I look for people who have an interest in not necessarily answering questions, but in exploring them.
Watching members of disability arts ensemble Kinetic Light dance on stage is like walking through a door you’ve been searching for for years. That was what it was like for me the first time I saw them on video, clutching each other through barbed wire, suspended in air, the light bouncing off their wheelchairs as they swung through a blade of afternoon sun. There were layers of audio descriptions wrapped around the scene, sparse narration and subtle music intertwined to promise different versions of the events unfolding that were as eloquent as the dancing. It was a rare effort to present not simply a clinical account, but poetic accompaniment. Given that all the dancing I have done in the past year has been solitary, in the loneliness of my apartment or at a local park, perhaps it isn’t surprising that it was so moving to see people whose art form is less frequently presented, not just in moments of grace but in moments of elegance, control, risk, fear, and jubilation. Being able to offer all of this is not a new feat for the dance company: innovation is core to its history.
Founded by famed disabled dancer and choreographer Alice Sheppard, Kinetic Light is known for centering disabled artists across disabilities and innovating new ways of positioning disability as a creative force. They’ve been presented around the world and won awards as a result, and this year presented not one but two virtual dance productions: “DESCENT,” a queer, interracial mythology between Venus and Andromeda, performed on an architectural ramp, and “Wired,” shown in development in the film called “One + One Make Three.” The film is better defined as an experience, with four possibilities: open captions, ASL, audio description, and closed captions. Like the best films, each experience brings something new, something waiting for you to notice it, a gift to be discovered once you love it enough. Over the course of several conversations across Zoom, I spoke with each member of Kinetic Light: Alice Sheppard (artistic director, choreographer, dancer); Laurel Lawson (dancer, choreographic collaborator, costume/makeup designer, software engineer); Michael Maag (lighting designer); and Jerron Herman (dancer, choreographic collaborator) about their practice, community, risk, kinship, and care.
Kinetic Light works in abundance and multiplicity — each artist brings a unique pathway of experience and expertise that adds layers to every performance. Sheppard is artistic director and choreographer and a dancer in the company. Lawson is not only choreographic collaborator and costumer, but designed the audio description software Audimance and the wheelchairs the company uses in performances. Herman is both a dancer and advocate for artists on the Board of Trustees of Dance/USA. Maag is in charge of video, projection, and lighting not only for Kinetic Light but for multiple festivals across the United States. These are talented creatives who have spent years of their lives training to do things in ways most dancers never do. They have broadened established techniques and developed new ways of collaborating across embodiments. To create new mythologies, they have evolved wheelchair designs that facilitate the dancers' technique, athleticism, and beauty of wheeled embodiment. They have tied together the histories of art and dance technique with the rich history of disability culture and activism. They have defied the architecture and lack of access in the theater every step of the way and shown access is possible with ingenuity and collaboration. While previous profiles have focused on Sheppard alone, we wanted to highlight the company as a whole and recognize that collaboration is in fact key to disability culture, the future of aesthetics, and the tradition of dance.
How They Found Each Other as Artistic Kin
Michael Maag, lighting designer: Alice and I just fell in love artistically at first sight. We were thrown together on a panel with another disabled artist to talk about our experience working in the arts with a disability. It was a pretty ableist event; it wasn't terribly advanced. All of us felt that way. But Alice and I felt that for different reasons. Which was interesting, so we decided to go out to coffee afterward, and the moment we started talking about art and what we wanted to do and how we wanted to reveal the beauty of the disabled experience and bring forth that which has been shunned, hidden, pushed away in society, where we were concentrating our efforts, where we as individuals were on the journey, what we found interesting and beautiful and artistic, as soon as that conversation happened — that was when Kinetic Light was formed. Ever since then, we continue to collaborate in a very in-depth way.
Laurel Lawson, dancer, choreographic collaborator, costume/makeup designer, software engineer: This has always been a small field. I have always reached out to other dancers and introduced myself, offered to be someone to work through questions with. When I started, there was no avenue for the questions people would have — something as simple as opening discussions about wheelchairs or specific techniques. Alice and I chatted online for quite a long time. I was at Full Radius Dance company and Alice was working in San Francisco ... eventually we had an ideal guest role for her in Atlanta, and we were finally onstage together. We recognized that we resided in similar places but came from different pathways.
Jerron Herman, dancer, choreographic collaborator: I saw Laurel and Alice perform at the Whitney as part of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What really struck me was how they think about process and how they think through creative work, how elements of legacy and scholarship, access, and architecture come through. But we’d been in touch as part of previous dance invitations before and had worked together on advisory committees. Alice invited me to join “Wired,” as we were already in community. The piece has become my main entry in the company.
How They Fit Together as a Company
Jerron: Alice will enter the room with an idea, for example, and we extrapolate. For example, when thinking through certain choreography like interstices or the bungee setup, I'll focus on conceiving of what it means to be confined or surveilled as prompting.
Laurel: Alice has the gift of becoming deeply absorbed in a single topic, where my first response to a question is to go broad and pull in everything from all the different fields that I have access to. Who I am as an artist has always been trans-disciplinary, and I look for people who have an interest in not necessarily answering questions, but in exploring them — if we can’t answer it, then maybe we can build a world around it.
Michael: I've been a sci-fi reader since I was a kid and what sci-fi is about is taking a question about the way things are going in society today and extrapolating that into the future: what are the implications of that, where are we failing today, how can we be better? When Alice, Laurel, and Jerron are on stage, touching, and creating something, I use light and shadow and movement to portray emotions that explore this line of questioning.
On Community Rooting and Audience Building
Alice, I was reading about your origin story and the fact that disabled dancer Homer Avila dared you to begin to dance, but also that he, unfortunately, passed shortly after, so he never got to see you begin. How do you tie in the legacies of the people who shaped you and pass that along to not only your collaborators, but your audience?
Alice: I didn't know that that meeting would be meaningful, that in hindsight, that was a moment of community rooting. But now I know that moments like that are part of a practice — when you become familiar with modern dance, or a sport, for example, you begin to build a vocabulary of movements. We are constantly saying that this move was originated by this other artist — we engage in that history. When we gesture, we name them. I did this with X, and it went like this, you do it now. We pass along our names. The first thing for us in our practice together is community rooting, which means showing up in many ways. I’m constantly in conversation with other disabled artists and looking to root with them. We practice community in an incredibly involved way — we will watch, listen, experience the reading of others, and call a friend and say, what about this?
Michael: I call the work a wheel of collaboration. We’re all in the room breathing together. We start from the disabled perspective and then the circle gets bigger. Immediately for me, as a lighting designer, the circle gets bigger when I work with the audio describers. I need to speak to them to describe what’s important in lighting that is then translated into the poetry they create. I often learn in these conversations how my intent has not been realized, and I have to modify what we’re doing. Hearing what they get from it, I put it back into my wheel of collaboration. Once I get audience feedback, the circle gets bigger. I can’t make art without someone to observe it. I want to hear what they’re thinking about, and I want to make it better.
Alice: Michael and I spend a lot of time thinking about the moment of invitation. How does the work invite people, prior to even entering the space?
Jerron: Community looks like consistent players; it’s an accumulation of events that is not just professional but comes from multiple capacities. Being with people in situations that are not just markers for progress or growth or death, but are times of variety, not just scholarship.
We practice community in an incredibly involved way — we will watch, listen, experience the reading of others, and call a friend and say, what about this?
Do you think that it was a coincidence or an inevitability that the work that you created during this pandemic was all about risk and care, when our lives have depended on social distancing and taking care of each other by isolating?
Alice: No, because so much of what we've done in our life together has been about trust and risk. It takes that to risk your body to know that the other person is there with you, to be able to do this fantastic stuff. There is a way in which those things are connected to disability, and those are essential elements of disability art. And let’s disconnect risk from safety for a second — as in, if you don’t do that, there’s a risk of being injured. Risk and safety tend to track together. But risk can also do something else. Risk can be a window, an opening to trust.
Risk can be generative. It has to be generative if you’re going to not only survive but thrive. A lot of people understand trust as something necessary to repair the world, that it is necessary for new definitions of what we need.
Laurel: When I talk about risk specifically in the context of artistic production, I'm zeroing in on using risk as an artistic tool to heighten the storytelling. Risk is just one of those tools to give meaning to the story — a story without stakes isn’t something you’re emotionally invested in. Audiences can choose, or not, to give themselves over to that emotional risk they’re being invited to take, hopefully with the trust that I will bring them to a safe landing. Risk is connected to resilience and vulnerability and to community. When you take a hit, what if you take it and you are strong enough to allow yourself to break, and you are brave enough to come back different: what does that mean artistically? Examining this understanding of resilience is important to me as a choreographer and as a storyteller — because what is mythology for if not knowing you don’t go into the underworld and come back just the same? It is at the core of what stories I want to tell.
Alice: Society sees disability as a form of deficit; but we work in abundance, and we know we work in culture. We’re not in possibility mode — this is not a possibility; this is not new. We are already here. We are inhabiting a world that exists. We are putting bricks down on already present bricks.
Kinetic Light Recommends
We asked the artists of Kinetic Light what kind of art, literature, or culture they're inspired by these days. Here, the collective shares their books, artists, and cities to explore.
Dancers & Choreography
Kinetic Light Artistic Director
Kinetic Light Artists
Director - Celine Danhier
Produced by - Bunny Lake Films
DP - Amado Stachenfeld
Editor - Sarra Idris
Colorist - Josh Kanuck
Music - Malcolm Parson
Gaffer - Arthur Aravena
Grip - Dave Ketchpel
AC - Vance Piper
Crane - James Dunn
PA - Noah Litwer
Local Producer - Sarah Makarewicz
Producer - Sabine Rogers
Filmed on location at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, California.
Choreography and “Wired” concepts copyright 2021 Disability Dance Works, LLC dba Kinetic Light. For more information on “Wired,” collaborators and funders visit kineticlight.org.
This video is for informational and entertainment purposes only. The choreography is performed by professionals using specially developed equipment and specialized techniques and is performed in a rehearsed and controlled environment. Do not attempt to duplicate, re-create, perform or imitate in any manner the same or similar choreography or dance moves at home or in any other environment.
Arabelle Sicardi Writer
Arabelle Sicardi is a writer and brand consultant who focuses on the intersection of beauty, technology, and power. They are the author of "Queer Heroes" and the forthcoming "The House of Beauty." Their work has appeared in Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Teen Vogue, the Cut, and Vogue Business.
Bunny Lake Films
Bunny Lake Films is an award-winning, female-founded creative production company with an equal focus on independent film and television and branded content.