The Women Building a New Art Form in the World of Dance

Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson of Kinetic Light. Photo by Mick Bellow.

There’s a saying among modern dancers that your first partner is the floor. But for Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson, who have made careers of pushing the art form in different directions, the floor wouldn’t do. They found their home dancing on a ramp.

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Their ramp isn’t just any ramp. Their ramp towers at six feet and sprawls 24 by 15 feet across a stage. From a platform it slopes downward, then dramatically upward into a tight peak, before gently curving toward the ground.

Sheppard and Lawson will at turns refer to the ramp as magic, as a living thing, as their third dance partner. “It signifies a particular joy of wheeled movement,” Lawson told me over the phone. A week earlier I had watched her and Sheppard, both wheelchair users, slowly coax the ramp to life. Warming up for a performance at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York, they moved in and out of their chairs to stretch, slide and shimmy across its expanse. A few hours later, they’d put on glimmery gray bodysuits—their “armor,” as they describe it—to perform as the mythical figures Andromeda and Venus in an interracial, queer love story they call DESCENT.

A good artist is said to copy, and a great artist to steal, but what Sheppard and Lawson are doing could barely fit into either of those categories. Rather, DESCENT is the premiere work of the Kinetic Light collaborative, founded by Sheppard two years ago with the intention to create dance she realized that, as an artist with a disability, no one would choreograph for her, and furthermore, that a viewer might never have conceived of existing. “In this field,” Sheppard said, “I find audience members go to a show and find the things they imagined about disability aren’t the case.”

Kinetic Light embraces this newness, which can be a paradigm shift for able-bodied audience members, and just plain affirming for disabled audience members. Her goal, however, is moving beyond questions of ability and toward culture and aesthetics—a radical shift now happening in the field of disability arts, which has often seen itself defined externally by that classification alone.

“Laurel and Alice are actually pioneering this newest wave I’m seeing in disability arts,” said Carrie Sandahl, head of the program on disability art, culture and humanities at University of Illinois at Chicago. That category, according to Sandahl, emerged in the 1970s and refers to art by people with disabilities that reflects a disability experience. Over the years, the work has engaged political issues like accessibility rights; it challenges stereotypes; and shines a light on the diverse, lived experiences of people whose narratives have often been shifted to the background.

But this new wave “is a consideration of the aesthetic possibilities of disability,” explained Sandahl. “It’s not about adaptation or accommodation. It’s about how unique bodies, minds, senses and phenomenological experiences of disability and impairment—along with the political aspects and intersectional identities—can create new work.”

Tackling the unknown to create something new is kind of Sheppard’s thing. “I was immediately impressed by her ambitions,” said Michael Maag, the third and final member of Kinetic Light, and the lighting and projection designer who is also a wheelchair user. In his early encounters with the ramp, he wasn’t sure how Sheppard and Lawson would pull off dancing, given the uniqueness of the inclined plane. Sheppard had envisioned the ramp as a work of art and a movement partner—the stark opposite to a structural access ramp. “Coming from the technical side there’s concern, having to say physics doesn’t work that way,” Maag said. “With Alice, there’s no concern for reality… what’s important is the idea of the art.”

Early experimentation between Sheppard, Lawson, Maag and the ramp has paid off. The collaborative has been recognized in the arts world for centering accessibility, and Kinetic Light is now preparing to bring DESCENT across the country for its first tour. It’s an opportunity to further push the work outside the “arts bubble,” as Sheppard calls it, to bring matters of access, equity and intersectionality to a larger audience. “It’s not just three people making art anymore,” said Sheppard. “It’s time for us to build.”

Thinking about the journey, she added, “I couldn’t have imagined a life that is sharing this work and creating more of it. I have an unlikely life, and here it is.”

Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson partner, with their wheelchairs joined, at the base of the ramp in a performance of DESCENT.

Sheppard and Lawson partner, with their wheelchairs joined, at the base of the ramp in a performance of DESCENT. Photo by MANCC/Chris Cameron.

Sheppard’s dance career started on a dare, when she was professor of English and Comparative Literature at Penn State. She attended a 2004 performance by Homer Avila, a dancer and choreographer who became disabled after his battle with cancer. Afterward, he dared her to take a dance class. About six weeks after they met he passed away, and Sheppard enrolled in her first class.

By 2005 Sheppard resigned from academia and began dancing with physically integrated dance companies. In the small field she crossed paths with Lawson, who began dancing professionally in 2004 and elected to continue rather than attend medical school.

The genesis of Kinetic Light originated several decades back, with physically integrated dance, which began in the United States with the founding of the Dancing Wheels Company in 1980 and AXIS Dance Company in 1987, which Sheppard danced for when she got her start. They were among the first contemporary dance companies in the world developing choreography integrating dancers with and without physical disabilities, prior to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Back then, according to a 2017 paper by AXIS founder Judith Smith, “It wasn’t easy for nondisabled audiences to shift from the etiquette of not staring at people with disabilities to being asked to look closely and carefully.” Smith also noted that reviewers typically described the work as “courageous” or “inspiring”; in a 1992 performance by AXIS, a dancer declared: “I am not a tragedy.”

There are now over 40 integrated dance companies worldwide, but in her paper, Smith called out the United States for lagging behind countries like England and Australia when it comes to issues of access and inclusion in the arts. Disabled dancers struggle to gain the same exposure as able-bodied dancers, Smith noted, due to stubborn obstacles—inaccessible venues being one—that create barriers to artists and audiences with disabilities. Given the hurdles and relatively small pool of disabled dancers in the United States, robust training programs to help expand the art form do not exist. “Most dancers with disabilities cobble together training regimens,” explained Smith.

“We had to learn a completely new way of being”

Still, it brought together Lawson and Sheppard, who gradually sought to expand the field on their own. The pair began collaborating after Lawson proposed Sheppard for a role in a work with Full Radius Dance in 2013. (While Sheppard is building a career as an independent artist and artistic director for Kinetic Light, Lawson continues to dance for Full Radius, while working as a product designer with a software consultancy, and as a member of the USA Women’s Development Sled Hockey team.)

Together in the studio, something clicked. “Alice and I have known we’ve had work to make together for some years,” Lawson said. “It was a matter of waiting for the time to be right.” Things clicked again when Sheppard met Maag on a panel speaking on their experiences as disabled artists in the summer of 2015. “We were in alignment with one another,” Maag said, “And she had something she wanted to create.”

The creation was Kinetic Light, in which Sheppard sought to center the disabled experience in a new way, by creating work not necessarily about being disabled. “It is art created entirely on the basis of disabled artists,” Sheppard said of forming a collaborative with Lawson and Maag.

Physically integrated dance has traditionally modified choreography for non-disabled dancers to accommodate disabled dancers; Sheppard wanted to choreograph specifically for bodies in wheelchairs. Physically integrated dance is also based on dancer’s relationships to the floor. “Primarily if you watch integrated dance, or any dance with disability, it happens on a flat surface that really limits the vertical and horizontal planes a dancer can work with,” explained Sandahl.

Sheppard is quick to credit others in the disability arts field, who also challenge assumptions of the disabled body. But she wanted to be clear that she felt Kinetic Light “is working in an emerging art form—there’s really no agreement in its name.” She continued, “We are deeply, deeply rooted in intersectional and disability aesthetics. That is not the case for physically integrated dance.”

The ramp, spanning 24 by 15 feet across the stage, with the righthand peak reaching six feet. Throughout DESCENT it is illuminated with art, landscapes and stars projected by Michael Maag.

The ramp spans 24 by 15 feet across the stage, with the righthand peak reaching six feet. Throughout DESCENT it is illuminated with art, landscapes and stars projected by Michael Maag.

Sheppard ultimately saw the ramp—what has become a symbol of accessibility in the disability rights movement—as a powerful tool to express the work.

“Most people are accustomed to access in terms of the built environment,” Sheppard noted. She envisioned something beyond the inhibitive, ADA-approved design of access ramps, a new tool through which, she once wrote, “there is new movement to be discovered.”

Sheppard worked with professors Sara Hendren and Yevgeniya Zastavker at the engineering college Olin, and 12 students dubbed TeamRAMP, to design the prototype. When Sheppard and Lawson began dancing on it, they kept falling off. Between the ramp’s platform and peak, there is a middle-space now known as “the vortex.” If wheels hit the vortex at the wrong angle or velocity, the ramp throws the dancer off.

“Nothing you know about dancing on flat ground applies,” said Lawson. “What we had to do on the ramp was trust the instability, to deliberately lean in to the unstable side.” They continued to test the limits of their bodies and how they could play with physics, velocity and gravity. “We had to learn a completely new way of being,” she explained.

The ramp ultimately became home to DESCENT, which had its west coast premiere at the Britt Music & Arts Festival in Oregon in 2017, and east coast premiere at New York Live Arts in Manhattan in 2018. The most recent performance at EMPAC, this November, followed a ten-day residency in partnership with the arts, science and technology arts center.

For the performance, Maag illuminates the ramp with dreamy projections of Rodin sculptures, alien landscapes and imaginary star fields. The music vibrates, cut by the sound of wheels traversing the ramp and peeling velcro as the pair strap their bodies into their chairs. The story responds to the Auguste Rodin sculpture of Venus and Andromeda, with Sheppard’s choreography inventing a backstory for the two experiencing the highs and lows of a relationship across the ramp.

The movement of DESCENT is hard to put to words, perhaps because it’s not much like what came before it. There’s a strength, precision and grace that’s common of any professional dance performance. But then there’s something else: an honesty and vulnerability as the pair engages with the ramp, their chairs and each other.

The final result feels visceral, your entire body sensitive to what’s happening on stage. “The audience is always leaning in,” as Maag characterized it. “People feel like they are right there, experiencing this love story on stage.”

Following the EMPAC premiere, Lawson and Sheppard emerged in the lobby and were circled by a small but eager crowd. It quickly became clear the work of Kinetic Light is largely about this engagement, however heavy it can be to bear. “An activist who is painting a picture for the future, there’s emotional labor in that,” argued Lisa Niedermeyer, Kinetic Light’s producer. “There’s labor if there are people who are just getting to that movement, and there are some basics they need to learn.”

For many able-bodied audience members, DESCENT challenges core beliefs about how a human form can work. “As a body on stage that many people have not seen before, many people feel the need to share their amazement, or their incredulity,” Lawson noted. She and Sheppard have heard a range of comments from people who experience this paradigm shift; the pair are asked questions about their diagnosis, their diets, and if they’re really disabled. Sheppard believes such questions stem from able-bodied audience members who think having a disability is inextricably linked with being physically limited. After DESCENT challenges that assumption, she says, they want to understand how and why she’s disabled. “When people’s foundations shake, they can try to use diagnosis as an anchor point to understand the work,” she explained. “How will my diagnosis help you understand my art?” she asked, before answering herself: “It doesn’t.”

The collaborative has also prompted questions about what type of movement is traditionally accepted, and highlighted, in the dance world. A cover story published last summer in Dance magazine admitted that “excellence in dance is often defined at the exclusion of disability,” adding that “Sheppard’s work models a truth that is rarely understood among dance audiences: Disability does not signify incompleteness.”

Sheppard has found her work appeals not just to conventional dance audiences, but also people interested in media, technology and the disability community. She wants to grow Kinetic Light with that broad audience in mind. “Dance as an art form has the reputation of being elitist,” she said, expressing frustration that audience members feel they have to be familiar with dance “to get” the work. “It’s just not true,” she stated, “And I’d like to step out of that frame.”

Sheppard is focused on making sure the work of Kinetic Light doesn’t just challenge traditional assumptions of dance and disability; the collaborative also works to present the audience with a performance that is a “360 degree accessible experience,” something they hadn’t seen anyone else attempt in the arts.

Rehearsal image, Producer Lisa Niedermeyer stands with her back to us and facing a dozen monitors in the video control room of EMPAC rehearsing the livestream of DESCENT. Five different cameras show the opening image of Andromeda among the stars from different points of view. The angle framed is red is the one streaming, and angle framed is yellow is cued up to go next.

Lisa Niedermeyer, Kinetic Light producer. Photo by Mick Bellow.

To Sheppard, it means that each element of the performance should feel as rewarding to an able-bodied audience member as to disabled members, many of whom have have been excluded from public spaces.

“We have to think about how the disabled audience member comes from their home, goes to the show, and gets back home,” as Sheppard put it. Everything from buying a ticket, accessing the venue, locating wheelchair seating, and having enough time for a bathroom break during intermission is considered. An ASL interpreter accompanied EMPAC curator Ashley Ferro-Murray during her introduction to the performance, which was all also live-streamed, with one of the venue’s cameras placed at sight-level of a wheelchair user.

Then there are the more outside-the-box approaches to accessibility. In considering both non-visual and non-hearing audiences, for example, Kinetic Light is investigating how sound registers in the body, and can enhance the work. Placing subwoofers underneath the audience, they found, creates a vibration that audience members physically respond to. “How can sound be felt in the body?” and “How do we make art from the sounds of dance?” are typical questions in Sheppard’s creative process.

In accommodating non-visual audiences for dance performances, it’s typical to provide audio descriptions offering technical details about the dancer’s movement. At an early performance of DESCENT, audience members using the description approached Lawson and Sheppard. “They could hear people gasping, they could feel people leaning forward in their seats, they could hear the noises on the ramp,” Lawson said. “But they didn’t know what we were doing—the description didn’t explain what was happening. So it was off to the drawing board.”

As a product designer, Lawson designed and led development of a mobile app called Audimance, which she described as a non-visual way to create and experience art. The idea was to translate movement into a sonic experience, offering multiple content streams that include poetry and essays (for instance, “What the Ramp Teaches,” by academic Georgina Kleege, details her own experience traversing the ramp as a blind person) and sonic renderings of dance alongside the traditional audio description. The EMPAC performance also offered a “tactile demonstration” prior to the show, in which audience members could hold a 3D replica of the ramp in their hands.

Additionally, Lawson tapped into her experience as a lifelong wheelchair user, engineer, and athlete to design—in collaboration with Paralympic basketball player Paul Schulte—new wheelchairs for her and Sheppard to debut at EMPAC. “The chairs are the only two of their kind in the world, the first chairs built explicitly for contemporary dance,” Lawson said. She explained that typical chairs are “made to be sat in with four wheels on the floor.” Her design offers strength and flexibility to execute the precise, athletic movement demanded by the Kinetic Light choreography.

For disabled audience members, DESCENT can be a deeply moving experience. “It’s one of the first opportunities they’ve had in the theater, or watching dance, to feel full-bodied engagement,” Sandahl recalled. “Their bodies understood something different about the movement on stage than non-disabled people. If you use a wheelchair, you know what that movement means.”

Kinetic Light’s Dance magazine story was followed by the publication’s audience voting DESCENT the Most Moving Performance of 2018. The collaborative brought on Niedermeyer as producer, a managing director and PR specialist to bring it to a wider audience in 2019.

Challenges still exist for the company’s growth, such as convincing presenters—especially outside of big cities—to book the show. “Presenters see dance and disability, and don’t think we can draw an audience,” Lawson said. (Kinetic Light sold out its three-night New York premiere and two-night EMPAC performance, as well as a one-night performance on smaller, portable ramps at the Whitney Museum.) “Nobody’s ever done this before… there’s a fear involving disability, that we’re not good artists. I’ve heard at least a thousand reasons why not.”

There is a resulting understanding among the collaborative, including new hires, that there’s something deeply necessary not just about the work, but the advocacy, education and conversations around such a new art form. The way Niedermeyer explained her role was as “a bridge builder” between Kinetic Light and audience members, bookers, patrons and the like who are unfamiliar with concepts of accessibility. “For those who are just discovering access as a concept, or disability as aesthetic… conversations get messy, we’re gonna mess up,” she said. “It gives us permission to have a learning curve that is ongoing, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

A second ramp has been designed at Georgia Institute of Technology; the team is looking for funding to build it. Sheppard does not yet have new work planned for the ramp, though she’s interested in inviting other disabled artists to experience it. “What could we do now,” she mused, “given all that we have learned and how much we have changed?”

Sandahl believes Sheppard’s work is setting a tone for further questions of accessibility across the arts world. “More artists are thinking about access as an aesthetic, not an add on,” she said. “What does it mean to be in community with disabled people, to incorporate ASL, captioning, or audio descriptions? It’s happening now, so it can only grow.”

Laurel Lawson holds Alice Sheppard in a shoulder lift in a performance of DESCENT. Michael Maag's projection of a purple sky and Rodin sculptures are in the background.

Lawson holds Sheppard in a shoulder lift. Maag’s projection of a purple sky and Rodin sculptures are in the background. Photo by MANCC.

Over the phone in November, Sheppard asked about my experience during her EMPAC performance. I explained how arresting a friend and I, both able-bodied, had found it. For me, it was powerful to see the pair perform knowing the work it’d taken to get there. For my guest, who knew very little about Kinetic Light, her understanding of the disabled body had changed.

“Dance is a visceral experience of the body—and we all have bodies,” Sheppard told me. “We all know how to inhabit a physical presence. It made some kind of sense to your friend, and it made sense to you.”

At the finale of DESCENT, Sheppard, out of her wheelchair, makes the climb to the peak of the ramp. Her back is to the audience, her head rising just above the massive structure and enveloped by Magg’s projection of a milky sky. Lawson, erect in her chair, builds up speed to move toward Sheppard, rolling up and hovering just over her body.

The two of them, their bodies and a wheelchair in an embrace atop the ramp, hold still before the lights go out. From the audience, it looks as if they’re ready to take off in flight.

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