by Toby MacNutt, artist / author / teacher
I have the pleasure of knowing both Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson, and I am delighted to introduce you to their work together as Kinetic Light, in collaboration with lighting and video designer Michael Maag. Featuring a unique,
architectural stage that acts as a partner in the choreography and storytelling, Descent asks new questions about social justice, movement and embodiment, and art and architecture. The primary movement vocabulary of Descent and its projections are taken from selected Rodin sculptures; Sheppard and Lawson embody the figures of Venus (traditionally interpreted as white) and Andromeda (described in classical texts as Ethiopian, but traditionally depicted as white), and use their own racial and ethnic heritages as interpretive lenses for contemporary conversations about disability, race, and beauty.
Sheppard and Lawson are wheelchair users, as is designer Maag, and members of the administrative and support team are also disabled. Descent is made from a place of disability pride: the opposite of shame, the act of embracing and celebrating the unique embodiments and experiences we have and the ways we share them. Kinetic Light’s performers and team do not need to “transcend”
or otherwise leave behind their disabilities. They are not something to be hidden or ashamed of; quite the contrary, they are central to the purpose, physicality, and aesthetic of the work.
The first thing you’ll notice is the ramp. Descent’s six-foot-high, 24-by-12-feet footprint ramp is what wheelchair ramps dream of being when they grow up. It was designed especially for this, each curve, angle, and space made to support and partner the dancers. Wheelchairs are, after all, on wheels, and with a friendly topography we can swoop, bank, and glide. It takes their potential to its fullest. Sheppard and Lawson also interact with its surfaces with their own bodies, and with its edges and the spaces beneath. Just as the ramp opens up places of momentum, suspension, and verticality, they find these elements in their bodies and each other. They lift one another, with and without chairs; they climb, slither, roll, rise, descend. A ramp is not just something you roll across, and a chair is not just a place to sit: instead, the full movement possibilities of both types of objects, and the bodies that use them, are stretched, reveled in, and showcased. This is disability pride, done in dance.
But it doesn’t stop there: access is built into the fabric of the performance in other ways. Descent is a lush visual experience, using complex projection to take us to the realm of Venus and Andromeda. For this to be accessible to all audience members, including those who are blind or have low vision, Kinetic Light has opted to go above and beyond “conventional” audio description, in which a narrator gives a running account of activities and visuals on stage, typically via a headset for certain designated listeners. While it may capture many details, it does not have the same richness as the visual experience. For Descent, Kinetic Light has designed a new system for audio description. As well as more conventional description, there are also tracks for augmenting the movement sound of the performers onstage, amplification of music and soundscapes, and bespoke poetry conveying the work’s spirit, flow, and emotion. In combination with artistically-executed accessibility, I’m excited for representation like this—disabled dancers performing technical, unashamed, beautiful work on the MainStage.