By Nora Jacobsen
On October 30th, I had the pleasure of seeing Kinetic Light’s Descent at the Flynn Theatre. The evening-long show is an exploration of disability, movement, beauty, and expression through dance. The performance was choreographed and performed by Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson.
Descent was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture: The Toilette of Venus and Andromeda. Sheppard and Lawson embody the figures of Venus and Andromeda who were from different mythological worlds. The dance is abstract and interpretive.
Before the show began the audience was already taken out of their world and into that of Venus and Andromeda. The stage was illuminated by dozens of stars projected onto a colossal six-foot-high, 24-12 foot ramp, designed specifically for the show. Two wheelchairs were placed defiantly, front and center supporting each other to create a beautiful still image.
This image came to life, once the show began. Sheppard, embodying the role of Andromeda, solo dances for the first portion of the show without a wheelchair. She rolls, reaches, twists, and turns with an intense level of emotional vulnerability. Venus, played by Lawson, brings the same energy when she enters the story and the two begin their physical duet. Together, they use the ramp to support and enhance their movement utilizing its unique shape.
Finally, the wheelchairs make their debut about one-third of the way through the show. The two maneuver their wheelchairs so naturally, it acts as an extension to their bodies. The dancers’ movement is liquid, flowing and spinning in one beautiful fluid motion. They dance as if their bodies are as much metal and carbon fiber as they are flesh.
Though Sheppard and Lawson identify as disabled, both are able to dance and appear to move freely without wheelchairs. Throughout the performance, they use their wheelchairs to enhance their art. They are in no way dependent on the chairs to dance, as they were both able to stand and move their legs freely in the performance.
And in this respect, they achieve their goal. The interaction between the dancers and their wheelchairs are what made the show. The beauty of the performance came from Sheppard and Lawson’s ability to take something so unwieldy and restrictive and transform the wheelchairs into elegant appendages to their bodies enabling movement.
They are stars, glowing from afar on a dimly lit stage
Creating constellations, weaving a story of old
Rolling across the sky to reach for another
To hold each other
To lift each other
To become one with each other
If dance is the ink this story is written in
Then emotion is the pages it is written on
The underlying aspect that holds everything together
Arguments are held
Love confessions are made
Difficult times are powered through
And all without the use of a single word
With sharp turns
And dramatic gestures
And emphatic expressions
A language that transcends the rest
Every action is matched with another
Though not every action tells the same story
A lift of the arms can mean angry defiance
Or wholehearted acceptance
And every move is choreographed to synchronized perfection
By these experts in their craft
Who use every part of their bodies
Faces, arms, wheelchairs
To tell the story in a truly unique way
They are liquid puzzle pieces
Fitting and flowing together
Until you can barely see the edges
The music that guides them assists where words cannot
Swells for triumph and reconnection
Corrupted, jerky notes for panic
Thin, drawn-out pieces for tension
Placing a golden frame around an already beautiful painting
A painting of Venus and Andromeda
Arms tight around each other
In their descent
On Wednesday, October 30th, I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of Kinetic Light: Descent at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts. The show is choreographed and danced solely by Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson. The audience watches as these two women perform incredible feats of strength and discipline despite physical adversity; ultimately shattering prior notions and assumptions of people who live with disabilities.
The performance was based on Auguste Rodin’s sculpture: The Toilette of Venus and Andromeda, and this was very much exemplified through the abstract movements of the dancers, and the way the stage was lit up in ever-changing ways throughout the production. Sheppard and Lawson used wheelchairs intermittently during the performance, which implied a very different and intriguing way of dancing. The dancers used an impressive six-foot ramp that was specifically constructed for them to perform with their chairs. The choreography was beautifully fluid and synchronized during the performance.
From the choreography to the backdrop, lighting, and stage design, this performance was visually astounding, but I perceived it as rather lacking in the story-telling aspect. Trying to follow the narrative was difficult at times, and nearly impossible at others. I often found myself confused and confounded, and just as I got my bearings and was able to follow the story better, the intermission happened and I was at square one once again to start in the second act. The performance did not follow the traditional ebb and flow of a plot, and so the climax of the production was lost along the way.
Luckily, however, there was a written narrative in the pamphlet I was given at the beginning of the show. Without this document, I would have been lost throughout the performance.
Apart from the performance, Kinetic Light offered a very interesting component to their shows for people with impaired sight. If someone in the audience is blind, rather than only hearing the music, they can use a smartphone and headphones and listen to a variety of audible experiences. They can listen to someone explaining what the dancers are doing on stage, or they can listen to someone explaining the narrative as they dance. There is even a selection that lets them listen to mics on the stage, and they can hear the wheels on the floor.
I was given the opportunity to use this interesting option, and they explained to me that I could choose as many or as few of the given options that I desired. I chose to listen to the spoken narrative, but alas, when it came time for the show to begin and the recording to start in my ear, their audible option had experienced technical difficulties and I watched the show without it.
All in all, the performance was very entertaining, from a visual standpoint, and despite its faults regarding the plot and narrative, it was enjoyable and I would certainly watch it again.
Before the performance, the stage is set: a giant 6-foot tall ramp specifically designed for the group, with two wheelchairs stacked atop each other like orbs. The background is dark, with dozens of stars and comets. It feels like the audience is staring straight at the Milky Way. The performance begins and the audience is confused. The performance is about two dancers who use wheelchairs- we had expected them to be in the wheelchairs the whole time, and move around with them. Instead, the dancers start without the chairs. They move around on the ramp, rolling, tumbling, sometimes perching on their knees or feet lightly. Their arm movements are the most expressive- wide, lyrical, sad and otherworldly.
The background gives the feeling that the story takes place somewhere between, or in, the star-filled sky and ebbing waves.
There is a narrative to go along with the performance which describes what part of the story is happening during each act. The story itself was inspired by Rodin’s sculpted figures Andromeda and Venus, who were from different mythological worlds.
Because the dancing and music are very abstract, the plot of the performance would not have made sense without reading the narrative. It is easier to piece together which scenes were representing which parts of the story, such as when Andromeda is pleading with Venus, and when they are separated by a spirit guide but come back together and only have each other.
The use of wheelchairs is less than expected. The dancers move freely without their chairs and move easily with them. They balance atop each other while buckled, but not stuck, to the chairs. The arm movements vary throughout, and are sometimes mimicked by each other. They mirror the movements to show communication, understanding, acceptance, and differ the movements to show conflict, tension, and fear.
A theme that is evident is constant motion. In the otherworldly setting, Andromeda and Venus are always reaching for or away from each other. They are never still, waiting for a result. The wheelchairs add to this theme, as the wheels are moved fluidly to match the movements. A sense that can be felt throughout the performance is that the dancers are not stuck in any way. Physically, because they can move on, around, behind, or under the ramp, and emotionally, because they are accepting one another even though the spirit guides threaten to tear them away from each other. There is immense strength shown throughout, especially at one point when one of the dancers stands, briefly, and then falls back down to her knees, her facial expression strong and victorious.
The overall impression of the show is that while we tend to think that ‘disabled’ means that you are completely unable to use your body as most people do and that you are bound to a wheelchair, that is not always the case. As is seen in this performance, people who use wheelchairs are just as capable of creating strong, emotional, lyrical performances producing deep connections to the audience.
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