Monday, October 29, 2018

Texas Dance Improvisation Festival

Body Shift Collective (front to back, left to right): Olivia O'Hare, Veronica DeWitt, Tanya Winters; Susie Angel, Juan Munoz, Kelly Hasandras; Dany Casey, Errin Delperdang

Hello from Olivia O'Hare, project coordinator of Body Shift! A few weeks ago a group of long time Body Shifters had the pleasure of participating, teaching, and performing at the 10th annual Texas Dance Improvisation Festival (TDIF) hosted by Texas Women's University. Thanks to Veronica DeWitt, our lead instructor, we were accepted to teach a workshop in the DanceAbility method (the videos below capture a few short moments of our workshop) as well as perform a new piece titled, Being Together, in the festival concert. A collective of eight of us (Olivia O’Hare, Juan Munoz, Susie Angel, Tanya Winters, Kelly Hasandras, Errin Delperdang, Dany Casey, and Veronica DeWitt) that included three dancers with disabilities caravanned up to Denton.

Same people, silly poses

Reflections from Tanya Winters:
"Any disability advocate will tell you change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes the strength of many to blaze a trail toward full inclusion and equality. That’s why I am so proud to be a part of Body Shift. Together we danced our way into the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival and created a path that will make it easier not only for dancers (people) with disabilities but anyone who wants to explore the world of movement.

"Every time I dance I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. I get so excited when I see all the different bodies moving together. Whether it’s in a class or in the community, the advocate in me says you are making a difference. But, performing at a festival like TDIF, on a traditional stage, in front of a captive audience, makes me feel like I am breaking down walls; really challenging people’s perceptions of who a dancer is. I not only feel included, I feel a sense of equality. That’s what real change is made of."

We arrived Friday night just in time for the evening dance jam. It was clear pretty quickly that the community of able-bodied dancers was welcoming but not quite sure how to approach the dancers with disabilities. The next day we taught our workshop as a collective with Veronica and I as the lead instructors with strong support from the rest of the group taking turns demonstrating and leading the exercises. Teaching together felt easy and without ego interference. We taught an introduction to the DanceAbility method with an emphasis on relationship and consent (i.e., saying yes or no through touch). The students were so concentrated that they improvised for two hours without music.

Their movements were generated by sensation (from the inside out), deep listening with their whole body and non-verbal communication. In our closing circle many students commented that they felt liberated to move in new ways and had a new depth of understanding about how to stay connected while improvising even when not in physical contact.

That night we performed as part of the larger concert on a traditional proscenium stage. Our piece Being Together is a structured improvisation that we are developing for future performance opportunities. After the show we went to our second jam. This time the community embraced the dancers with disabilities fully and without hesitation. The shift was profound and left us all feeling grateful for the experience and like we had made a positive impact.

Reflections from Susie Angel:
"About 40 years ago, as a small child, my dream was to be a ballerina even though I couldn't walk. Nobody could tell me otherwise, but when I became a teenager, I came to accept that I had a disability and society wasn't ready to have dancers with disabilities.
"Fast forward 30 years to 2008. That's when Body Shift, a fully inclusive dance group for people with and without disabilities, started. I was part of the group from day one. At first, we only had workshops to teach us the different elements of dance and choreography. Once a core group of us became skilled as dancers, we started doing performances throughout the community in Austin, TX in public places where people could just stop and watch us. Some of us even became certified in DanceAbility, the method of teaching dance to people of all abilities and levels.
"Although I was content with this, I didn't realize that there was still another level I could take. A couple weeks ago I got to travel with seven other Body Shifters to teach and perform at the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival on the Texas Women's University campus in Denton. This was a totally different experience for me. The people we taught and jammed with were mostly all strangers and we performed on stage in front of a captive audience. We went for the 2nd night and the whole 3rd day of the festival. When we arrived, it was in the middle of the jam. For me, it was uncomfortable because I felt like the other dancers were protective of me and afraid to let me give and take weight from them. In other words, they weren't challenging me as a dancer.

"The second day, we taught in the morning, performed in the evening, and went to our second night jam. By the time we got to the jam, I had a much better experience. People were coming up to me and actually dancing with me. In fact, there was a time when I was dancing with a guy that we had in our class that morning. We were creating dance moves like I'm more used to. We were using counterbalancing: he was leaning on me and my wheelchair, counting on me to pull him up from the floor, flipping over my back, and using my wheelchair to do a handstand.
"I left the festival wanting more."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Artist of the Year – Joan Fabian

Sunday, September 16th was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Austin, Texas as a group of artists and VSA Texas supporters gathered to celebrate artists from around Texas who have empowered themselves and their community through their artistic practice. It was our inaugural Haven Allen Artist of the Year awards where we honored three artists for their achievements.

The Haven Allen awards are named in memory of former VSA Texas Board Member Forrest Haven Street-Allen. Haven was an insightful and caring person who had a history of helping others. When she passed away we wanted to honor her dedication, vision, and respect for all through this award. Our first award ceremony this year was a success and I think Haven would be proud to have her name attached to it.

We solicited nomination forms all year long in 2017. The award is open to any artist with a disability over the age of 16 years old in any discipline. Self-nominations are allowed. We received 10 nominations. Interestingly, all were for visual artists and none were self-nominations. Our panel of judges reviewed all of the applications and they chose San Antonio artist Joan Fabian as the very first Haven Allen Artist of the Year. She was notified this past Spring and then awarded this Fall.

Joan has been a long time artist with VSA Texas. She has been in several group shows and was our final solo show at Access Gallery before it closed in 2012. I think she was a natural choice for this award because of her notable achievements through the arts nationwide and worldwide, her shining spirit and giving nature toward helping other artists succeed, and of course, her beautifully constructed and painted images.

The cover of the catalog produced for Joan’s solo show “Culture of Color” held at Access Gallery in May 2012.

As the 2018 Artist of the Year, we are dedicated to promoting Joan in the community, so this blog is my introduction of her to you. Meet Joan Fabian! If you don’t know her, you should! Below is a video of why she was nominated for and given this award:

In the generous VSA Texas fashion, we couldn’t just give one award! We also gave the Spark Award to fused glass artist Jordana Gerlach and the Director’s Commendation Award to Jackson Sutton. And before you ask, NO! You don’t have to have a name that starts with “J” to win this award.

Our 2019 Nomination Form is out now, so start thinking about the winning artists in your life. We want to see nominations for visual artists, writers, musicians, performers, and dancers! To request a nomination form, contact us at 512-454-9912 or The deadline is February 28, 2019.

Friday, October 12, 2018

One Night in Miami

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Miami, Florida, land of Palm trees and beaches. I was there to work with docents and staff of the education department at the PĂ©rez Art Museum Miami on accessible customer service and audio description. This was my third time working with this museum and its staff, and as always, it was a great pleasure. And the museum setting is fabulous too! We were in the Board Room, with wrap-around windows that overlook a water runway… and seaplanes landed throughout the day, bouncing through the wakes their pontoons kicked up. We had a lively conversation concerning best practices for interacting with patrons with diverse abilities, and then spent some quality time in the galleries talking about verbal description for some of the artworks.

In the lobby, For Those in Peril on the Sea by the London-based artist Hew Locke, 70 model boats are suspended from the ceiling. They are diverse in size and color, painted in strong reds, greens, and yellows; some are covered with plastic plants and artificial flowers. They include Chinese junks, Norwegian cruise ships, Indonesian fishing boats, cigarette boats and clipper ships.

For the second year in a row, my trip to Miami coincided with a Miami-based arts and disability conference that I was able to attend as well. This year, Forward Motion, a Physically Integrated Dance Festival and Conference, organized by Karen Paterson & Dancers, was my special treat. Although I wasn’t able to stay for the entire festival, I was able to see several of the Candoco dancers and Karen Peterson dancers perform an intriguing score incorporating voice, echo, translation, and space. It is based on a structure practiced by the British company, Dog Kennel Hill. It was adapted by the dancers working together at Forward Motion for this conference. In addition to Candoco (London) and KPD (Miami), AXIS Dance Company (Oakland) and REVolutions Dance (Tampa) were also performing at the Festival.

The conference consisted of several thought-provoking panel discussions concerning topics of representation in the arts and media, moving beyond inclusion, and intersecting disability, sexuality, race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. Whoa: three very diverse and incredibly important panels discussing some meaty topics!

Some quotes that have stayed with me include:

“Diverse doesn’t mean inclusive.” So true. Many people still struggle with the concept of inclusion; what it means in context of disability.

“I am not educating people… But maybe I am because I am being seen. I know I have the power to be seen.” I have always believed that if you live your life, and let other people experience you living your life, education can happen.

“Inclusion means, I’m included but you’re not. Inclusivity means our stories are included, therefore our bodies are included too.” This one made me think.

And finally, this one is attributed to Annie Segarra, (artist, activist, YouTuber): “Inclusion is being invited to a party that is not equipped to have me there. Access is being invited to a party where I can make my own decision. Maybe I don’t want to dance, but I have the choice.”

All the panelists were very engaged and could have talked longer given the opportunity.

I ended my time in Miami wandering the Wynwood Walls, a neighborhood of warehouses that have been transformed by muralists. I discovered a poet, Jess, (@poemshop-js) who writes poetry on his manual typewriter outside one of the coffee shops. When asked to write a poem about One Night in Miami, he obliged:

The summer air blazes into 
  October, pausing 
a moment 
   to let the sun hide.

   The cotton candy clouds of 
    technicolor sunset 
now drift in simple notes 
       of stray slate 
  and dove gray. 

   We can breathe, 
finally. There is 
     opening and room, 

where the sauna and 
  red glow made us melt 
  inward at noon, 

    now we can stroll 
calm in the open 
    beneath the waning moon.

           The music of evening 
    calls the convocation, 
cars with made-up faces pass, 
swirling the dust of the street. 

Another night before 
             the weekend, in this city 
    where the ocean 
         and Everglades meet.

Jess Allen and his typewriter sit at the edge of the sidewalk, observed by two passers-by.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Namaste, y'all!

Well Namaste to you, oh loyal followers of this temple of contemporary wisdom, whose scrolls are being unraveled to be feasted upon by the fellow valiant and worthy.

Okay, I will not pretend to know what that means. It just sounded funny in my head. *Crickets* Yeah, let’s move on.

I’m Snehi Jhul, and I’m a millennial bard. I’m a musician, actor, and author who’s going back to college for a degree in geography. So, I basically toggle between plotting things and plotting things. (Ha! See what I did there? Huh? Huh? Ahem.) I started working at VSA Texas just two weeks ago, and boy, am I loving it! More on that in a minute.

Here's a photo of me (in case you wanted to put a face to the name).

I’m told I was born in India, but I don’t remember it happening. Is that normal? Anyways, I moved halfway across the world when I was one. I feel I was born as the epitome of mankind’s intelligence, and every skill I now realize I don’t have, I blame it on early childhood jet lag. So it’s quite handy.

I slay new dragons in my mind every day, and their being invisible is the only reason I haven’t been knighted yet. Those sneaky beasts. I always come out with a good story though, and whether I act or sing or write or dance or paint or play each day depends on which story I want to tell myself.

This is when VSA hired me as a work-study, battle-worn but back. On my first day, I made posters. Yep. I was getting paid for this! Then I helped out with one of our Library Live concerts this September, and got to meet some devilishly talented artists. I even got an autograph. (Thanks, Devin!) These people didn’t let disability own them. They owned it back. Booyah! (Wait, do people even say that anymore? Am I getting old?)

Devin Gutierrez performing for the Library Live crowd. He's a talented singer and piano player!

It’s so refreshing to work here, and I get to help out with a bunch of different things. In the first week, I learned how audio descriptions work, how captioning works, and most importantly, what the WiFi password here is. *Grins*

Want to hear about some of this fascinating stuff? Oh yeah, sure, imagination is great, but we can add another dimension to enjoy. I learned that VSA Texas provides audio descriptions at live plays, with descriptive narrations of the actions taking place on stage. You get an uber-cool gadget you tune in on and with an earpiece that makes you a better-looking James Bond, you get to follow along like a boss. I got to try it on when testing the equipment, and man I looked good! Oh, yeah, bring it on!

On top of that, I learn a lot about the world in the process, from voices mainstream society might not think to listen to. Everyone here has a drive to do some good in the world. Help us help you help the world!

Me? I’m personally in it for the stories. :D