Building Accessible Spaces for Creativity
"Diversity, equity, and inclusion." This phrase became meaningful to me during my job search upon graduating college. Prior to my quest, I had only associated the terms with race. After joining Lincoln Center's Accessibility Department as the Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow, my definition of diversity broadened to include disability. I was given an opportunity to work on several disability initiatives, and from there I acknowledged a community that also needed the support of resources such as directories of accessible events and access to web content. I've been training as a dancer for 18 years, and my background allowed me to explore the intersection of accessibility work both administratively and creatively. The dance culture that I come from is full of categories: this type of person should do this type of role. There wasn't a diverse range of people present where their contributions (e.g., ideas, movement vocabulary, shape/form) could be considered or even accepted. Having a spot for everyone at the "table" is the starting point for developing an inclusive environment for all to have a voice. A creative being can exist in many forms.
Before joining Lincoln Center, I was a summer intern for the Diversity in the Arts Leadership program with the Arts and Business Council of New York in 2017, and I was paired with Dance/NYC to be their equity and inclusion intern. I came across Dance/NYC's Disability. Dance. Artistry. initiative that advances access to the art form for disabled people. I learned about integrated dance companies whose work is created and performed with and by disabled artists. Upon meeting members of the initiative's task force comprising leaders and advocates within the disability community, I discovered that the conversation surrounding language on how one should be identified is not easy to have. Many advocates would argue that placing the disability-related word first in a phrase (e.g., "a blind dancer") affirms their disability as an integral part of who they are. After gaining an understanding of how the organization decided to use disability-first language, I soon developed and piloted their volunteer Ambassador Program, where they acted on behalf of Dance/NYC to engage in conversation with audience members about the work generated by and with disabled artists. The goal was to encourage audiences to speak about disability in terms of how they view it, and any connections made to one's creativity. Through this process, I noticed disability artistry in a profound way after speaking with Principal Dancer and Development Director of Heidi Latsky Dance, Jerron Herman, about the work ON DISPLAY. We talked about the overall structure of the piece, the tasks dancers had in mind while performing it, and intentions behind the relationship established between performer and audience member. My conversations with Jerron helped me recognize the artistry that all the dancers possessed.
"Disability is more than the deficit of diagnosis. It is an aesthetic, a series of intersecting cultures, and a creative force."
—Alice Sheppard, Disabled choreographer and dancer
Through my internship at Dance/NYC, I knew that I could not look at the dance field the same way I did before entering the organization. When I think back to the many venues where I've performed, I cannot recall if they were accessible because I did not have the education back then to even consider whether there were accessible entrances or if a person could request a large-print program. The question that haunts me: Would I have thought twice about these accommodations for a performance space as I pursued my dance career without the experience I received from Dance/NYC? This question served as an incentive to continue my learning in disability work.
After completing the Diversity in the Arts Leadership Program, I was drawn to Lincoln Center's Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellowship because I wanted to learn more about the steps it takes to create an equitable space. Over the past year, the fellowship has strengthened the way I relate to people, listen, and create space for those who, due to a disability, would not have the means to experience cultural programs for reasons such as inaccessible theaters and being concerned about requesting accommodations. I worked closely on the Access Ambassador program, which gives high school students on the autism spectrum and with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to gain job experience by participating in front-of-house work during Lincoln Center's performances. As part of the Access Team, I developed curriculum, created lesson plans, led in-school trainings to practice skills, and supervised students while on shifts. This project challenged me to find patience and to really understand the meaning of the quote, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." I engaged with the students on their goals and talents and saw the growth they achieved by accessing their strengths using the performing arts field as a medium. Lessons on professionalism and taking initiative guided students through different scenarios that they encountered while working. Overall, these skill-building exercises improved their confidence and set them up for social success.
During my time at Lincoln Center, I also worked on the Lincoln Center Moments program, which provides the opportunity for participants with dementia and their caregivers to access creativity by attending a one-hour performance, followed by a one-hour discussion, movement, and art-making workshop. I assisted in planning these workshops with the Access Team and teaching artists that led them. To prepare, I attended dementia-related trainings that helped aid my thinking about activities participants could do during the workshops and how to engage with them.
I also learned how important it is to ensure people get exactly what they need to enjoy performances. Specifically, programs like Lincoln Center Moments and Passport to the Arts (a program that allows families that have children with disabilities to attend shows for free) required me to process hundreds of registrations in which people listed their accommodation needs to be able to access the experience. It made a difference in seeing how such accommodations (like aisle seats for families whose child may need to take a break from the performance and assistive listening devices for participants to hear better during a show) are all considered before guests even arrive to Lincoln Center. These were the steps necessary to build an inclusive environment. To further carry out accessibility work in a creative way, I witnessed the construction of tactile models of Lincoln Center's campus for the verbal description tours, which allow visitors who are blind or have low vision to touch and feel the outline of the models to know where everything is on campus. I believe that adding creativity provides longevity in how we continue to think about serving others.
Throughout my internship at Dance/NYC and my fellowship at Lincoln Center, I continued to take dance classes, rehearse, and perform at various venues across New York. It has been a treat occupying both spaces because the two have greatly informed one another.
The skills I built as an administrator opened the door to accessibility, but I don't think I discovered true empathy until I started to create. And no matter how much I read about disability work online, it doesn't beat the knowledge I received while in the studio. I had such an extreme pleasure performing and choreographing for a work called Piece by Piece. It is a dance/theater work that explores a witty mosaic of memories drawn from a ballerina before and after her brain hemorrhage. The ballerina and writer of Piece by Piece is Rebeccah "Beccah" Bogue. Moving with and talking to a disabled dancer opened a world of possibilities. At the beginning of each rehearsal I would need to walk through any additions or changes to the choreography with Beccah while verbally describing each step. Before joining this project, rehearsals I've done as a dancer came with the expectation of quickly reviewing any material on my own and then beginning a run of the routine. The way I learned dance, even how to create, was very strategic: you follow these steps, you get this outcome. Well, the ideologies involved in who gets to perform certain steps are catered toward one body image, which makes the outcome's reach limited to only a few.
"I thought I was going to be very uncomfortable. It opened my mind to different types of dancers. Even as a concert dancer, I have been trained to see one type of dancer."
—Njeri Rutherford, Dancer in Piece by Piece
Director of Piece by Piece James Blaszko stated, "That openness to understanding and the awareness of what has been common to you and how you describe things will change over time because people change." During rehearsals, we slowed down, we listened. We utilized techniques of contact improvisation where we gave and shared weight between our bodies to test each other's strengths and where we felt most comfortable in receiving weight. It was also used to build trust amongst all of us dancers. Beccah experiences limited mobility where she uses a cane to help stabilize her balance. Most of the work did not have Beccah use her cane, and from this, I wanted Beccah to discover where her body naturally folds, twists, and turns while connected to someone else. Working with another body that holds different capabilities brings agency in validating new pathways for movement. Beccah mentioned how she thought the process would be trepidatious for her due to previous experience when a choreographer "didn't know her capabilities and didn't care to find them." My process of finding her capabilities merely consisted of me telling Beccah what I was imagining and asking her how she could get there. I needed to start that dialogue to learn what we both could contribute as dancers.
"It was really empowering for me to feel like I wasn’t your puppet, like you weren’t going to dumb down movement for me. What I could do, you would work with.”
While developing the work, I had to learn some of the mechanisms that Beccah needed to carry out her daily life. Some of these tasks needed to be incorporated into the piece. For instance, collaborating dancer Njeri Rutherford and I had to hold the script for Beccah to read from during the performances. We also had to add little chimes in the music for Beccah to know the next cue. At first these adjustments served as something practical to help her access memory, but then we realized that these are all valid creative choices a part of the work.
How has my work inside the office influenced me outside of the office? I see the need for accessibility all around me. I am in a dance company now, and wonder, "Who is going to take care of the accommodation requests? Does the presenting venue have that covered? Is that question even being asked? If we randomly start improvising in the middle of the performance, do I take the elevator or stairs when I want the audience to travel with me?" These feel like simple questions, but they make a difference when building an inclusive experience from the time of purchasing tickets to leaving the performance. I always wanted to perform for a diverse range of audience members and to have the ability to connect with many populations. I feel confident in saying that it doesn't require a huge effort to be that person who has empathy, compassion, and a willingness to create space for others. As I continue to build my career, I hope to see education of accessibility practices embedded into the curriculum of dancers and other performing artists in conjunction with composition classes where they are taught how to create work and produce shows.
Mikaila Ware is the 2018 Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.