“Theatres are ready for disabled audiences, but they aren’t ready for disabled artists”
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGE BY BEVERLIE LORD
Alice Sheppard had no idea that life would lead her towards her love of dancing. She only took her first class after being dared to do so, but loved it so much that she resigned her academic career in order to pursue dance professionally.
Since becoming an independent artist, Alice has gone on to dance in projects with Ballet Cymru, GDance and Marc Brew in the United Kingdom.
As an emerging and Bessie award-winning choreographer, Alice creates movement that challenges conventional understandings of dancing bodies with disabilities. She is intrigued by the intersections of disability, gender and race and we were intrigued to find out more about her story.
DIVA: How did you learn to dance professionally?
ALICE SHEPPARD: As a disabled artist and disabled dancer you can’t just show up. There are very few opportunities to learn to dance and to receive professional training. It took me two years to find an opportunity. My first class was an eight week series with an access company in the Bay Area in Oakland and then my teacher gave me private lessons in New York. That was how I started dancing.
What styles of dance have you studied?
I have trained in ballet, modern and my own form, which is my own kind of modern dance. Within the field of modern dance, I’m particularly interested in the form of dance that doesn’t really have a name yet. We’ve casually been calling it disability dance, but it’s work made by disabled artists featuring disabled artists and rooted in disabilities and culture that imagines the disabled audience.
What are the challenges you face bringing your work to the stage?
Everything. Theatres are ready for disabled audiences, more or less, but they aren’t ready for disabled artists. An example I always give is: theatres don’t always have an accessible toilet backstage, so you can’t pee before the show, or if you do you’re halfway through make-up and you have to run to the front where the audience is. The main issue is physical access, but it is improving.
What stories do you want to tell through your dance?
In the work that I make, everything is different. I am looking for work that is intersectional in its formation. Ideas that emerge as the work gets made. I find that I get really interested in ideas, but I don’t start with the story necessarily. Things evolve and grow and change as the work itself is in the making. I’ve never set out to tell a story. I’ve only ever set out to ask a question and that’s just part of my process.
Would you say conversations about disability have changed since you’ve been dancing?
Absolutely. It’s been fascinating to watch the world grow. I still think that audiences are less familiar with disabilities, but it’s good. I am hoping that over time audiences will be more aware of art and disability outside of the societal narrative that they are most familiar with. A lot of audiences seem to be ready for disability to live in a certain set of containers. We’re ready to submit work outside of those containers. I think we are working towards equity in the field.
How inclusive are LGBTQI spaces of people with disabilities?
It’s been okay for me, but that is variable. It’s definitely hard to find access to cultural spaces as it’s often physically complicated. If people are educated and aware and on board, the physical access can be worked around. The major struggle that I have is around navigating the recognition of disability.
Who are your dance heroes?
My dance heroes include Kitty Lunn, one of my first teachers, Marc Brew, current Artistic Director of AXIS Dance Company, Judy Smith founding member and Artistic Director Emerita of AXIS, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar the founder of Urban Bush Women. They are all innovators and activists in their own way.
What advice would you give to other people with disabilities who want to enter into the dance world?
Do it. It is the hardest thing you will ever do and it will bring you immense joy. You won’t be alone, there is an entire community here for you.
What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
“You may think it is the worst thing ever, but you will grow from it. People will forgive and forget.”
The theme of the next issue of DIVA is visibility. What makes you feel visible as a queer woman?
I feel most visible when others recognise that disability, race and queerness exist in me together. They are not mutually exclusive and I am not one or the other.
Alice Sheppard will be taking part in a digital online performance on 7 May as part of the Let’s Dance International Frontiers festival. Visit serendipity-uk.com or AliceSheppard.com for further information.
Read more from our interview with Alice Sheppard in the May issue of DIVA – you can pre-order your copy right here 🌈
Performance Image description: Dancer Alice Sheppard, balances on her hands, arms straight, and on a pair of silver crutches, lifting her lower body and wheelchair high. Alice’s head is tucked and her short curly hair peaks out from behind her strong arms. She is wearing a shimmery gold bodysuit. She is set against a black background and light reflects off her costume, chair, and crutches. Photo by Mengwen Cao.
Headshot Image description: Alice Sheppard is a light skinned multi-racial woman with brown, yellow and copper streaks in her curly hair short har. She smiles warmly and leans forward, resting her cheek on her hand. She is wearing a black long-sleeved top and a short gold necklace. Photo by Beverlie Lord.
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