What Bodies And Whose Stories Do We Primarily Witness Onstage?: Intersectional World-Making With Kinetic Light’s “DESCENT”

DESCENT by Kinetic Light (Photo by Jay Newman)

In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Alison Kafer speaks to the presumed lack of disability in imagined, idealized futures. “If disability is conceptualized as a terrible unending tragedy,” she writes, “Then any future that includes disability can only be a future to avoid. A better future, in other words, is one that excludes disability and disabled bodies; indeed, it is the very absence of disability that signals a better future” (2). Similar to Alisha B. Wormsley’s surprisingly controversial billboard in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty reading, “There Are Black People In The Future,” speaking to the absence of non-white people in futuristic sci-fi films and TV shows, Kafer, instead, radically asserts the presence of disabled bodies in the future. Intersecting with José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of queer futurity, she theorizes “a politics of crip futurity, an insistence on thinking these imagined futures–and hence these lived presents–differently” (3).

Like Kafer’s call for a rethinking of futures and presents, a recent performance by Kinetic Light, a collective of disabled artists, similarly gestured toward new possibilities onstage at New York Live Arts. A combination of dance, video and sound installation and even, sculpture with a monumental architectural ramp, transforming the utilitarian ADA-compliant wheelchair ramp into a performative art object, the duet performance, entitled DESCENT, was choreographed and directed by the founder of Kinetic Light–Alice Sheppard. Featuring Sheppard, along with fellow dancer Laurel Lawson, DESCENT, which ran from March 22 to 24, reached into the past to reimagine new worlds for not only disabled people, but also people of color and queer individuals.

This March was not the first time I witnessed Kinetic Light’s acrobatic and sometimes, mind-boggling approach to dance. I saw and reviewed both Sheppard and Lawson perform their shorter pieces To Bend A Bough and Broken Intent in Our Configurations at Gibney Dance last year. In this performance, Sheppard and Lawson employed wheelchairs not just as a supportive technology, but as extensions of their bodies, gracefully flipping over one another and holding each other aloft.

Andromeda (Alice Sheppard) and Venus (Laurel Lawson) in DESCENT by Kinetic Light (Photo by Rain Embuscado)

At New York Live Arts, though, Kinetic Light expanded their duet performance into an hour-long cohesive show. One of the main differences was the presence of a distinct narrative based off of the myths of Venus and Andromeda, two female goddesses from different polytheistic mythologies that were shoved together by Auguste Rodin in his sculpture Toilette de Vénus et Andromède. According to the show’s program notes, nobody knows exactly why Rodin decided to place these two disparate goddesses together–though, I’m sure, something could be said for the malleability of the female form, even if a goddess. Nevertheless, Kinetic Light takes on this curious conflation of myths, as well as Rodin’s interpretation of the goddesses as idealized, presumably able-bodied female forms.

For DESCENT, Venus (Lawson) and Andromeda (Sheppard) become interracial same-sex lovers. In classical art historical renderings, both Venus and Andromeda are typically cast as white appearing, even though, in myth, Andromeda comes from Aetheopia. In DESCENT, Kinetic Light returns Andromeda’s blackness from the white annals of art history with Sheppard playing the role. It’s an act of reclamation–one that upends traditional art historical depictions of “normative” bodies and instead, asserts the beauty, power and presence of the often “un-idealized” ones–disabled, queer and racialized bodies.

This reclamation can be seen in the dancers’ movements, particularly poses that resemble Rodin’s sculptures. For example, the performers frequently sat on the floor and lifted one of their legs up, reminiscent of Rodin’s Iris, Messenger of the Gods, which notably is a male sculpture. But, the performance was more than just a catalogue of Rodin’s sculptural interests. Sheppard and Lawson employed their bodies to narrate same-sex desire, love, sex and the tension between combatting lovers. DESCENT was, at once, tender and calm with the performers crawling over the ramp and strenuously energetic with the duo swooping down the ramp, curving their bodies to swivel the wheels in a coordinated movement. Some of my favorite moments were not even the most active including when the two performers gazed away from the audience into the abyss of the video projection. Something so simple could still recall a universal human experience.

DESCENT by Kinetic Light (Photo by Jay Newman)

In writing about Kinetic Light, as I found previously covering their performance at Gibney Dance, there is a risk of submitting to the “super crip” narrative, particularly in the awe I feel when regarding the strength of both performers as they manipulate both their bodies and their wheelchairs onstage. However, Kinetic Light engage with physical strength not as a comparison to able-bodied performers, but in such a way that both questions and transcends those scurrilous divisions.

And in this, DESCENT does much more than criticize these constructed standards and simplistic binaries. Instead, it gives a glimpse at an alternative world, one separate from these culturally imposed norms–not only in disability, but also gender, sexuality and race. The parallels between disability, gender, race and sexuality have been delved into by a number of scholars. In Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland Thompson writes, “Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female and the disabled body are cast as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a norm that is assumed to possess natural physical superiority” (19).

Andromeda (Alice Sheppard) in DESCENT (Photo Courtesy of MANCC (Maggie Allesee Center for Choreography))

Similarly, in Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer compares the construction of able-bodied with heterosexuality: “I put forward here a theory of what I call ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ and argue that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness: that, in fact, compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory able-bodiedness and vice versa” (2).

In DESCENT, Kinetic Light similarly theorize these intersections, as well as question the construction of these norms. But instead of doing it through academic writing, they use performance to look beyond this restrictive present by presenting viewers with a momentary glimpse at utopia–a mythic world apart from these divisions. Part of this comes from the movements of Sheppard and Lawson who enact a performance that joins both power and playfulness in their physicality. But another major part of the transcendent nature of the show was the architectural ramp that dominated the stage. Developed by designer and artist Sara Hendren with physics professor Yevgeniya Zastavker and a team from Olin College, the ramp, measuring around six feet tall, becomes a third character in Sheppard and Lawson’s duet, guiding and informing their movements.

Still of the ramp projection in DESCENT by Kinetic Light (Photo courtesy of Kinetic Light)

In an interview with Dance Enthusiast, Alice Sheppard discussed the ramp in conjunction with Simi Linton’s description of riding down a hill in her book My Body Politic. Sheppard notes, “She talks about the joys of riding up and down hill and literally names it in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever read before… it’s not just whether you can get into the building – it’s how you get into the building, who you get into the building with, how are you living — it’s a question of pleasure and joy and equality of experience and that [thinking] collided with my physical want to ride down hill.” Like this depiction of pleasure and joy for disabled people, the two performers in DESCENT crawled, glided, slid, flipped and perched on the ramp’s hills, bends and curves. Rather than portraying freedom as an escape from the (disabled) body, DESCENT uses the ramp to engage the body in ways that evoke a sense of ecstatic weightlessness.

Similarly, lighting and video projections by Michael Maag aided the transformation of New York Live Arts into a primordial utopian space–a space that seems to exist before the solidification of the boundaries of able-bodiedness, heterosexuality and white supremacy. Depicting flowing bodies of water, the cosmos and ambiguous natural settings, the video projections, as well as the ambient soundscapes, immersed the audience in a different time and place, setting the performance apart from the restrictions of the present and allowing a, even short-lived, peek at an elsewhere.

DESCENT by Kinetic Light (Photo by Jay Newman)

Like Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s notion of queer world-making, Sheppard herself sees the performance in terms of making worlds. As she remarked to Dance Enthusiast: “I wondered if for this particular piece, would it be ok to think about the work as world-building. I mean it’s a dance but so much of the labor work and heart work has been about building the world that makes the dance possible.”

And for Alice Sheppard and Kinetic Light, this world-building means accessibility. This isn’t disabled dance performed for a majority able-bodied audience. Kinetic Light is invested in discovering new ways to allow their performances to be experienced by a wide audience. For example, the performance I attended on March 23 was a trial for a new app that created sonic experiences for non-visual audience members, revitalizing the typically basic descriptions of dance for non-visual attendees.

Overall, Kinetic Light, through DESCENT, reveals disability as, like Sara Hendren described in an interview with Guernica, “a site of invention and creativity.” As she observed in the interview, “we suffer from a lack of imagination and dimensionality about people with disabilities, people with atypical bodies and minds, who are disabled by the contemporary industrialized life and its landscape.” With this in mind, DESCENT–and Kinetic Light in general–ultimately asked viewers to consider the lack of invention and creativity inherent in the limits of what we often see in performance: What bodies do we see? What assumptions do we put on these bodies? What stories are we told and what kinds of love and affection are we allowed to witness?

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