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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Experiencing dance with visually impaired people
Wieke Eringa, Director of Learning and Access at Northern Ballet Theatre outlines the work the company is undertaking to make dance more accessible to blind and visually impaired people
"I have no vision at all and this has opened up a whole new perspective all together." Audio description workshop participant, Sept 2005, West Yorkshire Playhouse.

How can a dance performance be of interest to a person with little or no sight? Do visually impaired people ever get the chance to dance, and if so how?

These were some of the questions I first became interested in as Access Officer at Sadler's Wells when we designed our first audio description of a flamenco performance in 2001. I became aware of the excellent and pioneering work that was being done by various artists such as Katy Dymock (Touch Down Dance) and through the project Flower Eyes with Saburo Teshigawara from Karas.

The two questions each demand a different inquiry. The first is about making an existing product accessible, about finding ways to communicate the essence of an artistic experience that is essentially visual without using visual means. The second question is about making contact with visually impaired people and starting to develop something new together: ways of working through dance which are likely to challenge our educational and artistic practice.

We are currently in the process of delivering a research project, funded by British Energy, which is allowing us to do taster work with a hugely disparate 'community' of visually impaired people, such as a senior ladies group, a regional residential college for teenagers, young families (in association with the RNIB) and young people in primary and secondary school. This range of taster work is allowing us to assess where the interest lies and what the demand is for working with dance, and what form this can take. How can we develop our approaches to teaching and using the artistic process? What can dance offer a visually impaired person? Are there enough (young) visually impaired people around our base in West Yorkshire for us to run an annual 'training' scheme? How can we use Laban notation in Braille to challenge both a visually impaired pupil as well as his mainstream classmates creatively? As we have only just started to establish regular contact with most groups these questions remain unanswered. Therefore I am returning to the matter of performance accessibility with which we have gone a bit further in our investigation.

Making the performance accessible
At Northern Ballet Theatre we were able to start delivering audio descriptions in 2004, when we first delivered a description of Midsummer Nights Dream with Vocaleyes, the audio describers. There were two reasons why NBT's work seemed particularly appropriate to develop access for visually impaired people. First of all our repertoire is strongly rooted in narrative dance tradition, so a lot of the performance enjoyment is a result of there being a clear story to follow with characters that interact and develop. Secondly we almost always work with a live orchestra, which really enhances the non-visual enjoyment and essence of the performance experience. As well as the by now familiar touch tours we felt we needed to add a workshop to the performance day so that visually impaired audience members not only gain an understanding of the stage space and set, but also get a chance to experience movement by working very closely with company dancers.

"The dancers are superb in the workshop in the way that they make the dance come alive at such close range". Workshop participant, 2005.

As well as actually doing and feeling (ballet) movements, the workshop also enables people to examine and discuss costume, music and musical motifs and the meaning of music in the performance.

"I did things which I never thought I would do!" Workshop participant, 2005.

Armed with our package of audio description, touch tour and workshop we then faced the joyful task of communicating with ticket office staff in receiving venues what on earth we were trying to achieve. I won't be tempted to digress in a maze of details on the complexity of these events and the level of detail and external and internal communication required to make it work each time. However there is one issue that deserves to be mentioned: that of responsibility of audio description equipment. As companies and venues both have a responsibility under the Disability Discrimination Act to be accessible then whose responsibility is it to make sure there is an infrared or radio system in the venue to deliver the audio description? And if a venue holds no such equipment and if they are commercial (not publicly funded) then what is their incentive to invest in such equipment and a technician to run it?

From a financial point of view this exercise almost became shamefully difficult to justify, with the fee for the describers and artists/educators as well as the sheer number of dancers and even description equipment hire in some cases rising to nearly £2000 per event, attended by if we were lucky a dozen visually impaired people. However this situation is improving with an increasing popularity of the events and with more theatre venues willing to contribute and having the correct equipment and staffing in place.

A surprising and hugely welcome development came from the direct involvement of the NBT company dancers, who due to their relentless touring and rehearsal schedule are some of the hardest working dancers in the country and seldom have a chance to take part in education activities. However, with each visually impaired workshop taking place on a Saturday morning in the performance venue it became possible for up to 6 dancers at a time to join in. Having overcome some initial trepidation most dancers started to become increasingly interested in the work and started to value it as an important, enjoyable and satisfying part of their work. Initially, Dance Education Officer Caroline Burn devised the practical workshop part, in consultation with Vocaleyes and dance artist Holly Thomas. Now in our second year the format of the workshops is constantly evolving and both Caroline and individual dancers have started to develop ingenious teaching methods which involve a combination of verbal and physical communication. The bond created through communication with Caroline and the almost one to one contact with the dancers has become a hugely significant part of the experience as one participant stated:

"This is one of the nicest things that has happened for visually impaired people for a long time - all the advantages in technology are great but this is different: the social side of it is great!!" Workshop participant 2005.

The description itself is also evolving as we stared to forge an ongoing relationship with describers from the West Yorkshire Playhouse whilst continuing to work with Vocaleyes. One describer Neil Scott is based in Leeds and has been able to attend many rehearsals, continually researching the most effective ways of describing dance. As a sighted person the most effective moments for me are when the describer is able to give an impression of what movement is being done, whilst simultaneously describing how (with what dynamic quality) and how this reflects the narrative progression. Something like for example:

"Danceny is making lots of very fast jumps, in different directions stretching, bending and beating his legs in an agitated and anxious way, displaying his unhappiness about Cecile's behaviour." 'Dangerous Liaisons', Sept 2004.

Does it work?
Firstly we had to find ways to gather feedback, which were more imaginative than using the written word. What continues to be intriguing and frustrating is that most visually impaired people hold completely individual and usually contrasting views on their experiences. As a one-off open event for the general public the 'workshop-description' package attracts visually impaired people of all different backgrounds, ages, experiences and also different levels of sight and sometimes multiple needs. Interestingly enough one lady felt highly uncomfortable with 'visually impaired people standing around feeling things' (Midsummer Night's Dream participant, Sadler's Wells 2004) and she chose not to take part in the touch tour and instead requested she could have done more actual dancing. By contrast in the same workshop several other visually impaired people were very happy to sit down after their movement session and they felt it was strenuous and in danger of taking them out of their comfort zone too much. Whilst more in depth feedback needs to be sought and processed we can be encouraged with the overwhelmingly positive verbal feedback and the return of many individuals and groups to subsequent days sometimes every three or six months.

Our main two questions listed above lie unanswered for the moment. One of the things that has become apparent after delivering these events for nearly two years now is that the experience of a visually impaired person attending a Saturday workshop, touch tour and audio description of the matinee is incomparable with the experience of a non disabled audience member watching the same show. It has made me realise that what we are not trying to do is to mimic the experience of a sighted person, but that we are creating a new, fun, informative and challenging artistic experience of professional dance with and for people with visual impairment. In an ideal world we would be delivering such work in all the venues we tour to, on different days of the week. The reality is that we slowly need to build the support in our venues to host and specially market such events, as this also is a hugely intensive task. Our future plans are to continue to build capacity and seek a more thorough format for feedback that will enable to allow us to let the work develop and grow. In the end we might find that there simply isn't the demand or interest for such occasions but on the other hand we might find that more and more visually impaired people will get excited about the opportunities which dance has to offer to them. After all this is not about persuading people they will enjoy things but about giving people a choice; a choice to participate and a choice to have a say in how, what, and where.

"Loved it, absolutely loved it." Workshop participant 2005.


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Animated: Winter 2006