Recently I reflected on my blog about the strides that Extant are making in increasing opportunities for visually impaired artists and theatre-goers. Opening up opportunities for people who have long struggled to be part of the arts world is creating new narratives and new approaches to performance which can be exciting for everyone.
‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Dance Artist Billy Read is another fine example of what can happen when artists with physical impairments are enabled to put their ideas and talent into the public domain. ‘Unlimited’ is a funding stream which supports disabled artists across all art forms. For Billy, a deaf Dance Artist (hailing from Walsall, as all the best of us are…), it gave him the funds, time and rehearsal space at mac Birmingham to experiment with different techniques and tools to create a really special piece of work. It also enabled him to collaborate with Ariel Fung, a deaf Dance Artist from Hong Kong. I went along to mac Birmingham last month to document an R&D performance of the work in progress.
The premise of the piece is that Billy and his friend Ariel inhabit a dystopian world where deaf people can be controlled by the use of implants. Sign language is prohibited, deaf clubs are shut down and this army of automatons are put to work in mines and office blocks.
Billy’s approach to dance is of necessity different to dancers who can hear music. His reliance on being able to physically feel beats and visually follow cues gives him a different starting point. He and Ariel were accompanied on stage by a percussionist and a DJ artist who together provided a live score – the vibrations were felt throughout the audience, and in places can be seen on the footage(!) Projected text, film, images and audio description were used in places to help to provide a narrative, but as with the music, it helped to create a multi-layered performance, a real sensory feast. I particularly enjoyed seeing sign language incorporated into the dance – both BSL and the ‘secret sign language’ which was enhanced by use of small lights on gloves moving in the darkness.
The performance was followed by a Q&A session with the whole creative team, where the audience gave their thoughts on the performance and we could learn more about the artistic process. I felt really inspired by how the R&D period had given Billy time to collaborate with other artists, to play around with projection, lighting and sound. They shared their experiences of trying to work out how these tools of communication could move from being functional to become something which really enhanced and complemented the whole performance.
The core message of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ is that deaf culture can be inclusive and creative – our world would be a poorer place without the contributions of the stories, talent and creativity of people with disabilities. You can judge for yourselves when (we hope!) the piece goes on tour.
Billy is represented by Deaf Explorer, who are working to increase involvement and visibility of the deaf community in the arts and develop deaf artists as leaders. To find out more about the development of this work or if you are interested in booking a performance, e-mail Alan McLean at firstname.lastname@example.org.