Posts Tagged ‘Theater’

Audimance: Transforming Dance and Movement into Sound

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Alice Sheppard is a former Professor turned Dancer, Choreographer and the Founding Director of Kinetic Light. A believer in access, she knew it required asking the right question. “Not how you make dance accessible, that’s boring. The question really is how do you transform the art of dance into the art of sound.”

fellow Dancer, Engineer and Kinetic Light partner, Laurel Lawson had the idea; Audimance!

A mobile phone screen sports several pastel colored dots'; the word “Audimance” is visible. The dots represent different soundtracks, and a brown skinned hand reaches into the image pressing on a dot and thereby choosing a mix of tracks.
Hear how they became Dancers, the challenges of finding physically integrated dance schools, the film “Inclinations” and all about the app that is changing the way we think of Audio description. Plus, do you recognize that voice?

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Resources

Transcript

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TR:

Welcome back to the podcast featuring essays of compelling people
impacted by Blindness and Disability.
it’s called Reid My Mind Radio!

Every now and then, I include some of my personal experiences as a man adjusting to becoming Blind as an adult.

I’m Thomas Reid, producer and host of this here podcast
living up to the claim of making blindness sound funky!

I’m not only referring to the actual sound, but I’m talking about the energy.
It’s positive, yet real and always upbeat. Funky is my way of challenging how you the listener may
think a podcast geared to those adjusting to blindness is supposed to sound.
Should it sound sanitized, institutional? Not here it won’t.

So if you’re riding with the Reid My Mind Radio family well then you must be funky too!

On the podcast today…

Audio: “Dance”

Audio: Reid My Mind Radio Intro

“Once you start asking; how does your body move? How does it communicate movement? Movement is a rigorous and tough beautiful way of communicating. We owe it to ourselves and to our audiences to find, nurture and develop the greatest range of nuance in physical communication that we can. It’s an amazing kind of vocabulary.”, Alice Sheppard

TR:

Today we’re exploring some of that vocabulary with Dancer and Choreographer, Alice Sheppard. She’s also the founding Director of Kinetic Light;

AS:

Which is an ensemble of disabled artists making immersive dance experiences.

[TR in conversation with AS:]

Tell me a little bit about your first experience with dance.

AS:

I was a Musician, an Orchestral Pit Musician. Dancers were just simply the things above me on the stage pounding away, being late, needing the music to go slower, needing the music to go faster. (Laughs) I didn’t understand much about the art form . Dance was not something that my family had access to or I would have had access to even try. Dance just wasn’t there.

TR:

Eventually, She’d gain that access but the steps to becoming a dancer were far from choreographed.

[TR in conversation with AS:]

My understanding is that you became a professor… Yes?

AS:

Yes!

[TR in conversation with AS:]

(Laughing…) AS:

Laughing…

[TR in conversation with AS:] I just want to make sure the internet is correct.

AS:

the internet… in this case the internet is correct! Laughs…

TR:

A professor of Medieval Studies to be exact.

in 2004, Alice saw a performance by a disabled dancer.

AAS:

I didn’t really know what to expect. I was worried it was going to be cringe worthy and it wasn’t.

It was, … amazing! It was smart. It was political. It was sour. It was bitter. It was funny. It was tender, loving and joyful. It was the fullest expression of what you can hope for a body and mind and a heart. It grabbed me. It transported me and transformed me in ways I had not imagined possible.

TR:

Following the performance , Alice had a conversation with the dancer, Homer Avila.

AS:

We were talking about Disability and art and aesthetics and integrity and how you could work from a position of wholeness. He had an amputation to his leg, but he wasn’t saying things like he’s working from a deficit position, he was just working with the body that he had and reforming the art around his body. I was all into this because it was in line with what I was reading and thinking and writing about as a professor.

At the end of the evening he had issued a dare to me and a couple of other people who were hanging out

TR:

The dare?

Take a dance class.

AS:

I said yes because you know when you’re drinking you say yes to a whole pile of things.

[TR in conversation with AS:] Laughing…

AS:

Yeh, maybe this should be a lesson in bad alcohol. Don’t drink!

[TR in conversation with AS:]

Laughing… Maybe it’s good though because it seems like it worked out for you.

AS:

Yeh, yeh! (Laughing)

[TR in conversation with AS:] Not that I’m promoting alcohol. Laughs…

AS:

Laughs…

TR:

Sadly, that was Avila’s last performance. He passed away six weeks later.

AS:

I really felt like I had to honor that dare.

TR:

Finding a dance class doesn’t seem like it should be that hard, but it took Alice some time to find a school that would actually teach her. Instead she received responses like;

AS:

Well I don’t really know how to teach you or you can just be over there and maybe you can figure something out or make something up.

I never actually got to be in the dance class.

TR:

One school even had security post up outside of the class. We’re still trying to figure that one out!

I personally have never seen dance outside of that performed by someone with full use of their legs. So I asked Alice to describe how she does it.

AS:

Mostly in a manual wheelchair. Sometimes on crutches and some of my work is actually being done in a wheel chair with crutches on my arms as well.

[TR in conversation with AS:]

So tell me what does that look like?

AS:

If you can imagine a pair of manual crutches with rings like the European Lofstrand forearm crutches, they just have hoops at the top so you can hang them off your arms. I made them too short to stand up on, but long enough to be able to push my wheelchair like ski’s. Then I have these huge like 9 feet long, I can reach all the way up to the ceiling up to 11 1/2 feet and 9 feet wide. it’s just the incredible feeling of this huge wingspan and you can whirl those crutches. You can turn like nothing on earth, you just whirl them. Because they’re so wide they give you this incredible balance. It’s awesome! (Laughs…)

[TR in conversation with AS:]

Wow!

You’re going between the chair and the floor sometimes too, right?

AS:

Oh yeh! We use the floor in our chairs. We wear straps so the chairs come with us and we come with the chair. And then we can dive to the floor and roll and do all kinds of things on the floor. Sometimes we’re on the floor without our wheelchair.
It’s an amazing kind of vocabulary. I think once you start asking how does your body move. How does it communicate in movement? Movement is a rigorous and tough and beautiful way of communicating. We owe it to ourselves and to our audiences to find, nurture and develop the greatest range of nuance in physical communication that we can.

TR:

Eventually, Alice found her way to the Access Dance Company in Oakland California, where she took her first physically integrated dance class.

[TR in conversation with AS:] What was the experience like for you?

AS:

No one has ever quite asked me this before. Give me a moment to actually tell you the truth of it.

It was a sense of being at the beginning of something. Something I knew I couldn’t do. I knew I didn’t have control. I didn’t have the skill but it was being at the center feeling this whole area open up wide, wide, wide before me. And the joy and the pleasure of if I could be in there it would be amazing. I was aware that I sucked massively. I wasn’t doing the things that they asked, well. Even though I was doing them to the best of my capacity at the time. As a musician I recognized that I was at the same level of inquiry that I was at in the music practice. Where you’re like oh right I can see it, I can feel it, I don’t know what it’s going to be but I know that I have to work to get there.

TR:

Meanwhile, on the east side, in Georgia to be exact, Laurel Lawson was preparing to enter grad school.

LL:

I grew up playing music both as an amateur and as a professional and acting. I saw this dance class. It was in a great time slot right before I needed to be at one of my acting jobs. I thought it would be interesting, you know pick up a little broader skill base and it would be a good warm up. I’ve done a little bit of jazz like that minimum amount of theatrical dance that you need in order to get through musicals. So I went and signed up for this six week class. Boy I sucked so badly!

TR:

Well Douglas Scott apparently saw some talent there. He’s the founder and director of Full Radius Dance, a premier physically integrated dance school. He invited Laurel to audition for the dance company.

LL:

Two months later I was on stage in my first professional appearance.

It’s a little weird right. I often think about that. It’s like the most “bass awkward” way of falling into this field in some ways. A field that is so competitive that people work and dream and hustle from the time that they’re five years old and I took this weird circuitous path and almost wound up dancing by accident. Maybe that’s the title of my autobiography, “The Accidental Dancer”.

[TR in conversation with AS:]

Laughs…

TR:

The community of professional dancers isn’t that large. Eventually, Alice and Laurel met. First chatting about technique, exercises and shared experiences.

LL:

We always knew we had work to make together. It was just a matter of getting to the point for us as individuals, for us as artists where we were ready to do that. Where we could put together the kind of structure to support it and for the rest of the world to get to the point where we had this little bit of an entry to be able to get other people to realize hey we have something to contribute here. The funding and presentation landscape makes a huge difference in what gets presented and what does not.

TR:

That structure is Kinetic Light.

LL:

At the core of it, Kinetic Light consists of this collective of three artists, Alice, myself and Michael Maag who is our production, projection and lighting designer.

Kinetic Light is a little unusual in the way we operate compared to what you might call a conventional dance company. We’re a multi-disciplinary. In some ways we’re not necessarily a dance company. Dance is front and center but there are also ways in which we are a multi-modal performance company. Are we a tech company? That’s a question that we keep going back to because we’re not quite a dance company.

TR:

There’s multiple functions associated with running a dance company.
Of course, there’s the choreography, but we can’t forget the administrative work of funding, managing projects and more.

And then there’s something of particular interest to those with vision loss that Alice explains has always been a part of the plan.

AS:

My thought was always that we would do access. What I didn’t know was the kind of journey that it would become.

TR:

We’re talking about audio description. Well we’ll call it that for now. But the question is really how do you take a visual art experience like dance and make it available to those who are blind?

First, Alice invited friends to attend a live performance.

AS:

Georgina Kleege who is a Blind professor at UC Berkley. She’s a professor of Blind aesthetics and the arts and writing. She’s got this awesome book out right now called “What Blindness Contributes to Art”.

TR:

The goal was specific.

AS:

We want all of our people to come and have a good experience. How do we do it?

This was in 2016, but in 2012 I began exploring these types of threads anyway in my work. And then she picked up those threads and pushed them to the next level. And I was like ok, let’s do that.

Georgina and Josh Miele who, if you don’t know Josh you should talk to Josh, he’s an amazing technologist.

TR:

Shout out to Reid My Mind Radio Alumni Josh Miele. I’ll link you to his episode on this episode’s blog post.

AS:

Cool!

Georgina and Josh said yeh, ok, so you did better than the average and your definitely on some pathway but that isn’t it. It isn’t enough. We aren’t getting what everybody else is getting.

At that time what we were doing was making description of the physical movement.

LL:

That was really painful for us. this was our community that we had invited to come see us and we failed.
[
We hadn’t offered them an equitable experience.
]

TR:

Describing a dance performance isn’t a straight forward task.

Let’s take an example I feel almost everyone is familiar with.

Let’s say a dancer puts his left foot in.

Audio: Horn!

then puts his left foot out.

Audio: Two horn hits!

he does the Hokey Pokey and turns himself around.

Audio: Hokey Pokey song

Now that’s description!
It’s actually conveying all that’s taking place.
Well, if there’s only one person.

But let’s make that dance a bit more complicated.
say our dancer’s left foot is in while his right hand is up
and his partners right leg is up
and another dancer is flying across the screen with a particularly dramatic facial expression.
I’m not even getting into the lighting or stage props that often accompany the Hokey pokey!

AAS:

What you’re getting is this kind of displaced description. You’re not getting a sense of the art.

This is where Laurel comes in, she’s an engineer and designer and she thought of a way in which you could play multiple sound tracks on an app and a way for it to actually sync in time with the show. And so with this kind of technology at the basis the question became not how you make dance accessible, that’s boring. The question really is how do you transform the art of dance into the art of sound.

LL:

I had a little germ of an idea that would become Audimance.

TR:

Audimance was developed in association with Kinetic Light’s DESCENT.

AS:

Descent is a queer inter-racial love story between two disabled women.

Basically invents a backstory to the sculpture the Toilette of Venus and Andromeda by Rodan.

It figures out what does this goddess from Greek myth doing with this figure from Roman myth and why are they put together. Why does Rodan do that with them? It challenges Rodan’s own notions of feminism and lesbianism. It challenges the place of the incomplete body in Rodan’s thinking and sculpture. It’s an incredible kind of imagining of the relationship between the two. A love story maybe. It shows the ways in which disability and art go together. It re-imagines access ramps. It’s a thing this Descent!

TR:

With that in mind, let’s walk through how a nonvisual audience member experiences this performance using Audimance.

It starts with the pre-show. Here’s Alice.

AS:

The program is recorded. In the program there’s some background context to the work, and overall plot summary, a background on the set, an overarching narrative context if you want that. Rodan’s sculptures so there’s some information about that. Basically, information that is contextual.

TR:

That one aspect of Audimance is already surpassing how many of us experience description. Meaning, no longer are we confined to the strict time limitations dictated by the performance. Audience members may be able to access this pre-show information days before the event itself.

And then, if you arrive at the theater early, before the show…

AS:

One of the things we’ve been developing is a kind of tactile experience. This was something that josh was essential in thinking through. We 3D printed the set. The ramp and you could hold a model of the set in your hand and feel some of the things around that. There’s samples of the costumes, the surface, the flooring of the set, the kinds of material elements.

TR:

You may wonder, why a 3D rendering of the set if you’re physically there? the set of Descent is a ramp. And not just any ramp.

AS:

It’s 24 feet wide, 15 feet deep and it goes to 6 foot high at a kind of pointed mountainous peak that I sit on top of.

Each part of the ramp has its name. There’s the peak it’s a top of a mountain. At the bottom of the peak there are waves and there’s water, projections of waves water and rock. And then there’s this huge deck, this angled deck that is sometimes grass and sometimes a mountain range and sometimes an ocean. And the water waves whip up and down the ocean. It’s incredible!

TR:

You have all of the context information about the upcoming performance. And now, it’s ShowTime!

AS:

“How do you transform the art of dance into the art of sound.”

(Repeated from above but with an effect as if reflecting.)

TR:

That one question became several more that she proposed to her friends experiencing the performance non visually.

AS:

What are you listening to? What is communicative sound for you? How do you get art out of sound? What sounds mean something?

And then the question was what sounds are actually in the dance itself? Here’s where we ended up. We have to be able to convey the sounds of the work itself as a sound.

I rang Disabled Queer Trans gender Poet Eli Clare and I said, will you write poetry for this dance? Eli turned the dance into poetry. And I was like wow!

TR:

Audimance empowers the listener with choice and control. Pairing for example the poetry of Eli Clare with the original sound scape composition of Dylan Keefe from the sound rich podcast radio Lab.

Laurel tells us about other tracks and possibilities.

LL:

We can be working with people who are writing prose. For example maybe even describing it technically so that a nonvisual audience member whose also trained as a dancer is actually hearing in dance language about what we’re doing and understanding it in that medium. We can work with sonification of the stage or our bodies or interpreted sonification of the choreography itself. So for example you might be hearing a breath, a heartbeat a sound (slap, slap) as we contact each other as our chairs hit the stage

If you imagine you’re in a big room, a museum gallery, imagine that there are 20 speakers scattered throughout this room. They could be on the ceiling, floating in the middle of the air, on the walls or the floor and every speaker is playing a different track. But all the tracks are part of the same performance. As you wander through this space you can control what you’re listening to. You’re creating your own experience of this art. You can go cuddle up to a single speaker and listen to one track from beginning to end. find a mix, maybe between three or four speakers that appeals to you. Keep moving and keep listening to the way that the tracks and the performance shifts and changes as you’re constantly in motion between these speakers. Got that image. Ok, condense all of that down into a phone screen and you got Audimance!

Since I am sighted every bit of process all along the way we were going back and forth with non-visual audience members, collaborators, testers.

From the describer side I think we’re opening a lot of stuff up to. We’re trying to involve the describer as collaborator through this process. We’re not replacing audio description, we’re blowing it open.

TR:

With other options for Descent’s nonvisual audience members like an interpreted dramatic dialog, a description track specifically for those with kinesthetic imaginations or those who actually feel what’s being described, plus description of lighting… yeah, kaboom!

LL: on centering blind

Audimance is specifically designed for nonvisual users. It absolutely centers Blind users who have advanced listening skills.

TR:

You know you’re an advanced listener when you have the ability to audibly synthesize simultaneous streams of information. Probably more common is the ability to comprehend information at an increased rate. 25 percent, 50 maybe even double or triple its normal rate.

For example, a more seasoned screen reader user probably sounds like this…

Audio: Fast screen reader reading
“You know you’re you’re an advanced listener when you have the ability to audibly synthesize simultaneous streams of information. Probably more common is the ability to comprehend information at an increased rate. 25 percent, 50 maybe even double or triple its normal rate.”
TR:

Someone new to vision loss and therefore new to screen reader technology and synthetic speech and in general active listening sounds more like this…

Audio: Screen reader voice reading in a slow speed.
” You know you’re an advanced listener when you… Oh my goodness this is slow! I’m getting sleepy, sleepy”

LL:

obviously anyone who is hearing can use it but this isn’t a question of trying to make it work for everyone. It is made for and it centers this population that was being underserved artistically

TR:

With multiple choices, someone new to vision loss may be more comfortable simply choosing one or two tracks such as the poetry or traditional description.

Audimance allows users to make selections at any time since the tracks are synchronized to the live performance.

LL:
Are we providing an identical experience to a sighted audience member watching the dance? No Because that does not exist and saying that we’re making something identical is false equivalence. Do we think we’re creating something that is equitable in terms of a rich multi dimension complicated artistic experience? Something that has been crafted by the artist as part of the piece from the beginning?

Yeah! And that’s the feedback we have gotten about it.

TR:

Audimance is Open Source software that’s still in the early alpha phase of development. But there getting close to where anyone will be able to download the program.

LL:

Where venues will be able to download a creator interface and you can just go in a venue and have it pull up the experience for the show that you’re going to see.

TR:

That could be the more traditional description. But I’m hoping for a more artistic, thoughtful, equitable experience.

LL:

It was created for performance art, but certainly any theatrical performance, potentially even for music performances or for speakers to provide visual descriptions of the people on stage.

[TR in conversation with AS:]
That’s going to be fun to watch when people just kind of take that and say I want to play with it because they’re not even thinking about it from the perspective of inclusion or audio description. And it’s just I want to play with this and see what I can do.

LL:

I am so looking forward to that part of it because technically well when you think of it it doesn’t necessarily have to go with a performance. It can be an independent audio only artistic experience. Having people play with this kind of spatialized durational sonic art is going to be fascinating.

[TR in conversation with AS:]
And so that’s open source meaning anyone is going to be able to have access to that. There’s the equity component of that too. Or is this going to really cost people thousands of dollars? (Laughing…)

LL:

(Laughing)

Well you know the problem with that is if we make it cost thousands of dollars we’re going to have a real hard sell telling venues okay, there’s no excuse for your performance not to be accessible. Or dance companies, choreographers here, even if it’s just you describing your dance. You go into rehearsal and you just do the description if you have to. We’re not telling you you have to pay to bring an additional artist in for the week and house them and so forth.

TR:

Audimance is currently being supported by donations. That’s financial and labor.

LL:

If you are interested in contributing to this software itself as a programmer, as a designer, as a technical writer we need everybody right now. If you’re a project manager. If you’re interested in helping us write instructional content. We need tutorials and how to use it. We’re going to need tutorials to introduce presenters to it eventually. You can find the project on GitHub.

People can make financial donations on our website, KineticLight.org.

TR:

you can even earmark your donations specifically for the Audimance project.

Want to learn more about Audimance, Descent, Alice and Laurel?

AS:

There is a newsletter!

[TR in conversation with AS:]
Really and how would someone subscribe to that?

AS:

On your phone you can text 66866 to sign up.

[TR in conversation with AS:]
Wow, look how fancy you are? (Laughs…)

AS:

Laughs…

[TR in conversation with AS:]

(Playfully)
So you’re telling me, you don’t go to a website and put in all your information. All you have to do is text?

AS:

You can do that too. You can go to the website and put in your information.

[TR in conversation with AS:]

What website would that be?

AS:

(laughs…)
KineticLight.org

[TR in conversation with AS:]
What would folks get from the newsletter?

AS:

That’s a really good question. You would meet some of the team. You would learn about the performances or film screening. You might learn about an award. Sometimes we put in cool ideas about Disability culture. Sometimes we’re talking about work friends of ours are doing.

[TR in conversation with AS:]
Yeh, I like it! Cool!

TR:

I’ll tell you something else that’s pretty cool!
That film screening she mentioned? It’s a film featuring Alice and three other dancers . It takes place…

called Inclinations. it too highlights performance on a ramp. This one however is outdoors.

This particular film consists of audio description with two narrators.

Audio:

TR:

you should recognize that voice. That’s Cheryl Green, a podcast alumni and part of the Reid My Mind Radio family!

And the other describer…

Audio:

TR:

Yours truly!

Big shout out to Cheryl Green, Lisa Niedermeyer and everyone else involved in making that happen! That was fun!

Inclinations has been screened at Festivals in Canada and the US including;
National Dance Day at Kennedy Center
Superfest Disability Film Festival 
Cinema Touching Disability

For more on Inclinations checkout Alice Sheppard.com

Audio: “Check it out y’all!”

TR:

there’s a lot to be excited about Audimance. The feature that in my opinion means the most; It’s empowering.

It shifts the conversation from providing access to creating nonvisual experiences.

There’s so much possibility. Especially when you factor in that the technology is open source. It’s made for live performances but the same concepts can be applied to recorded performances.

We’re in a time where audio production is on the rise. I’m talking about the growth of podcasting. I think about the potential in the live podcasting space. Moving away from the Q&A format to a sound rich experience.

Forget about that idea that we need to wait for the kind help from others. Audimance is a collaborative effort from the cross disability community. If you’re not throwing your fist up in solidarity for that one, check your pulse!

Salute to Alice Laurel and everyone involved with the project!

And if you like what you heard?

Subscribe!
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You can always send me feedback or recommend a guest or topic all you have to do is hollaback!

We have the comments section on the blog, ReidMyMind.com.
The email; ReidMyMindRadio@gmail.com
The Reid My Mind Radio Feedback Line where you can leave a voice mail: 1 570-798-7343

I would really love voice messages that I can share on the podcast. If you don’t want to call, you can grab your smart phone and record a voice memo and email the finished recording to ReidMyMindRadio@gmail.com.

I’d love to hear and share the voices of those who are listening. If you want to send a message but don’t want it shared just say so and it’s all good.

I appreciate you listening and if you liked what you heard please rate and even review the show via Apple Podcast. And please, tell a friend to listen. Spread the love, man!

You can always visit www.ReidMyMind.com, that’s R to the E I D like my last name!

AS:

And I was like wow!

Audio: Reid My Mind Radio Outro

TR:

Peace!

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