Deaf Men Dancing in Hear! Hear! and Rosa

Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Deaf Men Dancing in Hear! Hear! and Rosa

DMD+, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, September 28

Deaf Men Dancing (photo: Mikah Smillie)

Deaf Men Dancing (photo: Mikah Smillie)

On the morning I start writing this the postman coincidentally delivers a product catalogue from Action on Hearing Loss that is addressed to a previous tenant. The devices advertised in the catalogue were not available to Mark Smith — the artistic director of Deaf Men Dancing — when he was growing up. Diagnosed as severely deaf at the age of 4, he had to wear a ‘constrictive harnessed hearing aid box’ that was strapped to his chest, but with this he was able to hear piano music at his sister’s ballet class and went on to train as a dancer. He founded Deaf Men Dancing in 2010 to bring together similarly hearing-impaired male dancers — five including Smith — and for their program at the Lilian Baylis Studio (part of Sadler’s Wells’ =dance strand) Smith includes a woman, which accounts for the + after DMD.

What makes Deaf Men Dancing unique is their ability to develop a gestural language that merges dance with signing. When I first saw the company at the Integrated Summit at Pavilion Dance South West, it was a revelation. The gestures are eloquent because the intention behind them comes not only from a desire to communicate but from a need to communicate. There is a world of difference and one doesn’t need to understand sign language to appreciate its clarity. Smith was inspired to incorporate sign language and dance after seeing Caroline Parker’s work. Parker has training in mime and her development of dramatic and emotional aspects of sign language derives in large part from this visual language of the entire body.

The image on the backdrop at the beginning of the show is a witty expression of Smith’s starting point: we see him in close-up holding a gramophone-sized horn to his ear. There is a harsh light on his shaved head that could be simply the reflection from a shiny surface or a cerebral conflagration induced by the difficulties in hearing and the scourge of tinnitus.

Smith explores these elements in the first work, Hear! Hear! which begins with a personal recollection. Four men enter rather sheepishly wearing the hearing contraption Smith remembers wearing as a child. They stand in a line bewildered by the straps and wires, gesturing silently amongst themselves how it might work. Once they have it figured out, Joseph Fletcher, Anthony Snowden, Kevin Jewell and Denny Haywood each perform a short solo about the new sensations of hearing, both the discomfort of certain frequencies and the delight of comprehension. Snowden dances two poems (by Joyce Mear and Donna Williams) that are recorded by Jacqui Boatswain with the words projected on the backdrop alongside a photograph of a young boy — possibly Snowden himself — seated in a world of silence. Snowden breaks through that silence with gestures that are almost audible; he is bewildered then shocked by the new sensations. Smith has layered the score with a poignant song of deaf musician Pete Waller (aka DeafboyOne), Please excuse me for the interference… Jewell’s concentration of expression is strikingly beautiful throughout this demonstration of different aspects of deaf communication: all four men lip synch the song, sign the words and incorporate the signing with dance. The picture on the backdrop changes to a fuzzy TV screen and we hear a poem that begins, ‘Tinnitus in many guises comes…’ with the kind of high-pitched sounds someone with tinnitus might experience. Again, the gestural resources of all four men are developed to express both pain and discomfort, dancing in a trio, then a quartet as if they are breaking through a barrier. The muscular, bearded Haywood, who has trained in hip-hop, moves as one as he bounces and undulates through his movement. There is a final song, Silence will sing again once more, that the men interpret as if from the inside, their bodies and articulated hands integrated, their eyes following their gestures, in an art that is perhaps closer to the Indian dance tradition than to classical ballet. The hearing of these four men may be limited, but there is no limitation in their communication.

The second work on the program is Rosa, based on monologues from Shakepeare’s As You Like It. The monologues have gone through different permutations: translated into modern English, then into British Sign Language, then adapted into Sign-Movement and finally incorporated into the choreography. Dressed in shorts and fanciful beach wear with seventeenth-century ruffles (designed by Ryan Dawson Laight), the same four men as in Hear! Hear! file in as four manifestations of Orlando. Fletcher has now frizzed his hair and Haywood is bare-chested with feathered wings like a plucked and very muscular bird. There is a lot more dancing in Rosa, more conventional movement in which technique comes to the fore. Michael England’s synthesized, percussive score drives the narrative while playing creatively with the register to give us, the hearing audience, an idea of what a deaf person might sense: it’s like listening to music in one of the Regent’s Canal tunnels. England neatly frames the Shakespeare monologues that are recorded once again by a velvet-voiced Jacqui Boatswain.

Natasha Volley — the plus of DMD+ — enters as the flirtatious Rosalind in laced bodice and long skirt with a lovely smile and unctuous gestures that she incorporates into a dance that is all about delight and freedom. The four temperamental Orlandos ignore her but not for long. Haywood is the first to be drawn in by her charms: he is wild, lascivious and powerful, showing off his moves as if competing for her favours. He is. Jewell steps in, petulant and unforgiving and similarly unsuccessful. He is followed by Snowden who doesn’t have a chance because he can’t contain his angry and abusive behaviour. Fletcher with all that hair is altogether softer, romantic and kind; Volley is clearly smitten and after a few clichéd romantic ballet gestures they kiss. This is where the gestures and signing start to go out the window: the lights go up and all the dancers enter into a jazzy sequence with smiling exuberance, which looks like a lot of fun, but conceptually it has gone somewhere else. Smith calls this a new departure but it is not one that develops the unique opportunity he has in DMD+ — and which he has begun to mine in Hear! Hear! — to create a powerful integrated dance language.