With accessibility taking center stage on the Lincoln Center campus, audiences that otherwise might not be able to attend are given opportunities to do so. This fall, The Juilliard School offers its first relaxed performance with a special presentation of New Dances: Edition 2023 on December 8. As Dan Stokes, director of Juilliard’s Office of Academic Support and Disability Services, notes, “We were overdue to become as inclusive as possible and meet more of our patrons’ needs.”
What is a relaxed performance? It’s one that all audience members can attend but has been specifically designed for people with autism or sensory, communication, or learning difficulties along with neurodivergent patrons and those families who have small children. Since some of these audience members might not respond positively to what might occur during a regularly scheduled performance, a relaxed performance modifies certain parts— like muffling the sound or softening the lights—to allow them to enjoy it.
“Relaxed performances take a more inclusive approach from start to finish,” Stokes says. “They allow audience members to coexist in the performance space. The usual protocols when one attends a live event—staying quiet, staying in your seat, the lights go down at the start—don’t apply. In short, it’s all about being more considerate to our audiences."
New Dances: Edition 2023—which sets up shop at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater December 6 through 10—features a quartet of distinguished choreographers who create original works for and with each of the school’s undergraduate dance classes.
This edition’s choreographers are Lauren Lovette, Hope Boykin, Raja Feather Kelly, and Omar Román De Jesús; they are paired with four composers: Juilliard student Alberta Khoury, Juilliard alum Isaiah Thompson, Juilliard faculty member Missy Mazzoli, and Terence Blanchard (the subject of Lincoln center’s first campuswide celebration of a single artist), to produce a cross-divisional presentation of dance and music.
Two of the four world-premiere works will be presented during the New Dances relaxed performance. (At press time, they had not been announced.) “For me, the most exciting aspect of New Dances is witnessing our young artists experiencing unique creative processes with highly regarded professionals and celebrating what they create together,” Alicia Graf Mack, the dean and director of Juilliard Dance, says. “And with our first relaxed performance, I am excited to expand our reach to inspire more audience members through the art of dance.”
For Stokes, aspects of relaxed performances trigger childhood memories. He explains, “I first thought of it being like in a Southern church when I was younger: Different things are happening all at the same time, but the people who are there just go with the flow and accept all of the possibilities.”
Relaxed performances also include a designated area known as the chill out space, usually situated just outside the theater, often in the lobby or a side room. As Stokes explains, “One of the extra benefits for audience members is the chill out space, which is a more free and more at-ease space for those who need a little break from the action. For Juilliard’s performance, Lincoln Center is donating its own kits that include large beanbag chairs, fidget spinners, and other items that help to calm and focus people.”
After New Dances on December 8, Juilliard’s Music Division will host its first relaxed performance on December 16 in the school’s intimate Morse Hall. In addition, the Drama Division is slated to host a relaxed performance later in the school year. “It is our first time stepping into this arena, so to speak, and we are always thinking about what can we do that’s reasonable that has the desired impact for our audiences,” Stokes says. “We think about having more accessibility improvements in our theaters and other spaces in the future, and we are always considering our options. We put on more than 700 performances on campus each year, so we are starting out small to make this as smooth a process as possible. Relaxed performances are just one step on the road to Juilliard being more mindful and inclusive.”