In acclaimed French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s “Toilette of Venus and Andromeda,” the hunched form of Andromeda, awaiting her death by sea monster, shows her smooth back to the nude figure of Venus, who appears to be kneeling and washing her hair. The two don’t look at each other, nor are they connected physically in any way — in fact, the two characters do not exist in the same mythology. So why did a 19th century Frenchman cast them in bronze together? For disability artists Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson, the answer would be the impetus for the creation of their performance collective Kinetic Light and their now-acclaimed touring show, “DESCENT.”
“DESCENT” has been described by critics as “generative of unique choreographic forms,” “poetic, passionate and, frankly, haaaawwwt” with “an honesty and vulnerability” since its New York premiere in 2018, depicting an interracial, queer love story between two mythological figures performed in and out of wheelchairs on a performance ramp built especially for the show. Lawson, who is usually based in Atlanta but currently quarantining in California, and Sheppard, who has a home in Los Altos, choreograph, dance, direct and manage makeup and costumes. Their third Kinetic Light collective member Michael Maag, who is based in Ashland, Ore., and uses a wheelchair, adds another dimension with lights, projection and soundscape. The coronavirus pandemic has halted plans for a tour, but Kinetic Light is still performing virtually in a series of recorded performances this weekend, Thursday-Saturday hosted by the University of Minnesota Northrop and Walker Art Center.
“Alice and I met formally when we were new in our dance careers,” says Lawson, who at the time was performing and touring with the Atlanta-based Full Radius Dance company, one of the longest-established integrated dance companies in the country. Sheppard attended a San Francisco show, and they kept in touch. “It was clear early on we had work to do together.”
“DESCENT” represents not only their artistic proclivities, but also other intersections of their inspirations as artists, as Sheppard worked in academia and Lawson in software tech before pursuing dance professionally.
“Alice comes in with this deep investment into syncing aesthetics, gender, race, disability and intersectionality in these stories. I come in investigating technique, physicality, the ‘how do we turn that into its own story?’ Venus and Andromeda, that’s an untold story, and that’s catnip for artists! It gave us a scary freedom to make up that story for ourselves,” Lawson says. “You have these two queer women onstage with no male or straight referent. Two disabled bodies with no nondisabled referent. ‘DESCENT’ is a universe. It’s an invitation to come into our world.”
Maag’s set submerges the audience in swaths of blue and purple under starry skies, while Sheppard and Lawson perform across the stage on a ramp that is as treacherous as it is beautiful. Lawson describes it as an “artifact of disability aesthetic” designed for pleasure rather than a means of meeting a building code. The ramp was largely designed and built by a group of freshman engineering students at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., Lawson says, because “no one else would do it.”
She believes fear of talking about disability and refusing to take action are what stagnate so many companies and organizations from creating accessible and equitable content, art and products. The constraints of the pandemic and rapid innovations to meet these changing needs echo what Lawson and her disability arts community have been lamenting for years.
“We’ve seen the stage in a virtual presence, which in a lot of ways have been deeply painful, because disabled people have been asking to attend things virtually for years,” Lawson says. “Turns out we really can do this and do it quickly, and it wasn’t all that hard, was it?”
With a background in software engineering and her own consulting company, Lawson has also worked to innovate technology for attendees of shows who are blind, low-vision or nonvisual. After a preview performance of “DESCENT,” some audience members reported that while the audio accompaniment was accurate, it lacked texture. Her mobile-accessible platform Audimance, currently in alpha testing, centers agency for blind, low-vision or nonvisual audience members by creating a charcuterie of audio sources from which to craft their show. There will be poetry, soundscapes, stage sound, narration and more to choose from and fully participate in the experience, rather than a version of it. Without these conversations and specific language, changes don’t spontaneously occur.
“A lot of people are afraid to say the words ‘disability’ and ‘disabled.’ So many people tell me ‘you’re not disabled,’” Lawson says, “and I am. If you can’t say and acknowledge that, that’s problematic.”
Hence, the necessity for the work Sheppard, Lawson and Kinetic Light are doing. The collective’s next production, “Wired,” has been postponed because of the pandemic, but it is sure to sell out once it is safe to tour. Lawson has also been working on a film with her Full Radius family, leading her consulting business CyCore Systems. Beyond the scope of art, Lawson will host events for the Access ALLways curriculum, a series of online workshops that seek to educate “arts organizations, programmers, marketing/communications professionals, administrators, funders, and event organizers with new to intermediate experience levels with disability accessibility.”
Tickets for “DESCENT” can be purchased on the Kinetic Light website or through the University of Minnesota. Before the weekend’s shows, Lawson is working from home, finalizing the image descriptions to accompany any visuals used in the show or online text.
“I don’t know how,” she says, “but we’re somehow more busy now than ever.”
* “DESCENT” will be available to stream starting 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $18.50 for a household and $10 for one student.