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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Laurel Lawson

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Laurel Lawson

In a rehearsal moment for Wired, Laurel is suspended in midair.
She looks joyfully to the right of the frame,
her hands extended below from pushing off the ground,
body diagonal to the gray marley floor.
A black cord at her waist leads upward and loops
of barbed wire are visible in the foreground.
(Photo: Grace Kathryn Landefeld, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow)

Dancer, choreographer, and engineer, Laurel Lawson found that dance combines her lifelong loves of athleticism and art.  Featuring liminality, synthesistic myth, and partnering, her work includes both traditional choreography and novel processes for extending and creating art through technology and design.

Laurel began her professional dance career with Full Radius Dance in 2004 and is part of the disabled artists’ collective Kinetic Light, where in addition to choreographic collaboration and performance she contributes costume design and leads technical innovation, including the Audimance project, a revolutionary app centering non-visual audiences, and the Access ALLways initiative. Beyond dance, Laurel is an advocate and organizer, musician, skates for the USA Women’s Sled Hockey team, and leads CyCore Systems, a technology consultancy specializing in novel problems.

Laurel Lawson is a 2019-20 Dance/USA Artist Fellow.  Dance/USA Fellowships to Artists is made possible with generous funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

In a moment from Wired, two dancers in wheelchairs
(Alice Sheppard, a light-skinned Black woman and Laurel Lawson, a white woman)
reach for each other while suspended above the ground by tethers.
The skin of their backs and arms is exposed and their faces overlap intimately.
If they let go of each other, the tethers will swing them like pendulums.
(Photo: Mengwen Cao)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

I am a dancer, choreographer, and engineer; a member of Kinetic Light, a leading disability arts ensemble; a member of Full Radius Dance; and an independent choreographer, artist, and educator.

In January, my 2020 calendar was fully booked, mostly on the road, with the next two years filling up quickly. In fact, I arranged to give up my lease at the beginning of March since I would be away from home most of the year. I moved a few bags of what I would need for residencies and touring to Kinetic Light’s New York City rehearsal hub and the rest went into storage with only a few necessities for short stays going into the house my partner and I are gutting and renovating to rehabilitate it and make it accessible.

Instead, with incredible foreshadowing, I began the year with a tour cancellation in Hong Kong, briefly visited Vancouver for as a member of the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team, visited Kirkland the day their nursing home outbreak was announced and then went to NYC for a showing. I left NYC one day before Gibney closed--thinking I would immediately return, my dance chair and most of my rehearsal gear is still there, five months later. We are lucky to have been able to move into the un-renovated house--very much not accessible, but temporarily habitable. I have a few pieces of shower board taped up over the uneven floor in one room to make an impromptu video studio for taking class, teaching, and filming.

Five months later, and it begins to sink in. The original premiere date at the Shed for Kinetic Light’s new work WIRED has come and gone. Many of the touring dates for that work and for DESCENT may never be rescheduled, depending on how large venues fare and when people can return to indoor environments. My artistic life exists in brief flashes of video--instead of intensive day-long partnering and rehearsal; instead of choreographing for commissions; instead of the day to day of touring.

While I am happy to be able to make some work, I do not relish the technical aspects of producing film. I am grateful to be able to work with funders for program-building and to create necessary and innovative software and products, but my body is not made for  administration and constant long days at my computer. And I cannot help but grieve the commissions lost, very much at the beginning of my choreographic career.

Likewise, in this shifting time: I do not, cannot, resent my work as an activist, as a community organizer, in this time. I absolutely can resent the need for it. I am furious as all the people and all the systems found they could change and shift massively, people still made choices to exclude disabled people; even as it becomes easier to provide access, as the necessity of change makes space for the change, people are making choices to deny access and promote exclusion. No longer shielded by the excuses of convenience or cost, it is revealed as we always knew it to be--bigotry and lack of care. Nonetheless, I am beginning or continuing several major projects, accessible software, accessible community and teaching practice; and perhaps when we are no longer in crisis I can even get to some of the (many) writing projects I’ve needed to backburner.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

My professional work in the arts began in music. I was diverted from attending conservatory by sudden and severe repetitive stress injury; I successfully made the transition from classical music to folk and jazz and made part of my income gigging in college, also picking up theatrical tech & design along the way. Before grad school, I took a gap year and fell by chance (while working a physical acting job) into my first modern dance class with Douglas Scott of Full Radius Dance, who later invited me into his company.

As a dancer, I strive to remain grounded in the meeting of athleticism, precision, and storytelling. As a choreographer I make work that tells stories through ensemble, physicality, and partnering; liminal space, often structured with synthesistic mythology: old stories from a new angle. And as a designer and artist-engineer, my practice encompasses the fusion of technology and traditional work, creating entirely new ways of experiencing art.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning? How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

My practice is built on the synergy of collaboration and the exposure of deep stories. While I cannot, in this moment, practice in the way I would prefer, the purpose remains. I am working to understand how I can connect the diversity of my areas of practice to create new things and to extend the things I already do. In addition to what people might immediately think of as dance, as art: I am practicing the understanding of how people are influenced by systems and environments. Art is neither immune nor somehow above the still-rising tides of surveillance and covert manipulation; art is itself a means of communication and influence. So my work in exposing those aspects in tech, in art; my work in inviting people to think about community, about ethics, about equity: these take practice, work, commitment, time, and support.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

This is a time not of rest, but of building infrastructure--work that is traditionally undervalued in the dance world. Creating new systems, teaching, organizing. Not being a prophet, I am waiting to find out what world, what society, will emerge from this time--as well as working to bring about a society that shares my values. And moreover how the shifts that we can see happening, long overdue, will affect the arts: what does sustainability and justice look like? As remote work becomes normalized, how does that resonate outwards into geographic and economic equity? We are a vital and deeply interdependent part of the ecosystem.

Briefly share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now.

I am now practicing: Patience. Care. Struggling to stay present with both the passage of time and work which might not be my preference but is nonetheless both important and urgent.


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve, at Gibney, as Senior Director of Artist Development and Curation and Editorial Director. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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