Projections of light traced the movements of the dancers on the floor, shadows of them spinning and bouncing in their chairs were cast along the sidewalls of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) theater. Artistic director and performer Alice Sheppard and her fellow artists (dancers Jerron Herman and Laurel Lawson) are Kinetic Light, a company that performed the world premier of Wired May 5-7 to Chicago audiences ecstatic for the return of movement and stage shows (the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Edlis Neeson Theater has been closed for two full years). Kinetic Light’s work challenges ideas of movement and dance by presenting works through the lens of disability and breaking new ground for what is possible for movement artists, tipping into the realm of circus with aerial performances, and blending dance with powerful thematic explorations.
Ever present in the show, barbed wire is called “a material of oppression” in the program, and in many ways could be seen as the symbol for colonialism and westward expansion. Yet Kinetic Light’s year-long research residency, which led to the creation of Wired, gave the artists the space to explore not simply the negatives, but also the strength and delicacy of such symbols while also focusing a fresh lens on the imagery. Curatorial fellow Marjorie Susman asks , “As you experience Wired, we invite you to consider the following question: how does barbed wire, a material typically used for confinement, open new possibilities for movement?” Sheppard, Herman and Lawson certainly demonstrated a wide range of the possibilities of movement with their research, even as they explored the emotional possibilities with stunning moments where motion and light told us a story.
Lighting and projection (MIchael Maag) and sound design (Dylan Keefe and Andy Slater) were particularly integrated into the performance. Sound often tipped into the realm of industrial, mimicking the inhumane production of barbed steel, a device which maims and kills any who dare trespass or escape. The projections provided cues to these themes in each act (prison spotlights, American flags, chasms, bars), but also transcendent moments—such as when Sheppard, suspended from her wheelchair swings diagonally across the stage, propelling herself powerfully with a rocking motion of her torso, and at the end of her arc, tilting forward, touching the stage with her upper body, allowing the momentum of the backward swing to drag her across the floor again and again, her arms leaving bright blue lightning bolts of light in her wake.
It is said in circus that the reason the audience adores impossible stunts so much is because they imagine themselves accomplishing such a feat, escaping office drudgery or repetitive manual labor in order to fly, flip or flow in harmony. What else then could the audience feel when viewing a woman in a wheelchair struggling against the limits of her tether, propelling herself against gravity with determination, and eventually arriving, spinning lightly and gracefully, at peace with what she has accomplished? There is a universality in that conquest and yet a specific moment too where each individual, whether in a wheelchair or sitting in the stadium seats, was fully committed and feeling her struggle and triumph.
Special consideration was given during this show to accessibility, and the disabled community showed up for the performance as a result. There were spaces in the front rows for wheelchairs, ASL translation was provided for spoken parts of the show, a stim kit full of tactile objects (which I checked out and utilized for the first half) and the show was even offered as a livestream for people who could not attend. I was lucky to attend this performance with Atta Zahedi, editor at Cripple Media and a disability activist. We had a conversation post show to discuss issues that interested us.
Kim Campbell: Barbed wire is a prominent theme in the performance and I noticed it fascinated you. What did its presence signal to you personally, and do you think it has a universal significance?
Atta Zahedi: The theme of the performance– to see the beauty in barbed wire, something more often seen as a restrictive and harmful element—struck me as an incredibly creative and perceptive view from disabled artists. Disabled and black and brown people are restricted in their physical movement systematically, not only reducing the areas we can go venture too, but the connections we can make with other individuals through the power of presence. To instead see a possibility of unique movement with the use of barbed wire, starting with the opening scene, swinging and intertwining wires between the two initial performers, seems a strong statement from disabled people that we will find our movement and connections where we can, with whatever is given to us. The added layer of finding and creating aesthetically pleasing beauty with barbed wire shows a realistic yet optimistic eye of acknowledging the barriers common in Chicago, but finding the avenues for exploration and joy in movement.
KC: What did the presence of disabled artists on stage mean to you as an advocate for accessibility?
AZ: First of all, seeing a stage built with disabled artists and audience in mind gave me immense joy. As a student, starting in elementary school, the arts were not as available to me. I was often given reduced engagement in school plays or other performances due to a lack of access to stages, access behind the stage, and constricted corridors. It was something that I have always wanted to see, and it was genuinely therapeutic to see disabled people own their presence on a stage, moving as they saw fit, while enjoying themselves and spreading the messages important to them. It’s what an artist wants, and disabled people are often denied the opportunities that seem commonplace because my bodies, minds, and behavior are not taken in consideration with the design of more than just the audience seating. I am hoping that the appreciation felt by the audience for both the freedom of movement given to the disabled performers demonstrates that disabled people belong in the arts wherever they would like, and only need the proper environment that anyone deserves to voice their stories and their goals.
AZ: How did you feel being given stimming and comforting equipment without requirements? Did it help you perceive how greater access and a comforting sense of community care can enable more appreciation and enjoyment of the theater experience?
KC: Yes, it did help me appreciate how greater access and community care can enable more appreciation of the arts! What it also did was make me feel a little bit angry about all of the times I have gone to performances and have been scolded for my own inability to sit still, to stay focused and to tune out sensory overloads. I had to build my own coping strategies that disguised my struggles. So I think stim kits are amazing, but more importantly, I think the attitude that being an audience member doesn’t mean sitting perfectly still and attentive and focused for the duration of the show is what is revolutionary. I wonder how sustainable that idea is though, since an audience is generally seen as a whole, and as such, is expected to act in unison. Could performing artists concentrate and do their show if people in the audience were not quiet and still? I think they would be able to, because I have been in mosh pits before and the band played on. To your bigger point though, yes, it really made me ponder how much more accessible live performance could be. Which leads me to my next question for you…
KC: How did MCA handle the accessibility around the show? Would it be a sustainable model for most theater and performance venues? Is it the responsibility of the venue, the artists or the producers to provide these services?
AZ: The MCA handled accessibility impressively, especially with the work of the access doulas, management, and those otherwise involved in making the venue and performance as accessible as they believed it could be. The tote bags filled with stimming equipment, sensory relaxing items, and other tools were a beautifully comforting touch of care that can be built up as an accessible model for theater given the initial investment. While the venue created an environment of reduced obstacles and avenues for breaks from sensory overwhelming experiences, the artists and producers provided an experience that was accessible, giving approval for audience members to leave at any time for unasked reasons. Both groups took charge of the responsibility they positioned themselves into with their respective roles. It will be interesting to see how the venue and others involved handle the live-streaming experience as that is a whole other medium deserving of its own access tools and accommodations, but overall the MCA and performers handled the event with strong, well-meaning intent and passionate follow-through.
AZ: Were you astonished to see people using wheelchairs gracefully? Often people see wheelchairs as restrictive medical equipment, and not as the tools that bring freedom and joy that disabled people can view them as. Did you question what other avenues of movement can be explored by disabled people in their art?
KC: I was not astonished to see wheelchairs moving gracefully, because I have seen it before and it did astonish me then! I once filmed my disabled dancer friend doing street stunts. I’ll have to dig that video up from the archives for you, Atta! But I see your point—I do wonder now what other types of movement could be done in wheelchairs. I am curious about wheelchair sports in particular. But what I think would be an interesting marker in the arts world is when an artist is cast in a play or a movie not because they are in a wheelchair or blind or a little person (and the part calls for that quality) and also not as token gesture to include one disabled person, but because of what they as artists can bring to the scene. I don’t think most creatives realize how much talent there is in the world that does not comply with their image of what a performer looks like. And when that starts to happen is when I think accommodations behind the scenes (and backstage like you discussed)will become more commonplace.
AZ: As someone well-versed and experienced in performance pieces and the level of freedom in artistic creativity given to nondisabled performers, how did you react to the level of freedom given to the performance troupe in designing their act and their intent along with it? How would you like to see spaces for art to grow to increase not only the inclusion of disabled people but also to encourage self-determination of disabled artists?
KC: I was impressed by the amount of research Kinetic Light put into the movement. What they are doing on stage is new ground (or air). What I mean by that is, when a circus artist gets up on the trapeze, for example, often every trick they do has been invented and done a million times. They even have names, like ‘skin the cat’. A dancer or a circus performer generally strings a series of tricks together into a sequence and adds their own flourish or perspective, maybe they deconstruct it or flip the rules for example in order to express their creativity.
Occasionally, someone will invent a new move and progress the art form one tiny step further. Kinetic Light spent a year on a mountain top and researched movement possibilities and put them into sequences like everyone else, except those tricks had to be discovered first, so they invented a whole new movement vocabulary. That impresses me, because now disabled performers who come later can be inspired and learn from them.
To the last question about art spaces becoming more inclusive, I would like to see access to movement classes provided early on for disabled youth, and for all movement teachers and people in the performing arts industry to receive some basic education about accommodating students with a variety of abilities and disabilities. This isn’t just the right thing to do, it is beneficial to humankind. There was a time when people of color and women were not allowed on stage, and now we see the wealth of talent that would be lost to the world if that had not changed. I wonder what genius the world is missing out on because we can’t be bothered to build ramps and provide translators and so on.
Thank you for attending with me, Atta! Let me know if you want to be my plus one at any other shows and if you prefer theater, dance or circus!
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