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Jess Curtis, Choreographer and Accessibility Champion, Has Died

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Jess Curtis, a white man with short white hair and a black T-shirt, looks into the camera.
Jess Curtis championed accessibility in the performing arts for blind and visually impaired people. (Sven Hagolani)

Dancer and choreographer Jess Curtis, a champion of accessibility in the performing arts, has died, according to an announcement on Instagram from his sister Jenene, close collaborator Keith Hennessy and several others. On Instagram, Hennessy posted that Curtis collapsed from an apparent heart issue during a bike ride in San Francisco on March 11 and passed away unexpectedly.

“Jess’ community of friends and peers is deep and wide,” the statement reads. “The positive impact of his creative work will be felt for years. Earlier that same day Jess expressed gratitude for the wonderful life and network of friends he was enjoying. We are all in shock and deep grief.”

Curtis had been a major figure in dance for decades. In 2000, he founded the company Gravity, which has brought critically acclaimed performances to 60 cities and 13 countries, and became a crucial platform for the art form in San Francisco and Berlin. In 2017, Curtis launched Gravity Access Services, a leader in accessibility for the performing arts, especially for blind and visually impaired audiences.

“I’ve been really interested in finding ways that allow people to experience dance-based performance not just by looking at it,” Curtis told KQED that year, “but by feeling it whooshing past you, and hearing the performers, describing what’s happening, in poetic ways.”

[Watch: Jess Curtis explains his creative process in a 2015 episode of KQED’s ‘Spark*.’]

Gravity Access Services’ offerings include live, creative audio descriptions of what takes place on stage, haptic tours that invite blind and visually impaired people to feel a performance space before the show, and consulting on accessibility in show logistics and marketing.

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“Gravity was really my main entrance into dance because a lot of dancers or disabled people aren’t welcome in traditional training [spaces],” dancer and Gravity Access Services consultant Tiffany Taylor told KQED in 2022. “Jess turned the table and said, ‘You are welcome on this stage.’”

Most recently, in November 2023, Gravity’s performance Into the Dark at CounterPulse invited audiences into a nearly dark space where narration and occasional, sparse light conveyed a dance performance that San Francisco Chronicle critic Rachel Howard described as both “profoundly discomforting” and “surprisingly life-affirming.”

On Keith Hennessy’s Instagram post, dancers and friends responded with an outpouring of love for Curtis as an artist, mentor and friend.

“I think it’s important to express gratitude for his immense support of my practice and many others. It would be no exaggeration to say that he helped me be the person I am today,” wrote artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

“I’m at a loss. Jess was such an amazing performer, choreographer and leader. So vibrant and full of life on his bicycle, brilliant in the studio, and a delightful, marvelously aware presence to chop it up with,” wrote Ted Russell.

Plans for a memorial will be announced.

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