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Movement for disability justice

Abilities Dance channels advocacy in new performance

Celina Colby
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Movement for disability justice
Abilities Dance Company performs at the Multicultural Arts Center. PHOTO: JAYPIX/PIXWORX

Ellice Patterson, founder and artistic director of Abilities Dance Boston, is stepping up her artistic game. Since its inception, Abilities Dance has spread awareness about the experiences of artists with disabilities and BIPOC artists. In the company’s latest performance, “Intersections,” Patterson takes things to the next level, bringing in an active advocacy lens.

This world premiere debuts April 22-23 at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge and online. Created by an all-BIPOC team, “Intersections” addresses specific disability legislation that’s on the table now in Massachusetts and honors the legacies of activists and change-makers in that space.

“Art has always influenced culture and various social justice movements,” says Patterson. “Through creating a ballet meant to include all through a disability justice lens, we hope this can influence our community to support intersectional disability justice and dismantle the various inequities we face.”

Abilities Dance Company performs at the Multicultural Arts Center. PHOTO: JAYPIX/PIXWORX

The performance is structured as a series of vignettes. Each vignette honors a different activist or highlights a different issue. Many are tied directly to legislation that audience members can vote on in upcoming elections.

Heather Watkins is one of the local activists honored in “Intersections.” As a longtime disability advocate, Watkins is on the board of directors for the Disability Policy Consortium and a cofounder of the Divas with Disabilities Project, a digital project empowering and uplifting women with disabilities. She stepped away from the organization in 2015.  In other pieces, the choreography addresses broader issues such as medical trauma and how the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and the high maternal mortality rate of Black women intersect.

After speaking with Watkins and other subjects about their experiences, Patterson worked with Andrew Choe, Abilities Dance Boston’s director of music, who composed a completely new score for the performance. New England Film Orchestra will perform this score live during the show. Patterson choreographed each piece to represent and honor the subject’s story while accommodating the unique movement processes of each dancer.

Ellice Patterson and the Abilities Dance Company perform at the Multicultural Arts Center. PHOTO: JAYPIX/PIXWORX

“Each piece is a slightly different style to really match the voices of the people,” says Patterson. “We’re discussing the themes and ideas of their life and their work and channeling that into music.” Patterson says she was surprised and honored by how vulnerable the figures she interviewed were willing to be.

Artists from across the country will perform “Intersections” live, with a series of accessibility measures in place, including a virtual streaming of the performance, audio descriptions for blind and low-vision audiences, and captions and ASL interpretations for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. As always, there are an unlimited number of free tickets offered for those with economic barriers.

Abilities Dance is a nonprofit that uses dance and other art forms to promote intersectional disability rights in Greater Boston and beyond.

The goal of “Intersections” is for audiences to leave inspired to make change. Patterson recommends that audience members explore the Disability Policy Consortium’s learning resources and educate themselves about bills that can support the disability community.

For Patterson, this is an exciting new step in her activist journey. “I’ve done a lot of work building awareness and representation,” she says. “I’m hoping to take it a step further into action and advocacy, and to also honor those whose stories have been entrusted to us.”