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Kinetic Light Dancers Take Disability Arts to New Heights

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This episode of If Cities Could Dance is presented in several accessible versions. Each is the same work, hosted on Youtube, and provides a different encounter:

Video with American Sign Language, Open Captions, Audio Description, and Closed Captions.

Video with Open Captions, Audio Description, and Closed Captions.

Video with Closed Captions only.

Audio only.


Enhanced Transcript with Timecodes. (PDF)

Enhanced Transcript without Timecodes. (PDF)

The episode features American Sign Language by interpreter Angela Vilavong, who collaborated with interpreter Pilar Marsh. The voice-over appears in the integrated open captions (OC,) which are visible at the bottom of the screen. Audio Description (AD) includes a verbal description of the episode, with narration by Rebecca Singh. The Audio Description can optionally be downloaded as a separate audio file, and a transcript of the Audio Description and voice-over are also available for download to experience alongside the episode.

For the disability arts ensemble Kinetic Light, whose members are spread across the country, working on their forthcoming piece Wired in the San Francisco Bay Area has been a kind of coming home. Not only because dancer Jerron Herman grew up in Alameda, or because artistic director Alice Sheppard performed with AXIS Dance Company, but because of the region’s role in the history of the disability rights movement, which started in Berkeley in the 1960s.

Today, Berkeley’s Ed Roberts Campus stands as a physical reminder of those demonstrations, struggles and achievements — and a testament to the ways access can create welcoming, equitable and just spaces. “We’re at home physically in a way we are in so few other places,” Kinetic Light artist and engineer Laurel Lawson says of the campus, which has what she describes as one of the “great ramps of the world.” 

“Places where I can say somebody thought about me when they were designing this — that sparks joy,” Lawson says. “That sparks a desire to explore and to find out what the designer might have had in mind. It’s like an artistic collaboration.”

Disabled dancers Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson dance, holding hands as they face each other in their chairs.
Members of Kinetic Light took time off from their technical residency for “Wired,” to visit the universally accessible Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. (Kelly Whalen)

Kinetic Light, founded in 2016, seeks out a similar quality of engagement with audiences when creating their own productions. Lighting and projection designer Michael Maag describes the group as much more than a dance company. The ensemble is led by disabled artists, collaborates regularly with disabled artists across disciplines, and includes a uniquely talented and experienced group of professionals who work together on production, technical, artistic, and administrative aspects of the company.

Each decision Maag makes with regards to lighting is rooted in the company’s ongoing conversations about an artistic and aesthetic disability lens, about wheelchairs as extensions of a dancer’s embodiment. “I want to create lighting for the people that experience the world the way that I do,” Maag explains.

“Once you commit to imagining a disabled audience as primary and not as incidental,” Sheppard says. “It changes the understanding of the work.”

Perhaps most importantly, to Kinetic Light, access is not a static checklist, but a promise and continual learning process. The company engages with the disability community constantly, conducting extensive audience research in the making of their work. As Maag says, “It’s a two-way conversation when we present our work and audience members experience it.”

Alice, Michael, and Laurel sit in their chairs, while Jerron stands leaning against the back of Laurel’s chair, in front of the ramp to the brick warehouse performance space.
From left to right, Laurel, Jerron, Alice and Michael, in front of Z Space in San Francisco, CA. (Peter Ruocco)

While many performing arts companies increasingly integrate audio description to provide non-visual audience members with verbal descriptions of the on-stage action, and caption their videos or include an ASL interpreter in documentation, Kinetic Light is interested in offering audiences choice as they experience a performance. In conjunction with their 2018 production DESCENT, Lawson developed the app Audimance. Users can select and shift from a variety of different styles of description (screenplay, sounds of the dancers’ bodies, a poetic rendition), choosing a focus that works for them.

Sheppard references an idea from Georgina Kleege, noted UC Berkeley professor who writes about access, disability and the arts (and advised on the creation of Audimance). “If someone in the audience gasps,” Sheppard explains, “the thing that produced that gasp should be available to everyone. Otherwise, why are you here?”

The company’s artists describe this approach as aesthetic equity.

Kinetic Light dancer Jerron Herman dances wrapped in barb wire for technical rehearsals of “Wired.”
Jerron Herman, in rehearsals at Z Space, says he felt a strong sense of independence growing up in the Bay Area, home of the disability rights movement. (Peter Ruocco)

Wired, Kinetic Light’s first aerial production, will premiere in 2022 after pandemic-related delays and shifts in production. The show uses sound, light and movement to reflect on the stories and history of barbed wire, and how it has been used to separate people, groups, and movements on the basis of gender, race, sexuality and disability. As with previous work, the form and presentation of Wired are both deeply rooted in access. Considering the ways people will encounter the work is inextricable from the process of fine-tuning the technical aspects of complex aerial choreography.

Thirty years after the passing of the American with Disabilities Act, the conversation around access has renewed energy, due in large part to the effects of COVID-19 on remote work, learning and entertainment. But access is too often approached as an accommodation or service, says Sheppard, which treats disabled people as different and lesser. Kinetic Light models a different relationship for those seeking to push the conversation about disability ever further.

“For us, access is a creative force,” Sheppard says, “It is a culture … how we want to be together and how we want our audiences to be with us.” — Article written by Sarah Hotchkiss

Image Descriptions (in order of article):

A wide shot of three dancers on a dimly lit stage; the floor is awash in patterned green and blue light. Two dancers in wheelchairs hover above the ground, each with one arm extended up, holding on to a thick cable; Alice Sheppard is a multiracial Black woman with coffee-colored skin and short curly hair, and Laurel Lawson is a white woman with very short cropped hair. They each gaze at and tilt down toward Jerron Herman, a dark-skinned Black man with blonde hair who is crouched between them, wrapped in barbed wire. All dancers are wearing shimmery green and gold costumes. White Text: “BAY AREA: Disability Arts / IF CITIES COULD DANCE”

Kinetic Light dancers Laurel Lawson, a white woman with very short cropped brown hair, and Alice Sheppard, a multiracial Black woman with coffee-colored skin and short curly brown hair, are holding both hands as they face each other in their chairs. Laurel is wearing a gray tank top and black leggings; Alice is wearing a pink and purple long-sleeved top with black leggings. They’re dancing in the lobby of the Ed Roberts Campus, with a historical black-and-white photo mural in the background, polished floors and curved red ramp behind them.

A wide shot of the four members of the Kinetic Light disability arts ensemble pose in front of the Z Space building in San Francisco, CA. Alice is a multiracial Black woman with coffee-colored skin and short curly hair. She wears a pink hoodie, tan puffy vest, shimmery leggings and sheepskin boots; she leans back in her chair, balancing. Michael Maag, a white man with long white hair and beard, is wearing a black, short-sleeved cotton shirt, jeans and black sneakers; he poses in his chair, hand on his lap. Laurel is a white woman with very short cropped hair wearing a white, long-sleeved top, shimmery blue leggings and tan leather boots; she sits in her chair and holds her hands together. Jerron Herman, a dark-skinned Black man with blonde hair wears a black long-sleeved top with a yellow tank over it with black jeans and sneakers as he stands behind Laurel and rests his arm on her chair.

Kinetic Light dancer Jerron Herman, a dark-skinned Black man with blonde hair and dark moustache, is kneeling on his left leg on a stage illuminated by a white spotlight and smoke. He wears a loose black tunic-like hooded top with shimmery leggings and is barefoot; barbed wire is coiled around his upper torso. His right arm is stretched over his head in a curved arc, while his left arm is tucked close to his chest. He looks upward with his mouth slightly open in an expression of deep concentration.




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