The Accessibility of Being on Display

An Interview with Heidi Latsky and Jerron Herman

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Heidi Latsky is the artistic director of Heidi Latsky Dance, and Jerron Herman serves as dancer and development director. Heidi Latsky Dance is a two-time resident through the CUNY Dance Initiative, which offers available space through the CUNY university system to NYC dance artists. Here, Heidi and Jerron discuss how their involvement with the CUNY Dance Initiative has allowed them to continue to develop the company’s seminal piece, ON DISPLAY, as well as how accessibility shapes their work.

Heidi Latsky Dance Company 4

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What has been your involvement with the CUNY Dance Initiative (CDI) and how has it shaped your practice?

Jerron: As all dance companies are aware, there’s a scarcity of space in NYC. We were looking for a home. I don’t remember how we found the application call, but we applied for our first CDI residency at Baruch College. The application was easy to format, but difficult in that we had to be specific about what we were trying to do. At the time, we were just starting on what would become D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D., our first attempt at bringing ON DISPLAY back into the theatrical setting.

Heidi: I remember when you brought in the application, there were several residency options. We had to think about where we wanted to see ourselves and what spaces made sense for the work and our diverse cast. Because D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. had a cast of 18 ensemble and 15 extras, we needed something easy to get to. Baruch ended up being a good place for us. We started our residency in 2017 and performed in March 2018. Now we’re actually in another CDI residency at City College which finishes in April.

Can you share a little about ON DISPLAY, the installation you will be presenting at the CUNY Dance Initiative’s 5th Year Fest, and how it evolved into D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D.?

Heidi: We started ON DISPLAY in 2015 as guerilla art. The idea was to create a sculpture court where the sculptures are live people. The objective was to expose the general public to people with disabilities in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Mayor’s Office asked us to do this in July of 2015. We’ve since performed ON DISPLAY many times and in many contexts.

The sculpture courts were created after a museum curator watched a video of my show GIMP and ashamedly said to me, “I see the inherent beauty in sculptures with missing limbs, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around your performers who have an unusual limb or missing limb.” I started thinking about his comment. In disability culture, there’s so much about gaze and reverting the gaze. The first versions of ON DISPLAY were about creating a safe place to stare, as well as exploring the relationship between the viewer and the viewed.

Since then, my company has done over 100 performances of ON DISPLAY. Both myself and my dancers were getting a little restless and wanting to move more, so I started inserting solos on a spot within the sculpture court. We called them timestamps, and after this version, we expanded further into full out dancing that transformed the gallery environment of ON DISPLAY into a more theatrical one.

We’re currently thinking about a more interactive relationship between the viewer and the viewed. What happens if the audience is going through the sculpture court and has an app or some device where they can look at a sculpture and hear its story?

Jerron: This all came about because we got feedback when we were at Baruch that informed how we might move forward with D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. We’re not adding choreography; we’re building on the experience within what we’ve already created.

Heidi Latsky Dance Company 2

Heidi: We did ON DISPLAY during Design Week, and a woman who works at Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, Australia was in attendance. At that point, we had gotten a grant and developed a Heidi Latsky app with audio descriptions. The woman who approached us at Design Week had an independent but similar idea using a Google device. Now we have the Google devices as well as our app that we’re experimenting with. We’ve been able to use our CDI residency at City College as a testing ground to figure out how we can use the devices consistently and how audiences will respond to this interactive technology.

How would you describe the work to someone unfamiliar with it?

Heidi: The work sits in that intersection between visual art, dance, social justice and performance art. We are learning how to talk about a piece like D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D., which is very much an event. I don’t feel like this work should be in a concert context. The context for ON DISPLAY is a museum, gallery or outside. It doesn’t really belong in a theater, and although D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. is more theatrical, it doesn’t really belong there either. It should be in an alternative venue and be categorized as an immersive event.

Do you see a correlation in your work between working with people with disabilities and working in spaces outside the proscenium? Are there perhaps overlapping themes of accessibility?

Jerron: Because we’re outside of the proscenium, we’re more agile. We can pick up and perform in different spaces. That transfers to who can be in the work. In some versions of ON DISPLAY, we’ve had 30 people, and over half of whom are people with disabilities. That’s a milestone, especially in NYC. It’s quite progressive, and it’s because we’re not confined to a theater.

Heidi: The value of ON DISPLAY is that there’s no prescribed vocabulary. It really honors the individual. If someone can’t stand, they can sit. If someone can’t sit, they can stand. Nobody is being asked to move in any particular way, though there is a structure that everyone must follow. It’s not a performance where they must do exactly what the choreographer tells them to do. Although ON DISPLAY is a simple improvisation, it’s not easy. It requires focus, endurance, and an ability to not worry about what you look like. Self-consciousness does not work in the sculpture court.

The disability component is integral to ON DISPLAY because it’s a vehicle for people with disabilities to enter the performance arena. I can teach it relatively quickly if they are willing and open.

Jerron: Overlapping accessibility is a good way to think about it. It’s been very cool with ON DISPLAY that someone can happen upon an art piece on their way to work or on their lunch break, and also be educated and confronted in a way. Also, if you’re participating in it, you can be a little disruptive and challenging. The audience becomes the parameters of the performance piece, so it allows a wide entry for performers and for audiences.

Heidi: It’s also an entry point for people who have never worked with people with disabilities, or for people with disabilities who have never been part of an inclusive experience. What’s been so interesting about these Google devices that are being added is that when you see people walk through the sculpture court with these listening devices, the sculptures themselves get very uncomfortable. The viewer is not engaging with them physically but listening on their headset and in close proximity.

Jerron: The Google devices are headphones attached to a camera that holds the audio of that individual performer. With the app too, the viewer has to wear headphones attached to their phones.

Heidi: The headphones bring in another dimension to D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. and ON DISPLAY. To be honest, I’m worried the technology might take away from the piece.

Jerron: Our original goal was to enhance the experience, and yet some part of us is asking: What if technology doesn’t enhance the experience? We won’t know it until we try it, but we might access people out of the piece. It’s about figuring out what the best intentionality is. It’s why the residency is so good for us because we can experiment.

Heidi Latsky Dance Company 5

Going back to the CUNY Dance Initiative, why is the CUNY Dance Initiative important for a healthy dance ecosystem?

Heidi: In general, most dance companies don’t have homes, especially in NYC right now. We had a studio that we were at all the time and it closed, and that studio housed a lot of dance companies. When it closed, it became very difficult to find affordable space. Even when we did, it often consisted of being two hours in one place and one hour in another. CDI is an opportunity to have a home for a while. It’s lovely to be able to go to the same place every day for a significant period of time.

Jerron: I will add that we got the CDI residency early in our fiscal year, which set us up for accessing more resources. It also made our application to other programs and grants much stronger because we had a physical space we were operating out of, not to mention credibility and an endorsement.

What has been your experience of the CUNY Dance Initiative in terms of access? Have all the residency spaces you’ve experienced been accessible because of ADA, or has that been an added consideration in the application process?

Heidi: I think we assumed the spaces were all accessible, though in both residencies some spaces were not viable. But the main ones certainly were and are.

Jerron: We knew that John Jay wasn’t accessible based on the way it was described on the CDI website. At City College, we’ve been limited because one of their theaters is not accessible. We decided to perform in a gallery in the architecture building, which is really beautiful. It makes us think about how to engage with the campus in a creative way and what we can do outside of a theater.

Any other thoughts?

Heidi: The model of CDI is great. As artists, it’s an opportunity to get more creative with how we engage the campus. It can be challenging because students are busy and many work after school, but we’ve found that challenge to be exciting. The venue itself at Baruch was significant for us, and we gained important new audience members. We had a great relationship with the theater, and I feel like they are allies now. I think that’s going to happen at City College as well.

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To learn more about Heidi Latsky Dance, visit heidilatskydance.org, and to learn more about the CUNY Dance Initiative, visit www1.cuny.edu/sites/dance-initiative.

Heidi Latsky Dance in DISPLAYED Photo by Amro Arida

Photo by Amro Arida

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