In 2016, choreographer/dancer Alice Sheppard and artist/design researcher Sara Hendren had a conversation about their mutual interest in ramps, and the magic began. Alice had founded the dance company Kinetic Light to produce work on a stage-sized ramp described below; Sara had an ongoing research interest in movement and play, ramps, and urban design. This post is from both of us. We’d like to introduce you to some parts of our collaboration together. Our work is part dance performance, part critical architecture, and part community events. Our spatial and movement practices interrogate the expressive, functional, and political affordances of the inclined plane.
Lived experience as a wheelchair user has taught me, Alice, both the personal significance and cultural insignificance of access ramps. I appreciate being able to enter a building, even as I notice how the mechanisms of my entry restrict my movement, discriminate against me by offering separate and unequal access, thereby refusing equal participation in our social, aesthetic, and civic life. I also know as a queer person of colour how legislated restrictions on my mobility and normative social prescriptions of movement inhibit my freedom.
In the past, I have resisted these limitations by architecting my private home spaces as places of sensory and kinesthetic pleasure. I enjoy my home. Now, my performance and choreographic practices question in public our normalized assumptions of racialized disabled movement. I acknowledge an acute need to publicly embody movement freedom and perform kinesthetic pleasure as a means of starting a new conversation around the intersection of race, disability, and movement. I have ridden the ramps of the High Museum in Atlanta and the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. In Invitation to Dance, I danced my way up and down the Guggenheim. I see the inclined plane as a provocation that urges us to think about the value of surface in dance, the aesthetics of wheels and movement, the politics of wheels and movement in particular, and the cultural practices of movement and mobility.
The aesthetic and political urgency of my desire to dance on a ramp led to a collaboration with artist/design researcher Sara Hendren whose artistic practice is known in the disability art and culture world for designs that enable the fullest expression of disability.
Sara Hendren: My ongoing project, Slope: Intercept, is an investigation of the inclined plane, a simple machine in the lexicon of Galileo, joining the lever, pulley, screw, and other elemental mechanics that shape the built environment. The project began in 2013 as a modular set of small ramps designed for use by two sets of city dwellers using wheeled gear — skateboarders and wheelchair users, who never tend to be related conceptually, neither in their physics nor in their politics. The ramps address a gray area in the architectural code set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act: the single-step entrance, found at the thresholds of small businesses all over cities like New York, Boston, Toronto, and elsewhere. They have leveling feet and casters for portability and customized height, and they meet the formal code for temporary access ramp structures. They also stack and nest, and they feature a metal angle stock along one edge, inviting the grinding across on an axle that skateboarders perform. The ramp’s Venn diagram of uses and users is intended to upend the assumptions about wheeled gear and wheeled passage — both aesthetically and technically. They create a political physics that is expressive and functional at once.
Since 2013, the project has expanded to include collaborative workshops, urban “audits” of the built environment, panel discussions with city stakeholders, and, in 2016, a collaboration with dancer Alice Sheppard, who invited me to work with her on her wish for an architectural-scale ramp for dancing. That collaboration yielded the Homeland ramp. I was commissioned by the MediaCity Seoul Biennale to install ramps at two museum sites in 2016. In planning the project, I realized that what had looked like a humble prototyping stage for Alice could be another, generalizable design altogether: a modular, reconfigurable “Platform Kit” for dancing, either indoors or outdoors.
Alice Sheppard: The project to build a ramp quickly rooted itself deep within the Olin College community. Already in conversation with each other, Sara Hendren invited me to offer to Yevgeniya Zastavker’s class on theoretical physics a lecture and performance on disability aesthetics, art, culture, and performance. Working from a disability studies and disability arts perspective instead of an adaptive technological perspective, I gave a short performance on a studio floor improvised from plywood dance tiles; I also demonstrated the operation of my wheelchair and explained some of my technique. Sara, the class, and I toured campus thinking about slopes, ramps, access and movement pleasure; the visit concluded with a playscape of surfaces and inclined planes that ranged from Sara’s one-step ramps to slopes that the students thought might be inaccessible.
DESCENT and Homeland RAMP
The Homeland ramp that is the centerpiece for Kinetic Light’s DESCENT was designed and prototyped in an iterative process between Alice Sheppard, TeamRAMP (twelve students at Olin College), and Olin professors Sara Hendren and Yevgeniya Zastavker. Over the course of a semester, TeamRAMP designed and built a prototype. They explored materials, construction, and assembly, navigating questions of portability, aesthetics, access, and gender. In all our conversations, I stressed that beauty was paramount: the RAMP was to be a work of art and true movement partner, not a structural device.
I came to see the importance of Homeland in the practice of dance. Modern dancers are always taught that the first partner is the floor, but we rarely allow the floor to actually generate our movement: it is a surface we perform upon. DESCENT is different. The dancers can yield to the slopes, allowing forces of acceleration to take over our wheels sending us in various directions regardless of exertion. We can learn to use what the inclines do to our bodies and wheels, accepting as creative powerful moves the slips, skids, and slides of downhill and the counterbalancing effort of uphill. We can allow the momentum to give us lift and leverage we would not otherwise have had to generate new moves. We can fight the ramp, insisting on using techniques from everyday pedestrian slopes, or we can learn what it teaches so that we blend with and emerge from its surface.
Rodin’s aesthetic of the incomplete is usually discussed with regard to the form and completion of the physically non-disabled human body, but very often the question of where the body begins and ends is also an interpretation about the value of surface and base in sculpture. Multiple choreographers have interpreted Rodin’s sculptures with a particular focus on his dancer/movement series. Many of these works focus, however, on what is known of the human body and what Rodin shows of the position of the body in relation to a surface. But Rodin’s sculptures frequently do not rest on their bases as if they were plinths; they emerge, sometimes completely, sometimes not at all and sometimes, from places subject to individual interpretation, from their environments. The surfaces, bases, and the reliefs participate in the embodiments that we call sculpture. So it is with Homeland. Our movement is not about recreating the extraordinary positions of the human body; it is about understanding how surface and body combine to make movement.