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Photo: DiverseAbility.
After leaving academia, Alice Sheppard “began exploring the techniques of dancing in a wheelchair and learning how disability can generate its own movement.” 

An unusual and dramatic entertainment took place in Chicago in May. It was the brainchild of Alice Sheppard, a fearless risk taker in a surprising sequence of careers. Today she is a choreographer, but as recently as 2004, she had never considered that dance could be compatible with her disability. According to DiverseAbility magazine, “she was a professor in medieval studies at Penn State.” Then a dancer with one leg dared her to try a dance class.

Lauren Warnecke says of Sheppard at the Chicago Tribune, “Alice Sheppard does not shy away from a challenge. In devising her latest dance, ‘Wired,’ she and her Bay Area disability arts company Kinetic Light had to first write the rule books for wheelchair aerial dance.

“Kinetic Light’s mission is to create art that centers disability. Sheppard and the rest of the company are disabled artists who make work for disabled performers. Key to that vision are questions and advocacy around access — who ‘gets’ to dance and who ‘gets’ to watch or experience art? Since the company’s founding in 2016, Sheppard’s work consistently explores the intersections of disability, race and gender. ‘Wired,’ premiering May 5-8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, is no exception, though it’s the first of Kinetic Light’s growing catalog to incorporate aerial dance.

“Actually, the first step for Sheppard was to read everything she could find about barbed wire. Sheppard, a dancer, choreographer and scholar with a doctorate in medieval studies from Cornell University, devoured the literature on this sharp-edged, steel wire’s fraught history.

“The initial spark for ‘Wired’ came from a visit to the Whitney Museum, where Sheppard viewed Melvin Edwards’ 1969 barbed wire sculpture, ‘Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid.’ …

“It led her down a barbed wire rabbit hole. Sheppard’s source material lends multiple metaphors to what has become her latest multimedia dance piece. Indeed, few pieces of steel are saddled with so much context. Barbed wire is primarily a strict form of forced separation, used in trench warfare and applied in the United States as a means of keeping incarcerated people in, for example, or livestock in and intruders out as ranchers in the American West increasingly claimed land as their personal property.

“Throughout the piece, the dancers wrestle with this unwieldy, unforgiving object, their bodies enclosed by a tangle of wires and barbs. As she continued to explore, Sheppard knew ‘Wired’ had to be an aerial dance. …

“Having never studied aerial dance before, Sheppard and Kinetic Light company members Laurel Lawson and Jerron Herman started from scratch. With support from some 30 artists and engineers with backgrounds in rigging, automation and flight, Sheppard, Lawson and Herman took to the air. …

“ ‘We are not the first disabled artists to fly, by any means,’ she said. ‘There is, of course, in circus arts, a deep and rooted history of disability and flight. That’s not random or new. And there’s a history of disabled dancers also doing aerial work in the UK, New Zealand and the U.S. Part of that history and legacy is to recognize that flight isn’t random. It is perfectly within the tradition and the culture for disabled dancers. What is new here is the construction of the show. It’s not a circus.’

“The process for ‘Wired’ started at Chicago Flyhouse in late 2019. Before the dance and other artistic elements could even begin to take shape, Kinetic Light was faced with huge technical considerations.

“ ‘Before we could even get to “here’s a pretty dance, here’s the choreography,” ‘ she said, ‘we had to get to, “how does this thing fly?” ‘ …

“Lawson, who is also an engineer, assisted in developing the chairs and harnesses needed for her and Sheppard safely ascend into the air. Company member and dancer Herman completes the cast of three and has yet another setup. Herman, who has cerebral palsy, dances sections of ‘Wired’ with a girdle-type harness used to suspend him above the stage. …

“Sheppard reiterated that she and Lawson are not the first disabled artists to fly ,,, but they are the first disabled dancers in the U.S. to explore a thorough compendium of techniques, which includes low flying on hard lines and bungees, as well as flight patterns suspended from joystick-operated, motorized cables. The pandemic enabled Kinetic Light to make connections with then-unemployed entertainment workers with expertise in automation who would not otherwise have been available.

“In a way, ‘Wired’ serves as a primer on wheelchair flight.

“ ‘Understand, this is not actually documented,’ Sheppard said. ‘There are no books. There are no teachers … All of these questions that are easily available to non-disabled aerial artists because there’s a history and tradition here — we just had to figure that out bit-by-bit.’ ”

More at the Chicago Tribune, here.

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