What if we could be transported out of our disability-unfriendly environments, and what if race and gender didn’t matter? These are some of the questions choreographer and dancer Alice Sheppard explores in DESCENT, which premiered March 22 at New York Live Arts. Along with dance partner Laurel Lawson and lighting and video artist Michael Maag, Sheppard creates a new world in which wheelchair users are free to play and love and just be.
As DESCENT opens, a starry moonless night lightens to reveal a stage-wide ramp that curves and rises to a platform on the top left corner. On the right-hand side is another smaller, lower platform, where we see a silhouette of a boulder. The sun rises and the boulder becomes a gray rocky outcrop with a woman, Sheppard, hunched on it. She’s modeling a pose from a Rodin sculpture featuring Greek mythological figure Andromeda and Roman goddess of love Venus.
Sheppard, as Andromeda, frees herself from the rock on which mythology has her chained, the original princess in need of rescue from a dragon. She slowly stretches and slides on the ramp’s sharp curve, as water splashes and the night sky flickers into ocean then back to bright stars on black. The lighting resolves the ramp as being between the water and the sky, and Laurel Lawson, as Venus, appears, evoked from the ocean by Andromeda, and the dance starts in earnest.
So what is the story about?
“Partly, I wanted to ask, what happens if you pull Andromeda out of her mythological system with all that history,” says Sheppard. “Who is she when she is not chained to the rock? And same with Venus. So many of her stories have to do with jealousy, competitions between males. When she is not in that system, who is Venus?”
“Rather than retelling an existing myth, we created a new story,” says Lawson. “After all, Venus and Andromeda never meet in any known story, they don’t even come from the same pantheon. So within this world of the ramp, think of what is not there — there are no men, these women are defined by and in relationship with only themselves and each other. There is no heterosexual baseline. There is no nondisabled normate. This allowed us to explore and discover this intersectional story in a way that hasn’t previously been done.”
There is no racial whitewashing, either. Andromeda, an Ethiopian princess, is often portrayed as being ivory-skinned, which makes no sense. It’s more accurate for Sheppard to play her than, say, Taylor Swift.
And in addition to all of that, there’s the beautiful ramp stretching across the stage, centering the wheeled movement of the two leads.
That Glorious Ramp
“Can I tell you about this ramp?” asks Sheppard. “We’re on the top of the platform and when you push off you can imagine flying downhill. But it’s just a little steeper than you quite feel comfortable with, and you’re going so fast, and you turn a corner, and it’s banked and it takes you and it takes you and it takes you and it turns you and you’re a little out of control. The chair’s front casters vibrate. It’s a little terrifying and you’re reveling in it because that’s the way the chair responds.”
It is dangerous by design, which forces the dancers to respond in ways they couldn’t on a typical, static stage. “DESCENT relies on that steepness and danger to tell our story,” says Lawson. “Everyone who has ever been on our ramp has fallen — feet, wheels, it doesn’t matter. However, it centers our particular physicalities and we have trained ourselves to accommodate it and create choreography as the ramp dictates.”
A member of Atlanta’s Full Radius Dance company, as well as cofounder of CyCore Systems, a software architecture and design consultancy, Lawson, 38, has given talks on universal design, which she says has pros and cons. “Ramps in general are actually one of the better examples of universal design in that everyone can use them,” she says. “Like anything, however, ramps can also be used to exclude when they’re clearly begrudged, tacked on the side thoughtlessly, or hidden around the back.”
It’s as if DESCENT gives voice to the universal ramp. Without ramps, wheelchair users especially are cut off from society, unable to participate freely and fully — not unlike Andromeda chained to a rock. Yet often in our real-life society, as Lawson notes, access is around back and maybe a sign will point the way, or maybe not. But in the world of DESCENT, that ramp is front and center and isn’t an afterthought — it’s the point.
“DESCENT is only possible because I had this understanding of disability and how to move, and the ramp teaches us. It’s so playful,” says Sheppard. “We need beauty, we need gloriousness, we need sensuality in movement — and this ramp is glorious.”
For more information on DESCENT, including bookings, go to www.kineticlight.org.
Michael Maag’s Lighting: The Third Dancer
Although only two people appear on stage, DESCENT has three performers: Alice Sheppard, Laura Lawson and lighting director Michael Maag, who is also the resident lighting designer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
As Lawson and Sheppard dance with each other, Maag’s lighting is intertwined with the choreography and the geography of the ramp. “Lighting sculpts the body, the chairs, the ramp, the space,” says Maag, 53, a wheelchair user from Ashland, Oregon. “Each tilt of the hand or crazy bird lift or pose imitating a Rodin sculpture has meaning, significance and forwards the narrative. The choreographer and lighting designer must work closely together from the beginning of the creation.”
And did the ramp affect him as powerfully as it did the dancers? “If you are asking if I fell out of my wheelchair the first time I rolled on it, then the answer is YES!” he says. “If you are asking if it moves me as a piece of art in its own right, YES!” He was inspired by it as a projection surface. “It provides such amazing opportunities to create shapes, move light, help the story. It is a canvas to me.”
Sheppard and Lawson talk about the ramp as a teacher, and Maag agrees. “The ramp taught me not to try to roll up peaks without proper training,” he deadpans.