Cripping Choreography

A dancer in a wheelchair is suspended from the ceiling. Her right arm clasps a cable that’s hooked onto her wheelchair, and her left reaches down toward another dancer, who jumps and extends his right arm toward her; his left arm rests on his chest. He is encircled by silver barbed wire.

Alice Sheppard and Jerron Herman of Kinetic Light rehearse Wired, October 2019.

In February 1967, while recovering from surgery related to an illness, Yvonne Rainer, a pioneer of “deskilled” dance, presented a new version of her most famous work, Trio A. Rainer performed the newly titled Convalescent Dance by herself at the Playhouse at Hunter College in New York. Originally designed for three dancers, she had adapted the choreography, already meant to be performable by trained and untrained dancers alike, to the slower pace that best suited her body at the time. In a 2019 Art Papers essay on Convalescent Dance, curator Risa Puleo said that Rainer’s performance explored “what pain does.” In her 2008 book, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s, art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty quotes Rainer as saying that the original Trio A was “a dance in which you really have to lug your weight around.” Rainer allowed impairment to transform her choreography, and Convalescent Dance became a major milestone in the history of disability and dance.

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More than four decades later, Rainer—a MacArthur fellow, a founding member of Judson Dance Theater—revised the composition yet again. In her seventies, Trio A: Geriatric with Talking (2010) showcased, as Rainer told Puleo, how “getting up and down off the floor requires a lot more maneuvering than it used to.” Rainer’s early choreography celebrated, among other things, ordinary movements: the expressive capacities of kneeling, of shaking your head, of rolling on the floor. And when she went through periods of sickness, those movements became an even more important part of her repertoire. In her 1966 Hand Movie, an 8mm film she shot on her sickbed, we see a dance she choreographed for just her hand, while her body rests.

A younger generation of disabled dancers is building on Rainer’s example. But not content simply to adapt existing choreography to their bodies, these performers are instead out to upend the discipline’s tenets—or better yet, to “crip” them. In her 2003 essay “Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer?,” scholar Carrie Sandahl writes that the verb “to crip” means to probe “mainstream representation or practices to reveal able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects.” In other words, to crip is to refigure something, breaking down any exclusionary barriers, and in so doing, to articulate disabled pride. These dancers treat impairment as a generative, artistic force, highlighting what is unique and beautiful about the way they move.

A Black man stands on his right leg and leans forward, his left leg extended high out to the side, his arms spread wide and bent at the elbow. A blue bench in the foreground reads i’d rather be sitting.

Jerron Herman in his solo Many Ways to Raise a Fist, July 2019, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

JERRON HERMAN IS A DANCER WITH cerebral palsy hemiplegia, meaning that he experiences involuntary movement in half his body—his left side. (Many other dancers in the field prefer not to disclose their diagnosis.) Herman considers Rainer a hero: she played an important role in redefining what counts as dance. There’s nothing deskilled about Herman’s work, though. Many Ways to Raise a Fist, a solo performance that he debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the summer of 2019, blends bold, full-body movements with more understated gestures. For example, he celebrates his visible muscle spasms. He performed some of Many Ways while seated on a bench designed by Shannon Finnegan, which bears the inscription: I’D RATHER BE SITTING. SIT IF YOU AGREE. Disabled dancers and disabled visual artists often collaborate, forming something of a coalition. The “webs of interdependence spun between disabled people,” design historian Aimi Hamraie said in an email, constitute disability culture, as do “shared language and values, and a political approach to disability.”

Herman’s Many Ways celebrated the twenty-ninth anniversary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation that granted civil rights to disabled people. The performance was also an homage to the style of activism that paved the way for the ADA, and a challenge to the ableist notion that protest means marches and fist-raising. In an interview with Berlin Art Link, Herman noted that “as a Black, Disabled man, I was immediately named an activist when I did not feel my level of activity warranted such a title . . . people wanted this grand stance or gesture in order to read me.” Behind Herman played a slideshow of archival protest imagery, including shots of a monumental 1990 intervention, in which more than sixty activists who use wheelchairs and crutches crawled up the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, demanding that politicians, who were about to vote on the ADA, witness the profound inaccessibility the demonstrators experienced every day.

A breathless Black man wearing track pants and a blazer stands on his left foot, right leg raised with knee bent, before a spotlit pillar.

Jerron Herman in his solo PHYS ED, November 2018, Gibney Dance Center, New York.

Herman started dancing as an adult. Few disabled dancers grow up with disabled role models in the field, or are encouraged to take up dance as children. While Herman was interning at a theater on Forty Second Street in New York, the choreographer Sean Curran became interested in his movement, and got him an audition at Heidi Latsky Dance Company. Herman joined right away.

Heidi Latsky is what’s called a “physically integrated” dance company, one that brings together disabled and nondisabled performers. Most disabled dancers enter the field through companies such as Axis Dance in Oakland, Dancing Wheels in Cleveland, or Full Radius in Atlanta. Some of these troupes—Axis, Dancing Wheels—have disabled leaders or founders; others, like Heidi Latsky and Full Radius, do not. Disabled dancers typically have mixed feelings about physically integrated dance. To varying degrees, this model tends to integrate disabled people into the field’s norms. Most participants admit that they probably wouldn’t be dancers without the physically integrated companies they began in, but they complain that, sometimes, those in wheelchairs are treated, as dancer Alice Sheppard put it in an interview on Brooklyn’s public access BRIC TV, like “a prop onstage.” Most ambulatory people are ill-equipped to choreograph for wheelchair, cane, or crutch users in a manner that fully exercises their potential. Another dancer I spoke with complained that many physically integrated companies tend to turn away dancers whose disabilities are not visible.

Laurel Lawson, a dancer and wheelchair user with a background in engineering, is writing a book that focuses on technique for wheelchair dancers, specifically manual (rather than power) chairs. She noticed that, in physically integrated companies, the biological damage caused by overuse—something that’s normalized in sports—often takes an even greater toll on disabled dancers. They might not receive proper training customized to their bodies, which puts them at risk for injury. Lawson’s pedagogical approach encourages what she calls “biomechanical alignment.” She has also designed wheelchairs for many dancers in the US and Europe.

Lawson is both a performer and an engineer for Kinetic Light, a dance ensemble she cofounded with lighting designer Michael Maag and fellow wheelchair dancer Alice Sheppard. Herman recently joined the group. Kinetic Light is committed to making dance accessible to disabled audiences. For blind and low-vision individuals, Lawson created an app called Audimance, which provides several tracks of audio description. These tracks center nonvisual audiences and are considered part of the art rather than an add-on. One track might use technical dance terms to describe the movements (tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade); another, more poetic or interpretive descriptions—something like “she dips, then scurries, then glides across the stage in a graceful frenzy.” For Kinetic Light, access is not simply about conveying information in a functional sense, but also about emulating an aesthetic; it is both a service and an art. The ensemble is careful not to employ accessibility tools in ways that privilege a nondisabled audience: for instance, they use no projected images of braille, which renders it illegible to those who might actually know how to read it, a befuddlingly common occurrence. The group also offers artists and art professionals access workshops on a monthly basis in a program called ALLways, as well as research fellowships. One of the current fellows, a Deaf engineer named Mel Chua, is exploring access for Deaf audiences, asking if and how haptic sound vibrations or sound visualizations can provide meaningful experiences.

Two dancers seem attached by their wheelchairs. One crawls forward on her hands and the other arches her back as she is dragged along the floor. A projection of a sunset appears behind them.

Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson of Kinetic Light in their duet Descent, November 2018, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, New York.

IN DECEMBER, THE FILM version of Lawson and Sheppard’s duet Descent premiered in an online event co-hosted by the University of Minnesota and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The work exalts the joys of embracing reckless abandon. Many stages are not wheelchair accessible, so venues often add lifts, which tend to impede a dramatic entrance. So Kinetic Light asked artist and writer Sara Hendren and her engineering students to create a ramp that’s not just functional but beautiful, one that re-creates the feeling of whooshing down a hill. The team designed a dramatic half-pipe-like ramp that doubles as a projection screen. The live hour-long performance premiered in 2018 and toured the United States; footage of the 2018 presentation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center was edited into a video during this time of social distancing. Exploring the sensation of sweet release, the dancers fall and whoosh often—into one another’s arms, down the ramp. Holding hands, they spin circles in their wheelchairs, propelled by centripetal force. In a grand finale, Sheppard hooks her knees into Lawson’s footplate, while Lawson, her spine arched, leans her chair so far back that her head touches the ground. Sheppard leans forward, dragging Lawson across the floor by crawling forward on her hands.

Descent portrays a relationship between the Greco-Roman mythological figures Andromeda and Venus. Andromeda is the princess of Ancient Ethiopia, the region south of Egypt; Venus is the goddess of love. Kinetic Light reimagined the duo as queer, interracial lovers—a nod to Auguste Rodin’s sensual 1890 sculpture of the two figures bathing. Because so many disabled dancers begin their training as adults, often switching from other careers, the field is richly interdisciplinary. Sheppard, for example, was a professor in comparative literature before she quit to become a dancer: hence, the mythological references. Queer, crip interdependence is the theme of Descent: when one partner falls, the other catches; when they speed down the ramp, it’s with a sense of liberation. When, in the beginning, the duo dance and crawl on the ground without their chairs, it’s with a palpable tenderness. Sheppard, Herman, and Lawson are currently working on a new piece—an aerial work that involves dancers suspended on bungee cables—which considers how barbed wire aggressively separates “us” from “them.” Called Wired, it’s set to premiere at The Shed in New York once in-person performances resume.

DISABLED PEOPLE BRING MANY unique perspectives to dance. Antoine Hunter, a Deaf dancer based in the Bay Area and founder of Urban Jazz Dance Company, which comprises both Deaf and hearing dancers, reminds us that American Sign Language (ASL) is a form of bodily expression. He experiences music as vibrations in his bones rather than sounds in his ears, which makes the translation of beats to movements natural. His 2018 Deaf’s Imprisoned tells the story of people like Magdiel Sanchez and Daniel Harris, just two of several Deaf people shot and killed by police officers in recent years: neither complied with officers’ commands, as they were unable to hear them. In one scene, Hunter signs alone in an orange jumpsuit, evoking the language deprivation that many Deaf inmates experience in prison, where often no one else knows ASL.

Lin moves her arms in a circular motion inside a translucent fabric room filled with magenta light. Swirling white projections grace the fabric’s surface.

Yo-Yo Lin in The Walls of My Room Are Curved, December 2019, Gibney Dance Center, New York.

Both disability and dance require knowing the ins and outs of one’s body, and disabled people tend to be experts in their own unique movements. Artists like New York–based Yo-Yo Lin and New Zealand–based Pelenakeke Brown promote the union of comfort and choreography in workshops they run for fellow disabled dancers. The two leaders encourage participants to respond to movement prompts in a manner that feels good for their bodies. Their courses, funded primarily by the Ford Foundation, are hosted on Zoom under the name Rotations Dance. Lin and Brown incorporate closed captions and image descriptions, and appoint access doulas dedicated to accommodating any other access requests. There are no penalties for tardiness, and no skill-level prerequisites for classes.

Lin calls her method of choreography “authentic movement.” In her solo performance The Walls of My Room Are Curved, which premiered at New York’s Gibney Dance in December 2019, Lin attached small microphones to her body that captured and played back the live sounds of her crackling bones and joints. Diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder, Lin literally amplifies her impairment. While she moves, an electronic musician named Despina mixes the dancer’s body sounds into a real-time musical score. Lin slowly crawls on the floor, then rises to a kneeling position, moving her arms overhead. When she begins to stand, her gestures grow bigger and the creaking becomes more frequent. Her movements, recorded live, are immediately projected as a silhouette of white light on the translucent mesh curtains that surround her. The piece was inspired by drummer Milford Graves, who began creating rhythms based on irregular heartbeats long before he got amyloid cardiomyopathy, or stiff heart syndrome. Lin is currently working on a new multimedia performance, also commissioned by The Shed, which is set to premiere this summer. Featuring choreography by Brown, the piece will explore isolation, connectivity, and technology in the lives of chronically ill people.

A screenshot of a Zoom call in which a participant shares their screen. The shared screen shows multiple videos in different windows, all featuring Lin or Brown. The two are seen seated, dancing, playing with their hair, lighting candles, and peeling an orange. A rainbow wheel that indicates loading eclipses Lin’s face.

Pelenakeke Brown and Yo-Yo Lin in Glitchual, an online performance they produced in July 2020 with Kevin Gotkin.

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Brown is the newly appointed artistic director of the Auckland-based physically integrated company Touch Compass, where she is the first disabled person to hold that title in the organization’s twenty-four-year history. In 2019, during a residency at the Brooklyn-based art and technology hub Eyebeam, Brown began a project that treats her one-handed use of the computer keyboard as a type of choreography. The resulting work was not a performance in the traditional sense but a text titled “Provocation,” published that year in the Movement Research Performance Journal. It boasts poems arranged across the page in a manner that evokes movement, and records commands (“ctrl+z,” “delete”) in addition to written reflections on her own physical maneuvers. Brown produced a similar text-based work for a 2019 show at London’s Raven Row Gallery curated by In*ter*is*land, a UK-based collective of Pacific Islander artists.

As a participant in Axis’s latest Choreo-Lab, an annual confab of disabled choreographers, Brown is continuing her inquiry into keyboard movements, choreographing a dance that interprets keys like “enter,” “return,” “shift,” and “command” into gestures. Brown danced with Touch Compass briefly as a child but took a hiatus from dance for a couple of decades, turning instead to visual art. “Provocation” and the performance Excavātion (2018) both clearly integrate her dual background. In the latter, Brown installed copies of her medical records in a gallery space, then performed there, sitting and lying on the floor. Her largely supine and arm-based choreography endeavored to explore the space between movements that feel comfortable and those that constitute dance. Excavātion premiered at Denniston Hill in the Catskills. Reading her medical records in preparation for the piece, Brown learned not only the language and tests that medical professionals used to study her body, but also fragments of her own biography that she hadn’t known before: for instance, that she was funny as a kid, and that her mother was undocumented when she emigrated from Samoa to New Zealand. Brown’s performance examined the gulf between sterile, clinical conceptions of the body that view people as flawed specimens in need of cure, and her own personal experience. All of Brown’s work deals with the Samoan concept of the Vā, which roughly translates to “the space between.”

A Samoan dancer wearing an orange outfit looks up toward her raised left hand.

Pelenakeke Brown in her solo Excavātion, June 2018, at Denniston Hill, Glen Wild, New York.

In the spring of 2019, Brown curated a program at Judson Memorial Church in New York, where Rainer and her collaborators performed in the ’60s. Hosted by Movement Research’s Artist of Color Council, the three performances probed the concept of sovereignty—over land, over one’s body—with pieces by disabled and Indigenous dancers. A standout among them was Rodney Bell’s Te Kuuititaga. Something of a role model for Brown, Bell, a Māori (indigenous to Aotearoa, or New Zealand) wheelchair dancer, is a founding member of Touch Compass who danced with Axis for several years. Now based in New Zealand, he was unable to return to the US for the program, having overstayed his visa some years prior. So he created a duet for himself and another dancer, Katrina George, whom he joined via prerecorded video. Immigrants and disabled people have long practiced the kind of remote access that became the norm during the pandemic.

There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to challenging ableist stereotypes, making art accessible, and fostering a culture that celebrates disability. Perhaps the most effective strategy is to bulldoze barriers and ignore such stereotypes altogether, as many of these dancers do. Sheppard, for example, insists that she’s not out to evangelize nondisabled people. She’s not simply arguing that disabled people matter and can actually do amazing things. Disability culture, she told Aimi Hamraie on their podcast Contra*, “is more than the constant arguing for justice and the constant explaining of disabled life.” It’s about “who [we] are . . . when we’re not justifying our humanity to others.” Sheppard sees her primary audience as other disabled people. Still, there’s no denying the important work these dancers are doing in shaking up representations of disability. As Herman put it in a September 2020 essay for Dance/USA, paraphrasing the activist Simi Linton, “dancing while disabled is a political act.”


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