“Am I missing something here?” is a question prompted by many dance performances. In my mind, the thought often has an anxious tone, since I consider it my job as a critic to try to miss as little as possible. When I attended the New York premiere of Kinetic Light’s “Wired” at The Shed on Thursday, the question was especially loud in my head. But even more unusual was the unequivocal clarity of the answer. I was missing something. By design.
That’s because Kinetic Light, a disability arts ensemble whose work is made by and for disabled people, has an ethic and aesthetic of access that is exceptionally thoughtful and thorough. It ensures that no one way of experiencing the work is prioritized. No one person can experience it in every aspect.
One I knew I was missing was an audio description of the performance. Kinetic Light uses an application called Audimance, and in keeping with the ensemble’s emphasis on increasing choice and control, users can pick among no fewer than seven different tracks of audio description for “Wired,” switching from one to another and mixing them at will.
Audimance is not intended for fully sighted people like me, but before the show, I asked if I could try it. The company generously allowed me to sample the audio description for one section, with the warning that “it was created for people whose primary experience of art is through sound, and may be challenging for people without cultivated listening practices.”
Actually, I found it familiar, since trying to put dance into words is what I do all the time. One track sounded like the phrases I scrawl in my notebook in the dark: “hard to see at first,” “one dancer emerges,” “reminds me of X.” Others were closer to the polished product of a review, combining physical description with stabs at interpretation. One — accurately marked as sexually explicit — was a pungent, poetic monologue (by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha), more an evocation of a dancer’s thoughts and feelings than of a dancer’s motions: “I’ll eroticize the shocks.”
Listening to these descriptions of a dance I hadn’t yet seen, I was reminded of how much information each moment of a dance can contain, how many points of entry. (One track focused exclusively on the lighting, which I tend to treat parenthetically.) The variety of tracks addressing the same section brought into greater relief the inherent subjectivity of audience experience, especially when it comes to emotion and meaning. Mixing them together felt like listening to a dinner companion’s voice while paying attention to the conversation at the next table. I do that all the time.
When finally I was watching “Wired,” I sometimes missed these voices or wondered what they might be saying. For — here comes a big difference in what I do: evaluate — my experience of this work was both of a lot and not quite enough.
“Wired” is centered on two metaphors that cross and compete. It is the company’s first aerial work, which means that the three performers, who are also the choreographers, use cables, rigging and pulleys to rise and hover in the air. Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson do so mostly in their wheelchairs, Jerron Herman on his own. But “Wired” is also about the history and associations of barbed wire — keeping people (or cattle) in or out.
The 85-minute work is divided into many short sections. It feels, excitingly, like a sequence of experiments, but also, frustratingly, like a series of sketches. Many segments seem amorphous, squeezing variations from an already squeezed-out idea, with exits and endings that are arbitrary or baffling. Within each section, the strongest moments are spaced out, separated, like barbs without the connecting wire.
“Wired” was inspired by the barbed-wire sculptures of Melvin Edwards, and it emulates their balance between abstraction and social or political resonance: Barbed wire is line, as in a drawing, but it also draws blood. Yet, sustaining that balance is trickier in choreography — because of time, because of bodies — and “Wired” wobbles.
It begins arrestingly with Sheppard and Lawson airborne in their wheelchairs, floating and spinning like astronauts in low gravity. The wires that hold them and that they hold cross aesthetically, but if the performers grab onto each other and let go, the wires (along with gravity) also pull them apart: abstraction, human drama.
Two sections later, Sheppard and Lawson have another duet, in which Lawson, who is white, keeps tugging at the hair of Sheppard, who is multiracial and Black. Lawson appears to be pulling Sheppard down, and after Lawson disappears, Sheppard flies more freely, but also flails, falling in beautiful slow-motion arcs. Is this escape?
The image is richly ambiguous, since Sheppard isn’t fully in control. Her ascents and descents depend on the people operating the rigging (who sit at a table visible to the audience). That tension returns later in a Sisyphean solo during which Sheppard keeps crawling toward a corner only to be dragged back to the center.
But many other sections just spin in the air. And some of the most effective bits aren’t aerial at all. At the end of the first act, the three performers kneel in boxes of projected light (by Michael Maag), hooded, festooned with barbed wire, sinking and rising as if praying. The meaning here is clear enough, as it is later when Herman uses barbed wire to whip an image of the American flag projected onto the floor. But the connections aren’t.
For me, there’s too much content, too little development. (Even the music won’t make up its mind, alternating between R&B-ish humming by LeahAnn Mitchell and modernist prepared piano by Ailis Ni Riain.)
What I found most successful and moving was the atmosphere of inclusiveness and the audience it attracted: buzzing, festive, with many more wheelchair users than I’ve seen before at a dance show. When the preshow announcer, accompanied by two ASL interpreters, explained that phones should be silenced but that some audience members would be using devices for accessibility, the information was greeted with cheers. I’m sure that many people cheering then and during the bows got more out of the show — something different — than I did. I was happy to be among them.--NYT