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.
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. 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.
The Movement Movement
Alice Sheppard: In Simi Linton’s documentary Invitation To Dance, the Guggenheim ramp symbolizes the stakes of wheeled movement. The interior ramp of the museum is not an access ramp, but rather an architectural artifact and artistic object that surfaces the aesthetics and politics of movement pleasure. The freedom of the central, sculpted ramp casts in sharp relief the functional, prohibitive, and inhibitive design of access ramps. Linton’s message to the dance and art worlds is clear. There is new movement to be discovered; disabled movement is both aesthetically original and deeply political; there is a direct relationship between disability, architecture, art, and the social, political understandings of movement and mobility.
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.
gripping the edge
call it home
call it desire
call it a need
what do we wail into the world?
unfurl your heart
one by one
into your skin
enter the trough
brush the skin
how do we unlearn desperation?
from a cello
a shiver of pain
but do not
that arch arc
of a full turn
on the edge
a raptor riding
what does the unfurling cost us?
and lunge again
moan of ramp
into a cradle
made of wheelchair
accept her invitation—
straddle her lap
become the gliding
of her wheels
slide into the underworld
of bull kelp
who do we touch and how?
a fault line
it does not
that will not
which stories do we hide away?
an aching joint
a gasping muscle
a shiver of light
and which stories do we brandish?
ache becomes you
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.
What the Ramp Teaches
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.