries in bodies was evident and a great way to start a day of shooting.
Pictured: Four dancers seated in wheelchairs with their eyes closed stretch their spines in a warm-up exercise with one hand behind the skull and the other on the knee. Together they lengthen, breathe and tune into the body for subtle openings.