The first time I experienced a story ballet was when I was cast as one of Isadora Duncan’s students in the English National Ballet’s Isadora Duncan. I was ten years old and the English National Ballet was touring in Toronto. I remember the details vividly… my costume fitting for my Isadora-style tunic, being chaperoned around the stage by Monica Mason who was playing the role of the “nanny”. Each night I found a spot in the wings to watch the tragic death scene. The genre of story ballet captured my heart and transported me. This love never left me. When I was in the National Ballet of Canada corp de ballet during Romeo and Juliet, I stood in the wings in my peasant costume and watched all the big scenes. I was fascinated by how dancers interpreted the story differently within the frame of the choreography. I stood there transfixed. I loved the feeling of my heart breaking and rebounding. I felt alive. Giselle, Napoli, Taming of the Shrew, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Right of Spring, Sleeping Beauty, The Merry Widow, West Side Story… they are all in my blood.
When I was starting out as a choreographer there was a push towards abstraction in both the ballet world and the modern dance world. I remember an esteemed choreographer seeing my work at a National Ballet Company choreographic workshop saying, “it’s all too personal and too emotion based”. At the time, I was twenty and trying to find my way as a woman choreographer. I could’ve taken his advice and moved towards abstraction. But I had a stubborn steak in me and always seemed to do things differently than others. I let his advice point towards that which I loved and could be good at with practice. And to this day, I continue to move towards story-based work. In “Frames of Control” (1996), I told the story of recovering from an eating disorder. In “Long Live” (2010) I told the story of a daughter grieving the death of her dad. In “Men’s Circle” (2017) I told the story of men in a therapy group. In “Thread Bound” (2019), Suzanne Liska and I told personal stories of epigenetic inheritance from our grandmothers. These pieces were multidisciplinary. I used a pallet of ballet, modern dance, contact dance, text and song. But at their heart they were following the dream a ten-year-old sitting in the wings, her heart breaking and rebounding with each dancer’s steps.
I was on this path when a life changing event happened that re-adjusted my course. My youngest son was diagnosed with high functioning autism. The psychologist gave me an autism symptom check list and told me how my son had received his diagnosis because he had so many checkmarks on the list. I looked at that list and discovered that I had all the same check marks and then some! In that moment I realized I had high functioning autism.
It is common for women with autism to be so good at masking their symptoms by learning social patterns and relying on coping strategies that they often don’t get diagnosed until their 30s to 40s. Seeing life through the lens of a diagnosis of high functioning autism shifted all my past and present stories about myself. I turned the kaleidoscope just one turn and saw how different everything looked. It explained so much about why I tend to do things differently than others, my unique look on life, my challenges with career networking, the way I follow my own path without wavering, my sensory challenges, how I get sensory “hang-over for days after a big social outing and so on. I did not want my son to feel ashamed about having autism and I was his main example. I realized it was my job to go forth in life without shame and to embrace my autism. This new way of seeing myself started to change the way I told stories.
Accepting and embracing my disability led me to be curious about a movement called Cripping the Arts. “Cripping” is a term that reclaims the pejorative term crippled to enable people with disabilities to take back power and ownership over their bodies and minds. Cripping the arts is a movement that describes a process of adapting/ re-writing the script of the traditional theatre experience to be more accessible and inviting to both performers and attendees with disabilities. I realized that simply by having autism and telling stories through my unique lens I had been cripping the story ballet for years without realizing it. But I wanted to step further into this movement and started by offering relaxed performances.
A relaxed performance is an inclusive performance practice in which the traditional theatre rules are relaxed to be more welcoming to audience members who are neurologically atypical including, but not limited to, those with autism spectrum disorder, Tourette’s, concussion syndrome, sensory and communication differences, learning disabilities as well as other ways of being.
The first relaxed performance I produced was during the run of “Thread Bound” and it moved me to tears. I was creating an inviting atmosphere for people like me. I felt a tension relax in my body that had been so constant that I did not realize it was there. My crew was uncertain about the endeavor. We had never done this before, and I could feel the sense of stretching and letting go it took. My stage manager asked me, “so you really want me to say that people are allowed check their phones during the show?!”. I said, “if knowing they can use their phone reduces anxiety enough so that someone can attend a show who otherwise might not, then yes I want that.” We offered free ear plugs to anyone who needed at the venue. My box office person said, “only one person took a pair of sound canceling ear plugs, so maybe next time we skip offering them”. I responded that even if no one takes any it sends a message that we see you. I explained how seeing people is a vital part of cripping the arts. A ramp says to those in wheelchairs, “we see you”. Offering free sound canceling ear plugs says, “we see you” to those with sensory processing disorders. Audio description services says, “we see you” to those with vision loss.
Jessica Watkin is an artist-scholar living in Toronto, who is blind and disabled. She describes in a Toronto Star article how accessibility is not so much a checklist of protocols to check off but a correction to institutionalized ableism”. I have learned from personal experience that systemic change is needed to remove that barriers to the arts. Theatres do not have the infrastructure to support access initiatives and this leaves the cost of doing so on the shoulders of small producers who often have limited budgets. I would like to see it mandated that all theatres supply in-house audio description equipment. If this occurred, you would see many more theatre companies supply audio description for their performances.
To many institutions, “accessibility” means providing ramps and washrooms to accommodate audience members using wheelchairs. While this is very important, they have missed and important part of the process if performers using wheelchair do not have access to the stage.
Some forms of accessibility are often overlooked with acoustic accessibility being one of them. There is a theatre in Toronto that has a café/ lobby area that one has to walk through and often lineup in to get to the theatre. The ceiling is metal and the din caused by bouncing sound was so painful for me I made a note to never go there again without my sound canceling headphones. The fix is relativity simple and within financial reach for most theatre companies. It would involve buying sound absorbing panels for the ceiling. To have an acoustically pleasant café/lobby would benefit all and would be a much better set up for seeing a play. It also would be an example of how non disabled people often benefit from accommodations made to disabled peoples. It is a win, win. But if people like me are not on their radar this fix will never happen.
In my upcoming project “Dancing with the Universe” I am cripping the story ballet with my friend and colleague Vivian Chong who is a multidisciplinary artist who lost her sight fifteen years ago. In “Dancing with the Universe” Vivian tells her story with an ensemble cast of six dancers and cellist Cheryl O. We are co-directing together, and audio description of the choreography is key so that Vivian can have a sense of what is happing on stage and makes sure we are telling her story though movement as she wants it to be told. Cripping the arts for me is about being disability-led. This project does not involve theatre experts telling Vivian how to tell her story. It involves Vivian taking the creative reigns. As the choreographer and co-director, I am in service of her vision. “Dancing with the Universe” will involve a performance with on-stage ASL interpretation, optional audio description via headsets, and a relaxed performance. The performance happens in tandem with the book launch of Vivian graphic memoir “dancing After TEN”, co-created by Vivian and comics artist Georgia Webber. The graphic novel will be in available in hard-cover and audio-described format.
Nothing can ever be one hundred percent accessible due to completing access needs. We can only aim to open up accessibility as much as possible. I invite you to come out and see the show!
In 2005, Vivian Chong experienced a rare reaction to Ibuprofen that caused third-degree skin burns over her entire body. She was put in a medically induced coma. Upon waking, she had to relearn how to breathe, eat and walk and her reaction to Ibuprofen eventually cause complete loss of sight. As her vision deteriorated, she accepted her sight-loss and learned new ways to navigate her environment.
“Dancing with the Universe” is a dance theatre production adaption of Vivian Chong’s one-woman show “The Sunglasses Monologue”. The production is co-directed by Vivian Chong and choreographer Kathleen Rea with dramaturge by Tristan Whiston. Vivian tells her life story alongside an ensemble cast of six dancers and cellist Cheryl Ockrant. “Dancing with the Universe” is a multi-disciplinary journey of human emotions that shines a light on loss, grief and resiliency.
When Vivian was in the process of losing her sight, she was driven to document her medical experiences through drawing. She created the first 100 pages of a graphic memoir before sight loss made it impossible to draw further. This draft stayed on the shelf for twelve years, until she found comics artist Georgia Webber who collaborated with Vivian to bring the rest of her story to the page. Vivian’s graphic memoir “Dancing After TEN” , published by Fantagraphics will have its book launch alongside the “Dancing with the Universe” premiere. The book launch will include book sales in paper format and in audio described format.
LOCATION: Betty Oliphant Theatre, 404 Jarvis Street, Toronto. Venue is wheelchair accessible
Thursday, April 9, 10, 17 AND 18 at 8 pm – “Dancing with the Universe” Production
Sunday, April 12 at 3 pm – “Dancing with the Universe” Production and “Dancing After TEN” Book Launch. RELAXED PERFORMANCE with ASL INTERPRETATION and AUDIO-DESCRIPTION
FUNDING: This project received project funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Ballet of Canada’s Open Spaces Residency. REAson d’etre dance production currently also receives operation funding from the Toronto Arts Council.
ACCESSIBLE BOX OFFICE:
http://bit.ly/DancingAfterTEN where you can buy tickets for the 3pm matinee (April 12, 2020) performance and book launch.
https://dancingwiththeuniverse.eventzilla.net/ where you can buy tickets for all the “Dancing with the Universe” performances (various dates April 9 to 18, 2020).
Ashley Belmer https://www.b-rebelcommunications.com/