Beautiful and Wild Ways of Being: A Conversation with Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson of Kinetic Light

By Sara Nash
Laurel Lawson, a white woman with short cropped teal hair, is flying in the air with arms spread wide, wheels spinning, and supported by Alice Sheppard. Alice, a multiracial Black woman with coffee-colored hair, is lifting from the ground below. They are making eye contact and smiling. A burst of white light appears in a dark blue sky.

Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson perform in Kinetic Light's dance work Descent. Photo by Jay Newman/BRITT Festival

I first met Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson in 2016 at the Future of Physically Integrated Dance convening organized by AXIS Dance Company in New York City. That same year, Sheppard founded Kinetic Light, a project-based ensemble of three disabled artists including Sheppard, Lawson, and Michael Maag. Since that time, Kinetic Light has put disability aesthetics center stage in works like Descent, a touring production that premiered in 2018 and features an architectural ramp installation designed by Sara Hendren, Yevgeniya Zastavker, and students of Olin College. 

Sheppard and Lawson continue to elevate disability aesthetics and culture and call the field to join them. Their artistry infuses access into every element of their work from the development of specially designed wheelchairs for performing to the creation of Audimance, the company’s app for audio descriptions. 

Following is an interview conducted with both artists while they were in a bubble residency developing work. They generously shared their experiences in dance, the reasons why they focus on equity and access rather than inclusion, and an invitation to join them in this work and the possibility the future holds. 

NEA: How did you each become involved in dance- was there an ‘a ha’ moment where you knew this was something you were going to pursue?

ALICE SHEPPARD: I leapt into dance as a dare. And nothing in the joy of that casual beginning prepared me for how much I came to love dancing. Dancing taught me to see the world differently, but it wasn’t a quick ‘a-ha.’ I fell in love with the work of being a dancer. I grew up as a musician, but decided not to pursue music professionally. When I returned to the arts, I found pleasure in the daily practices of dance. I wanted to absorb, embody, and live into the kinesthetic pleasure I found in my body.

LAUREL LAWSON: I fell sideways into dance. Fortunately, the first formal dance class I ever took—two decades ago and on a whim—was with one of the best teachers in the world in physically integrated dance, who later invited me to his company. It takes years to make a professional dancer, and most of us working now started those years as adults. While I brought my training as a musician, actor, and athlete, it was a decade or more to even begin to learn (and create) technique and the craft of choreography. I was seduced by the heady mix of creativity, collaboration, communalism, and discipline that dance requires.

NEA: In forming Kinetic Light, what was the need that you saw that you knew you could address with your company and work?

SHEPPARD: I wanted time to ask different questions: to feel my body differently, to understand my culture, to think through a series of ideas that had informed my writing, my relationships, and the way I am in the world. I wanted to center intersectional disability in my creative practice and now Kinetic Light is part of an expanding conversation that is changing how we think about disability and access in the arts.

LAWSON: One very simple thing: we needed to make the work for ourselves that no one else would make for us, that no one else could envision. And then we realized that no one else was asking the kinds of questions that needed to be asked about aesthetically equitable access, and that no one was going to fund or present aesthetically equitable work unless we created a model—with sensitive artistry and high production values. 

NEA: What are you currently pursuing artistically?

SHEPPARD: Kinetic Light is currently in a bubble residency building our next evening-length work, Wired. We are literally taking flight with bungees, harnesses, and aerial cable. Wired tells the race, gender, and disability stories of barbed wire in the U.S.; I’m both overawed by the power of this work and the commitment of the Wired team. Getting something like this done during the pandemic is incredible.

NEA: What questions about disability should dance organizations who are working to be more inclusive—be they dance companies, schools, presenting organizations, service organizations, funders—be asking and addressing that they aren’t?

SHEPPARD: I don’t want to build an inclusive world. When the nondisabled world seeks to include us, disabled people end up as afterthoughts. Sometimes, there is money in the budget for access. Sometimes, there isn’t. Most times, our experience is inequitable. I want to dismantle our structures and change our practices so that we can build an accessible world. I am ready to do the learning and the work to make this possible. Will you join me?

LAWSON: Inclusivity is toxic, because it reinforces existing hierarchies of who is “normal” and who is not. Organizations should be asking themselves what they can do to be equitable in their programming: which could mean that a presenter presents or facilitates the creation of work which offers equitable artistic accessibility for audiences. Which could mean that a dance school that wants to offer classes for disabled children hires a teacher who is as expert in technique for students using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, as their other teachers are in ballet, tap, and modern. Which could mean that funders set aside funding for the creation of aesthetically equitable components of art.

NEA: How do you decide where you will devote your time and energy when it comes to applying to grants or programs, or working with organizations to develop or present your work, and what kind of barriers impact that?

SHEPPARD: As artists, we do not always get to choose our partners. The power dynamic is against us here. I am most excited to work with people who are ready to change themselves, their institutions, and their practices. When there is alignment about goals and access culture, conversations can take flight in new ways!  

NEA: How has the COVID-19 pandemic informed or impacted how you are engaging with your work, and how people are engaging with your work?

LAWSON: I am both artist and technologist. My choreographic practice thrives in ensemble and the creation of shared experience, and my design and engineering work is about supporting the creation of art, the exploration of new ways of creating and new kinds of experience. In this past year and half, I’ve focused on a comprehensive way of facilitating equity-centered organizational transformation, furthered my work in wheelchair design, and developed concepts for multisensory access—in addition to being in a resident bubble, where a small group of us have been living and working together in the creation of an aerial dance work. This has not been a vacation; it’s been a period of working more than ever, with less access to support networks. 

SHEPPARD: I am an artist and academic. I’ve written articles, essays, and book chapters, all of which have deepened my understanding of intersectional disability aesthetics and nurtured my choreographic practice. I have really enjoyed the world of film. My editing skills are significantly better, yes, but more importantly film and video have expanded and solidified my early writings on the problems of gaze, the necessity of disability centered perspective, and the urgency of aesthetic and equitable access. This has been a time of searing self-examination that I believe will ground my choreographic practice for the future.  

NEA: What kind of change would you like to see in the larger arts world as we work toward not just reopening but reimagining what the arts ecosystem looks like?

SHEPPARD: Throughout the pandemic, I have been asked to make recommendations for how to do things differently. Asking me for checklists is not the right approach. Now is the time to take apart the structures that have held the arts world in this place. And that is all of our work. It is time for arts organizations to ask themselves the questions that they have asked our communities of disabled artists and then to commit to the uncomfortable change the answers call for. It is time for the NEA to live even more deeply in its stated principles. Justice and equity do not come by the handful. Funding a single project is useful, but we also know that the project exists in an intersecting world. We cannot consider art-making without also considering the circumstances in which the art is made. We must work together to create systemic change, change that ripples across all the parts of our lives, personal and professional.  We can surely celebrate the work that has happened—and we should—but we also need to recognize that the work is not done.

LAWSON: Artists are often asked to be the saviors of society, to reveal and to heal. The initial dream and promise of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] was that disabled people would have the same access to public life as nondisabled people. For us, yes, disability pride is celebrating our community and culture, our art and our joy. From the outside, the attitude of the arts community… should not be to look at this article, recognize that disabled artists exist, and satisfy yourselves that the system is working. Your attitude ought to be one of examining your own work and asking: who has access to it? Who has equity within it? Mere access is the mandate of federal law—and the responsibility of the NEA and recipients of federal —but we are not calling for mere compliance, for access begrudged. It’s past time for arts organizations to offer equity throughout the ecosystem: for children who dream of being professional artists one day, for working artists, for arts workers, for audiences. It’s past time to support access to healthcare that allows disabled artists to train and work; to demolish the poverty trap that prevents many disabled artists from accepting funding; to stop holding up any singular method of artistic experience. When we understand that a beautiful, wild multiplicity of ways of being, communicating, and experiencing the world are equally valid, we can make better art and a better world. 

Sara Nash has been the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Director since August 2018.