It is almost a cliché in the dance world to say that the floor is a dancer’s partner. The dancer relies on the floor’s stability as the grounding for all movement. The floor is both the launching pad and landing platform for all jumps, the constant horizontal against which to perform turns and tilts. The floor has a geography and periphery to frame choreography. The floor is the blank canvas on which the dancer draws the dance.
After attending a preview of DESCENT in 2016 I knew that to understand the dance I had to get on the custom-built stage that is a unique feature of the production. The stage, known as the ramp, has all the features of other dance surfaces listed above, but its inclined planes and curves do more than frame the dance. The ramp creates a movement vocabulary that has never existed before.
In rehearsals, everyone anthropomorphizes the ramp. They refer to it as if it is a living, feeling being. After all, the ramp has a solo, which, by the way, it always executes flawlessly. At times the ramp seems aloof and disdainful to the human bodies moving around on its surface. At other times, it is playful and buoyant; at still others, it is hostile to the point of violence. During breaks, when the windows are opened to air out the studio, the ramp’s surface ticks and crackles softly as it cools, preparing for its next encounter.
Knowing all that people say about the ramp, the first time I walked on it, I felt it was merely tolerating me. The ramp is accustomed to—indeed designed for—wheels. But it is also accustomed to the dancers’ bodies when they are out of their wheelchairs. The ramp knows their backs and fronts, their elbows and knees, their gripping fingers and scrabbling toes. The ramp is also familiar with the inept movements of non-dancers, technicians, and assistants who trip and slip on it. But I am a blind person. My bipedal movement is preceded by taps and sweeps of my white cane. This presented the ramp with a novelty. “What’s this?” it seemed to muse. “What am I going to do with this?” It was almost an involuntary response that made me feel staying on my feet was not the way to go. I sat down, I lay on my back. I rolled. I crawled. I dragged and scooted. I slipped and slid. I flopped and sprawled. I abandoned all dignity.
I was reminded of a high school drama production for which an ambitious student set designer built a steeply raked stage. I do not remember the point of this design, or how it suited the particular play we were performing. It was, however, the first time I understood the origins of the terms upstage and downstage. Although the stage was raked at almost thirty degrees, we performers were exhorted to alter our movement to look as if we were walking on a flat horizontal. Most of the blocking had us traversing the incline at diagonals, using the strategy of skiers who want to control the downward momentum of the slope. Occasionally an actor had to move straight up or straight down this stage, and we had to practice elongating our mincing steps as we descended while shortening our laboring upward strides.
It was clear to me that this ramp would have no patience with that sort of deceit. “You move the way I say you move,” it told me. So it may not have been an accident when my explorations brought me to the place the dancers call the vortex. This is the spot in the valley between the platform on the left and the peak on the right, where many inclines and curves come together. Apparently, if a dancer’s wheels hit the vortex at the wrong angle or velocity, they will be thrown, careering off-kilter down and out. But the vortex is also the heart of the ramp. If you come at it just right, as I did on my first exploration, lying fully extended on my back, my feet higher than my head, it feels like a cradle. The surface feels nurturing almost warm. I could have slept there and awoken ten years younger. At the same time, which may be true of all cradles, it felt like any ill-advised or unexpected move on my part would instantly expel me from paradise. If I bent my knees, lifted my head, attempted to roll on my side, I would slide and tumble all my boney protrusions meeting nothing but Stoney coldness.
The first thing I learned on the ramp was unmitigated awe for the sheer virtuosity and strength of the dancers who partner with it. For instance, what makes the peak treacherous is not simply that it is steep but its surface is slightly concave. To scale the peak requires that the dancer fling herself chest foremost against its surface while simultaneously deploying super-human upper body strength to haul herself upward while bracing and pushing with her feet. Equally impressive is the muscular finesse required to allow the dancers to link arms and execute graceful circular turns down the gently rippling slope of the velodrome. To dance on this stage, to dance with this stage, the dancers must know every centimeter of its surface, every bump, and divot, every invisible shift in incline. They must rely on an exquisite sensitivity to the precise levels of energy it demands of them and the levels of energy it returns.
What the ramp teaches is that a body can work with gravity or against it but can never actually control or escape it. The ramp teaches humility but also determination and resilience. The ramp teaches that human effort is sometimes rewarded with beauty and sometimes thwarted by the limits of bodily strength. To the untrained observer, the ramp might seem a neutral surface on which to project lights and images, and over which wheels and bodies move unhindered. What is not visually apparent is the energy the ramp holds within itself which is only released to those who know its power.
About Georgina Kleege
Georgina is a beloved friend and advisor to Kinetic Light. She has long been embedded into our creative process and critical thinking. She has written influential books such as More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, and Sight Unseen. Full bio and links to her writings here.