Access In Focus

Transforming dance into a sonic experience

Kinetic Light’s innovation in audio description

By Rebecca Klein
December 11, 2020

“DESCENT” begins with sounds of rushing water and a backdrop of shimmering stars behind a stage that slopes up into a pinnacle of light, illuminating an artistic, beautiful and functional ramp. Andromeda perches, cocoon-like, undulating at the peak while string instruments fill her world with gentle intervals. Rodin’s sculpture appears behind her, resting like a constellation against the starlit sky.

The audio describer conveys in a clear and direct voice the artistic movements, camera angles, lighting and projections: “A purple dark night, top to bottom, the back wall filled with millions of miles of stars. Atop a grey peak, a figure with brown skin is folded forward, head down. In the sky, a sculpture drawn in light appears in the same folded position.”

The stars form shadows over Andromeda’s shivering body while she continues to grip the peak’s edge. Another voice speaks, this time in a breathy, haunting manner: “Become, become, become,” the breathy voice says, not over or under the describer but alongside her, functioning as a new sonic element. Another voice, simple and blunt, joins in: “Andromeda alone on the rocky peak.” The breathy voice returns: “Stars, stars… shadows, shadows… flickers of light.”

Andromeda shakes, a rippling sensation passing like water over her body. “We float above her, starlight projected onto her back,” the describer says, noting the shifting camera angle. “Now her neck sways, her burgundy curls drifting in and out of a small pool of light.”

An image of water fills the screen while a drop sends out rippling circles against the starlit sky. The strings form dissonant intervals, clashing and retreating again and again. A soundscape enters with a noise reminiscent of a record being scratched underwater. Andromeda continues to shake as the soundscape builds, creating an otherworldly din. She then relaxes and slips out of the light before moving back to the peak, where she resumes cautious, calculated movements as she surveys her world.

Two dancers, both in wheelchairs; one crawls forward and the other arches her back as she is dragged along the floor. A sunset appears behind them.

Image Description: Two dancers, both in wheelchairs; one crawls forward and the other arches her back as she is dragged along the floor. A sunset appears behind them. Photo by MANCC / Chris Cameron.

Kinetic Light’s film “DESCENT” premiered Thursday, Dec. 3 as part of a weeklong residency with the Walker Art Center and Northrop at the University of Minnesota. Reimagined in response to the pandemic, the film took on new life under novel circumstances. Typically a live performance featuring a fusion of contemporary dance, visual art and sonic interpretation, “DESCENT” transformed into a film with unique descriptions, poetry and soundscapes—a testament to the innovation that is core to Kinetic Light.

Composed of disabled artists Alice Sheppard, Laurel Lawson and Michael Maag, Kinetic Light is a multidisciplinary arts ensemble. Dance is front and center, but Kinetic Light is not a conventional dance company.

“We look like a dance company,” said Laurel Lawson, dancer, choreographer, designer and engineer with Kinetic Light, during an interview, “but we also have the projection and video aspect, and we have this kind of massive accessibility and artistic research and scholarship.”

Kinetic Light performances are multimodal and technology-driven, and the ensemble anchors intersectional disability as an aesthetic. Disability is a fundamental part of the artists’ creative processes and performances, driving innovation in access and art. In “DESCENT,” a queer, interracial love story between Venus and Andromeda, Kinetic Light uses a revolutionary approach to audio description (AD) to transform description into an art in and of itself. Ideas for innovation began, Lawson shared, after their first showing in 2016.

“We invited many friends, advocates and community leaders to our first work-in-progress show,” Lawson said. “For the most part it was a great success, but some of our blind friends came up afterwards and said they could hear people gasping, holding their breath and leaning forward in their seats, but nothing in the live description was that exciting. We failed because we hadn’t offered an equitable experience, and that was unacceptable.”

According to the American Council of the Blind, traditional AD features one voice describing the visual elements of an art form that cannot be understood from the main soundtrack alone. AD is generally written after an artistic piece is fully realized, which means it functions as what Lawson called a “secondhand translation,” often creating an inequitable experience for non-visual audience members.

Kinetic Light realized a single AD track was not enough to capture all that “DESCENT” aims to impart. To reflect the performance’s complexity and provide an equitable experience, the AD needed to present a rich, multidimensional artistic experience. Most importantly, it needed to be a firsthand creation that supported audience autonomy, which led Lawson to the question: How do you turn dance into a sonic experience?

“I put on my product designer hat, and with a lot of time and work, back and forth testing and iterating, out came Audimance,” Lawson said.

Audimance is a web and mobile application that offers non-visual users a way to experience dance through listening. The app is currently in active development while the team transitions to an open source project and builds a community of developers, according to Lawson. Her goal is to make the app available to artists, audio describers, media companies and venues to develop accessible and equitable content.

“This was not even a part of considered practice a few years ago,” Lawson said. “We’re continuing to innovate, and we’re deepening what we’ve found that works. We’ve already put [Audimance] out into live performances, so we have the data and audience experience to show that this is creating an equitable and choice-based artistic experience.”

For live performances of “DESCENT,” audience members have used Audimance to listen to eight distinct tracks however they choose—individually, simultaneously and in different combinations throughout the performance. Lawson likened the experience to being in a large museum gathering with twenty speakers scattered throughout the space. Each speaker is playing a different track, but all of the tracks are part of the experience. Users can choose whether to cuddle up to one speaker, sit between speakers or wander through the room at their own pace.

Since Audimance was built for live performance, the film “DESCENT” took a slightly different AD approach while still holding central Kinetic Light’s commitment to user autonomy. The film offered three separate tracks: The first had no captions or AD; the second featured one audio describer, Cheryl Green, who provided a balanced mix of skilled technical description and artistic style; and the third featured a crafted multitrack of elements including Green’s description, a tone poem, a soundscape by Andy Slater, poetry by Eli Clare and a soundtrack of what Kinetic Light calls “bumps and bangs,” the sounds of Sheppard and Lawson’s bodies and wheels on the ramp. Lawson said the mixed multitrack was informed by Audimance user data, which she extracted to learn how listeners mixed tracks during live performances.

During the film premiere, audience members had the autonomy to choose which of the three tracks to experience. The description track and mixed multitrack, which Lawson said was designed for non-visual users with highly skilled listening practices, reflected the nuanced variety in listening abilities and preferences.

“With multiple choices,” said Thomas Reid, a blind podcaster and music and sound designer, during an episode of Reid My Mind about Audimance, “someone new to vision loss may be more comfortable simply choosing one or two tracks, such as the poetry or traditional description.”

Cheryl Green, who wrote and recorded the description track, learns from experts like Reid to find out what AD users expect and want from the work. Unlike the documentaries Green typically works on, “DESCENT” has no dialogue. With no other voices to circumvent, Green had more space for description. This luxury, while challenging due to the volume of text, allowed her to shift frequently between literal and emotional statements, asking herself what listeners should etch into their memories.

“Thomas Reid talks about an audio describer as the second director of a film. The audio describer has to make choices about what information audiences get access to,” Green said in an interview. “The descriptions of choreography are essential, but there’s also a story told through movement, physicality, stillness, interaction, lighting design, explorations of the ramp’s shape and slope, music, and the dancers’ genders, sexualities and ethnicities. I want my description to encompass all of that.”

By creating opportunities for artists to react to the piece and construct the world in which they found themselves, Kinetic Light allowed “DESCENT” to exist in multiple mediums without hierarchy. All were legitimate works of art, said Sheppard, Artistic Director, choreographer and dancer with Kinetic Light, during the post-show discussion. The creators of those experiences, she emphasized, were holders in the work—not just service providers, as traditional audio describers are often viewed.

“It was really nice to watch other artists inspired by the work and see how they tried to understand it, enhance it, bring things out,” said Maag, Kinetic Light’s video, projection and lighting designer, during the post-show discussion. “I think [the description and multitrack creators] discovered things in the work that we didn’t know were there. It became that much more beautiful for us.”

The implication of the three tracks, Sheppard noted, is that access is much more than the built environment, much more than an accommodation or a service. In “DESCENT,” access is creative and generative and functions as an aesthetic.

“Access itself must reside in the work from the very beginning,” Sheppard said. “Access is relational, it is a promise, it is a process. It cannot be achieved fully, but it is a commitment. When you’re inviting someone into the work, you have to be inviting them into the work, not to enter a description of the work.”

Though “DESCENT” started on stage with Sheppard, Lawson and Maag, their innovative approach to AD has allowed the piece to be held by many artists, “all of whom,” Sheppard said, “have different stakes in it, responses and takes on it, and whom are creators in this process.”

Rebecca Klein is a writer, media accessibility advocate and the first All Senses Go intern. You can follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaFKlein.