I love watching dance. Other than basic ballet as a child, a stab at tap for a while which my brothers found highly amusing as I crashed around the kitchen and the compulsory dance classes at drama school, it isn’t an art form I am competent at. So I watch in awe at the skills on show and marvel at different interpretations of stories unfolding with a less critical eye.
For me, dance is visual story telling by bodies in space, with characters and energies responding to each other, with or without music and sound. That makes it a great medium for Deaf people to engage with.
I have been a sign language interpreter for 15 years. A large part of my work is in the Arts and I have been fortunate to have seen a lot of dance in that time.
Mostly, I am booked to interpret post show discussions with the choreographer, the dancers and someone facilitating the discussion. Usually this is Q&A amongst the panel which opens out to the audience asking questions too.
As with any unscripted interaction, there are challenges for me when working. These range from anyone listing the names of all their previous productions in a long stream without drawing breath, to mentioning all the cities the current show is touring to….note to self…I really must brush up my European city signs….. Particularly tricky can be when composers talk about their musical influences and I wonder how on earth to interpret ‘Beethoven’s rich orchestration with the rhythms of The Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash’. (NB: This is a fictional example but you get the idea!!).
BUT I love the challenge of all this and wouldn’t have it any other way. The discussions are really interesting insights to the making of the piece and I think what a privilege it is for the audience to be party to all the work that has taken place prior to the show being seen by an audience.
Sometimes there are pre show discussions which tend to inform the audience about the piece they are about to see. Very occasionally, there have been discussions pre show aimed exclusively at a Deaf audience which were great fun.
Last year for Dance Umbrella Emma Gladstone decided to try a different format for a post-show discussion. One where the artists were not a part of it, only the audience. This meant a more informal approach, sitting on the edge of the stage with Emma, much closer to the audience and very conversational. Out went the ‘what was your starting point for creating this piece’ questions and in came the ‘I loved it when the dancers did……’ discussion points. More interactive.
Text and songs seem to be used more in dance now with the dancers speaking sometimes or recorded sounds and voices are played. With this, I will usually be standing on stage in a down stage corner so I can interpret the words. It is debatable how much to interpret in these situations. Particularly with songs. Is my interpretation distracting from the dancers storytelling? Is the song being used for the music or the lyrics or are both as important? Is it just a flavour of the song that is needed for a Deaf audience to have the same experience as the hearing audience? Deaf people’s preferences differ as much as hearing audiences do. I tend to err on the ‘less is more’ dictum but is that right?
Rambert have worked for years with interpreters and when creating a new piece their interpreter will come into rehearsal, talk with the choreographer and dancers, the MD and designers so she has a full understanding of the concepts. This influences her choices of signs and having rehearsal with the company means she can find moments to synchronise some movements with the dancers.
Occasionally, I have been asked to be on stage as part of the company. As I said, I am no dancer….trying to give a decent interpretation is enough for me without remembering to turn on count 6 as well! A great challenge though and usually this is with a company where the dancers are using BSL themselves and the choreographer wants to add another layer to the visual storytelling. Mark Smith’s company Deaf Men Dancing combine everything, Deaf dancers, a Deaf choreographer with BSL and gesture integral to his work.
I look forward to seeing and working on the performances for this year’s Dance Umbrella. Do come and chat pre or post show. There is plenty to talk about with dance isn’t there?!!