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Translations – A research project for blind and partially sighted viewers

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Researching the Potential of Dance

By Naomi Brand

In 2016, while waiting in line for a show, VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society executive director Steph Kirkland and I started chatting. We quickly tumbled into an exciting conversation about live description, the blind community and the possibilities (and impossibilities) of describing dance.

Our brief conversation sparked a curiosity I hadn’t experienced in a long time and questions I couldn’t let go of: how would you make a dance for the non-visual senses? How could dance be made accessible to audiences of blind or partially sighted people? How can dance be “translated” into language, touch or sound?

The answer to these questions was Translations, an immersive performance for small audiences created by All Bodies Dance Project and VocalEye over the 2018-2019 season. Working alongside us was Collin van Uchelen and other artistic consultants from the blind community, as we experimented with different tools, techniques and approaches to describing dance. We explored language, touch and sound as the means of communicating our choreography, in the process shifting our dance-making away from the dominant visual sense toward other ways of sensing and perceiving movement.

The project was a good fit with All Bodies Dance Project, which I have been co-leading since its founding in 2014. Our company, which is made up of artists with and without disabilities, focuses on community-engaged work outside of the typical dance scene and seeks to challenge notions of the “normal” body. We’ve developed a process where we look for what is generative about our differences and use those to create choreography.

As a dancer, I believe that all moving bodies impart a kind of kinaesthetic empathy. The intangible exchange of energy between moving and witnessing bodies in real time is what makes the art form so impactful. It’s a beautiful and grandiose idea that I imagine resonates with many dance artists, but, in creating Translations, that belief was truly put to the test. If you take the visual away from dance, what is left? What are we performing when we aren’t being watched? What do we miss and what is revealed?

Translations begins in the theatre lobby where each audience member is paired one-to-one with a guide/performer. Sighted audience members are invited to close their eyes and keep them closed throughout the show in order to experience the dance from a non-visual perspective — not as a way to replicate the experience of blindness, but rather as an opportunity to focus on the information about the moving body being delivered through other senses.

One by one, each audience member is guided into the performance space to their place in the circle of seats arranged in the centre of the room. The performers, who are both wheelchair users and standing dancers, wear black with accents of neon yellow so they can see one another in the dimly lit space. The dancing takes place both inside and outside the circle, both in front of and behind the audience.

The piece unfolds through numerous sections that employ different descriptive techniques, for example, a portion of the piece is described through touch on each audience members’ back, while another section involves different approaches to the dancers’ own verbal description. The concluding section relies solely on the sounds created by their moving bodies.

The project began from the idea that the description and the dance would be created together, one in service of the other. In some of our first research sessions, we were overwhelmed by the infinite number of things that could be described about a moving body. Beyond all the possible adjectives and action words, we found ourselves grappling with questions such as: do we describe the person’s clothing? Their skin colour? Their size? Their mobility device?

How do our descriptions account for the whole person and not just their appearance? What about their identity, ethnic background, history or personality? Without the scaffolding of a theatrical character or scripted lines to hang a description on, we were left to make choices about what we value most about the dances and dancers.

Live description is intended to evoke an image in the listener’s imagination, but descriptive language relies on shared cultural understanding. This typically assumes a narrow image of who and what a dancer is, most often a young, white, thin and able-bodied woman. The same goes for notions of what dance looks like, which typically involves images of virtuosic extensions, athletic leaps and graceful turns. All Bodies Dance Project is made up of dancers with very different bodies, mobility tools and ways of understanding space. The lack of cultural images of wheelchair users and standing dancers moving together in physical contact made description all the more challenging.

We explored both metaphorical and objective language, or, as Steph Kirkland calls these two styles, “Bjork and Sherlock.” At one point in the piece, the same movement was described as “I spread my arms and legs out onto the floor” and also as “I melt like peanut butter on toast,” to very different impact.

We didn’t aim for accuracy when creating our descriptions. It isn’t important that the listener be able to see the dancers’ exact movements or precise shapes in their imaginations. Rather, it was about layering the language with the sound of the body moving, the breath of the dancer and the movement of the air to create a new understanding of the dance.

The audience received information in layers, for example, a phrase of movement might be repeated but described through different modalities each time in order to create a “full” picture of the dance that has multiple sensorial entry points. In one section, the description was tactile, when the guides “dance” a choreographed sequence of hand actions on audience members’ backs in relation to a solo. Through these different tools, Translations aims to promote a kind of “sensory mobility” (a term we learned from one of our consultants, Carmen Papalia) in audience members and invite many different ways to enter into the dance.

Translations is intimate and vulnerable by design. The one-to-one relationship between performer and audience involved establishing consent and trust in order for everyone to feel safe while being guided and touched. For the dancers, dancing in the darkness was exposing in unexpected ways. The piece requires the performers to be transparent and generous in their dancing, to allow their bodies to be heard, to expose their breath and to open themselves up to being sensed by the audience. Performers are often trained to hide or reduce the sounds of their bodies breathing or travelling, but here it was important to amplify those so that we were made present. Without sound we disappeared into the darkness.

Through Translations, I have learned so much about dance, myself as an artist and my biases. What I initially thought was a project about creating dance for the absence of sight was, in fact, not about a lack. Instead, Translations has been about uncovering the abundance of information, sensation and potential that exists inside the performance experience. Along with many artists, I have been making dances with default notions of who the audience might be and how they might perceive a performance. That unconscious default spectator is probably someone like me, a non-disabled, sighted person who enjoys the privilege of being “typical.” These norms reinforce the idea that there is a right way to be an audience member, a right way to be a dancer and a right way to engage with the world. Translations shows this isn’t the case.

Naomi Brand is a dancer, choreographer, teacher and co-founder of All Bodies Dance Project in Vancouver.


Intimacy and Interdependence: Toward a New Status Quo

By Steph Kirkland

VocalEye specializes in making theatre performances more accessible, through live description, for people who are blind and partially sighted. Since the debut of this service in Vancouver in 2009, VocalEye has expanded its practice to include fireworks, the Pride Parade, visual art and, most recently, dance.

All Bodies Dance Project in Translations

Video still: Martin Borden

The traditional approach to live description features an outside observer who creates a script that translates important visual information into vivid verbal descriptions. The describer strives to guide the listener and to serve the work without “explaining” it. VocalEye first collaborated with All Bodies Dance Project for a performance called Do Make Show, using traditional verbal description techniques. What we discovered, however, was that words alone were not sufficient in conjuring the visceral response that watching dance evokes.

Finding a way to achieve this sympathetic response was one of many challenges we embraced in our next research project together, Translations. Our provocative year-long exploration resulted in the creation of a dance performance that was specifically designed with and for people who are blind and partially sighted. Sighted people who attended were invited to keep their eyes closed throughout, and had to adapt to a new status quo where the relationship between audience and performer was radically altered.

Before the show, each audience member was paired with a dancer who had been trained in “sighted guide” techniques. Following a brief orientation, audience members were guided into the dimly lit space of the black-box theatre and seated in a circle of 12 evenly spaced chairs.

For those who were sighted, this was perhaps their first experience of the intimacy and interdependence of the guide and the guided. These performance conventions, a familiar part of live description for the blind, made them the centre of their own experience, an audience of one, where they could observe their own powers of attention and imagination and ultimately access dance through that form of “seeing” that happens with the mind, not the eye.

The traditional role of the “describer as witness” had been transformed into “performer as guide.” The guides were all dance professionals, making a different kind of dance in their new role. Their first action as dancer-guides, once the audience was seated, was to draw a circle on the back of the person they were partnered with. This circle was like a map, indicating the location of the dance and orienting the viewer to this new idea of space, using both touch and their voices to indicate: “You are here.”

The performing dancers introduced themselves one by one, stating their name and then simply travelling around the circle behind the audience, letting their bodies speak through weight, rhythm, footfalls and, for those in wheelchairs, spinning wheels. Connections were made and relationships discovered between voices and bodies as they moved through space following the same path around the outside of the circle. This allowed listeners to experience variation and pattern within a repetitive motif as the space was defined and carved around them.

Then, a single dancer entered the circle and described their movements, introducing a simple vocabulary of physical efforts that were simultaneously “drawn” on the back of the audience members by their guides. The voice of the dancer communicated their identity, their location in space and, through the sound of their breath, the effort the movement required.

Drawing on the back is a technique VocalEye developed to augment verbal content when describing fireworks and visual art. In the context of dance, the technique helped to convey the effort, shape, rhythm and dynamics of the movement. The verbal content and the physical contact worked together to engage the imagination and elicit a sympathetic visceral response in the audience.

Solos were followed by a series of duets in which subjective and objective viewpoints came together as one dancer moved, simultaneously describing what they were doing, while the other watched and then took a turn to describe what they saw. If the dancer chose a factual, literal description, the observer would complement this with a more poetic, narrative description, and vice versa. This was just one of the many layers of information we researched with this project. Another was tone of voice, which could be used to reflect a more neutral or more expressive engagement with the description.

As the choreography expanded to include more dancers and to occupy more space, identities and then language itself disappeared. A complex crescendo of movement led, in the end, to an inevitable stillness and silence. A moment of shared humanity was evoked through our common bonds of body and breath.

Steph Kirkland is founder and executive director of VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society in Vancouver.


Seeing, and Not Seeing, the Dance: Shaping Translations

By Collin Van Uchelen

As a person who has helped create techniques for describing fireworks to people who are blind, I appreciate the challenge of translating dynamic and complex movements into an accessible form. So I welcomed the invitation to work with All Bodies Dance and VocalEye on Translations, a dance performance designed to be experienced without using vision to see it. The piece would be shaped by people who, like me, are blind or partially blind, as well as by the dancers.

All Bodies Dance Project in Translations

Video still: Martin Borden

I know a bit about dance, both as an audience member and from my own experiences in ballroom, Latin and ballet, before losing my sight. Also, I had worked with VocalEye previously, when executive director Steph Kirkland and I designed a tactile approach for describing firework displays for people with vision loss. Using a technique we called Fingerworks for Fireworks, a sighted describer translated the overall look of fireworks with their fingertips by tracing the motions and patterns on the back of a blind spectator. This previous work informed the tactile approach we created for describing dance in Translations.

We experimented with several modes of translation, including precise verbal descriptions of movements, metaphorical/poetic representations, moving vocalizations, tactile sensations, and the natural sounds of the dancers’ breath and movement. Many of these were embodied, coming from the dancers themselves as they performed.

The descriptive techniques were refined over time and then layered by adding them one by one across successive iterations of a particular section. Finding the right combination and sequence of these layers was essential to avoid overwhelming the viewer with too much information. The different modes of translation provided varying perspectives, rendering the dance more “visible” with each recurring presentation. The process is similar to creating music by introducing different instruments sequentially in repeating phrases over time. The music takes shape incrementally as each voice reveals something more of the piece.

From my perspective as a blind viewer, I described what I was “seeing” about the piece during rehearsals, communicating how I was experiencing the dance through sound and touch. My perceptions helped identify what was being distorted or lost in translation. What I saw — and what I didn’t see — informed the refinement of the piece through cycles of performance, feedback, revision and so forth.

The structure of the piece and the tools used to translate it enabled me to see dance more fully than I knew was possible, providing an opportunity to confront the pervasive disconnections that I routinely experience as a result of going blind. Translations connected me to the dancers, guides, performance and setting in ways I have not experienced before. It set a new personal standard for my expectations about accessibility and inclusion in a largely sighted world.

Collin van Uchelen is a community psychology consultant in Vancouver.

The Experience

At the ring of a bell, I am led into the darkness, my hand guided to the back of a chair in silence. I sit, listening. The bell rings again, followed by footsteps, two sets, coming closer and stopping. I hear someone sit. With each ring, the sounds of footsteps recur. I hear others enter the space, pair by pair, and take their seats. I consider the nature of the venue and my location in it as the sounds fade away into the darkness.

I hear a voice: “I am Naomi, a standing dancer.” Her footsteps arc toward me and pass behind my seat, moving briskly away in what seems like a large circle. The sounds stop where they began and another voice comes from a different location: “I am Harmanie, a dancer in a manual wheelchair.” I follow her sound as she rolls away from me and wheels around the perimeter of the circle in which I am seated. Another dancer, Danielle, identifies herself and travels the circle, her footsteps falling with gentle precision. I gaze into the sound as she moves around us.

I begin to sense the shape of the space and realize we are all — audience members and performers — on the same stage together. Hearing the voices and names of the dancers reveals their identities in the darkness; the characteristic sounds of their movements serve as unique sonic signatures. The moving sounds illuminate the dance, connecting me with the performers even though I do not see them.

Then, Naomi’s voice again: “I am here,” she says, her words coming from the area in front of me. She begins to dance and I hear her move as she says, “My arms slash, slash! Down, down …” The words are embodied, integrated with the natural sounds of her movements. My guide, Daisy, is touching my back, translating the dance into tactile form. Her hands swipe outward along my spine, showing me the energetic movements of the dance as it is performed. Through the feel of the tactile translations on my skin and the words and sounds of the dancer on the floor, I begin to “see” the dance.

-Collin van Uchelen

DI FALL 2019

All Bodies Dance Project in Translations

Video still: Martin Borden

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