How do we experience dance through our non-visual senses? This is one of the questions asked by Naomi Brand and Carolina Bergonzoni of All Bodies Dance Project (ABDP), in their new work Translations, which premiered in Vancouver as an OFF-DIV event (outside the curated schedule of the Dance In Vancouver festival) November 20 through 24. The work is an intimate performance for just ten audience members, who are led into the theatre wearing blindfolds by individual guides.
After the show, Brand revealed to me that the impetus for Translations was sparked while she was in line for a local performance. She happened to be standing behind Steph Kirkland, founder/executive director of VocalEye Descriptive Arts in Vancouver, and the two got to chatting. VocalEye is a not-for-profit society that provides live descriptive arts services for the blind and partially sighted in order to make theatre, arts and cultural events more accessible. They think outside the box about how they can describe events. For example, to translate firework displays, translators have drawn the shapes and energy of each burst on the backs of the receivers.
Brand began to ask, “How do the blind or partially sighted experience dance performance?” It seems like a natural area of interest for ABDP, which brings together dancers with and without disabilities to make work. But it’s the first time they’ve looked at sight loss specifically. To make Translations, ABDP spent the last two years researching this topic in collaboration with VocalEye and in consultation with both blind and sighted members of the community.
I walked into Translations on a dark and rainy Saturday night with no expectations and a lot of curiosity. Before the performance, in the narrow lobby at Performance Works, each guide took time to connect with their specific audience member and practise leading them around (eyes closed) to create a sense of trust. I put on my blindfold (my left hand resting on my guide’s shoulder, my feet teetering to the right of his wheelchair) and the lobby grew quiet. Even after chatting with my guide and practising following, a sense of discomfort verging on fear set in. What exactly awaits me in the theatre?
It’s difficult to describe the experience of Translations. From the very start, I began to draw a picture in my mind of the performance space: we’re sitting in a circle on cushioned stools, and there is a large open dance floor in the middle. As the dancers begin to dance, they describe what they are doing, either practically (“I press myself up off of the ground”) or poetically (“I fly, my hands wrap around me like seaweed”). Sometimes the guides outside the circle describe the dancers’ movements for them (“She falls then does a superhero flip”), and all the while the space is filled with the sounds of fabric, footsteps and breathing.
Before speaking or moving, each performer announces themselves. “I am Harmanie, and I am here.” Hearing the voice allows me to locate the speaker in my mind’s eye. But more than that, I feel strangely reassured by the fact that Harmanie is here, and that I am also here. That even though I cannot see what is happening around me, we are all present and fully embodied. There was a curious dissociation that occurred when my sight was taken away — it was like I entered a sort of dreamscape, feeling once removed, a shadow of myself. But there I was, hands on knees, seated on my stool and taking in the performance.
At another point in the piece, a dancer’s movements are described through touch on the audience members’ backs. From behind me, my guide uses his hands to relay different pressures, pats and flicks to translate the solo that is discernable by sound from the middle of the space. It is surprisingly intimate to experience dance through another viewer, through touch.
Near the end of the piece, I am surrounded by dancers who are walking (clothing swishing) and whispering, seemingly from all directions. It feels as though I’ve suddenly been transported into the centre of the work. My first inclination is to draw a mental picture of the bodies dancing, but I challenge myself to just focus on the sensation of wind on my skin from their motions. As they begin to move faster and run, breath increasing, it makes me a little lightheaded. I have to choose to trust that I won’t get knocked over or kicked by the passersby.
When I finally take off my blindfold, the lobby seems much brighter than I remember, and the refrigerator behind the bar louder than ever. After a short break and some refreshments, our small group is invited to form a circle and share feedback. Some observations spoken out loud were “a sensational buffet” and “inwardly tactile.” One partially sighted member smiled as she said, “Wonderful: I could see the dancing in my mind.”
In our soft-spoken discussion, I was struck with the sense of openness and care created in the group through the performance. And I detected a sense of openness created in me — noticing my other senses, I got a glimpse of the “sensational buffet” available to me all the time by not prioritizing sight.
Translations is clearly not a dance performance for those with sight loss. Rather, it is an invitation for all the participants to consider the other layers of sensation in experiencing live dance. It is also a beautiful example of inclusion and accessibility. Sitting around that circle and processing my experience beside folks with and without disabilities made me grateful for the work that ABDP and VocalEye are doing. By expanding the reach of the performing arts, we all have much to gain.