Dialogues on blindness IV.

Bock & Vincenzi

Dance Theatre Journal Jan 2006English
Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 22 no. 1, 2006, pp. 16-20

item doc

In previous issues of Dance Theatre Journal (vol. 21, nos. 1 and 2), .Jeroen Peeters talked to Lisa Nelson about her Tuning Scores, to Alexander Baervoets, Andrew L. Harwood and Lin Snelling about their Blind improvisation project, and to Boris Charmatz about his Dances not to be seen. They all share an interest in investigating the limitations of our perception, knowledge and opinions in relation to visibility and the visual. Here this series of conversations concerning sight and working 'blind' continues.

In May 2006, Bock & Vincenzi performed Here, As If They Hadn't Been, As If They Are Not at the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts in Brussels, a show that is the concluding chapter of their project invisible dances..., which developed over a period of seven years in a series of research blocks, performances and a book publication. In a short opening scene, a blind messenger (Tim Gebbels) announces an invisible drama, in a manner reminiscent of Greek tragedy - prompting the spectator at once into enigma and ancient memories. Then, you are confronted with a long scene, continually at odds with a series of events that actually question the status of the visible and of vision, and thus challenge the sighted imagination. Thirteen performers, a combination of sighted and blind people, (re)construct dances on the basis of randomly distributed scores, available through a monitor or earplugs: they seek a different access to their body, map internal spaces, inhabit remote places, re-enact others' experiences or memories. Characters and snatches of text do explicitly introduce language and a sense of theatricality, but in a nearly tautological way.

Perhaps my conflict as a sighted viewer, who often felt excluded during the performance despite my fascination, is this one: although the actions and their construction are conceptually available to the spectator, the performers' actual experiences stay inaccessible, because they resist the visual logic that traditionally underpins the shared space of the theatre. The 'invisible dances' stay invisible, but they do elicit a chain of vocabularies, descriptions and translations, such as the actual movement material that stems from the research blocks, the scores that describe and re-instigate it, or the spectator's mental activity. An overt incongruence between a yearning for visual imagination and the limitations of description points to a gap where the invisible dances may linger: the vast realm of the unknown and the invisible, now surfacing and provoking discomfort.

The closing scene is again a solo, in which the blind performer Mike Taylor steers through movement the light that is projected onto his body. It's a simple yet ambiguous image: the cloudy light flashes evoke the idea of a man haunted by photology - the prevailing ideology that places light and presence in the centre of the sighted's worldview. And still: the blind Taylor is in charge of the light, of the image coming into view, of our seeing him - during seconds, he can escape the fact of always being seen. It's a continuous act of self-erasure and negotiation that puts one and a half hours of odd disappearances and ghostly traces into a political perspective.

The day after the performance I met choreographer/performer Frank Bock and director/designer Simon Vincenzi for an interview. We didn't have an encompassing discussion about seven years of research, my questions rather concerned their collaboration with blind performers and the way it influenced their ideas and the process of invisible dances....


Beyond metaphors

To dwell in ancient memories is not uncommon when it comes to the cultural imagination that accompanies blindness. In the Renaissance, the blind poet Homer became the symbol of internal contemplation, which was at the core of creativity for artists such as Raphael. Still today, the romanticising of blindness is inevitably part of the artistic desire to find different sources of imagination. How did Bock & Vincenzi come to working with blind performers? And how did they deal with this phenomenon of exoticism in invisible dances... ?

Frank Bock: 'The project started during a ten-day residency for composers and choreographers in March 1999, and composer Luke Stoneham wanted to make a piece of music that only the performers could hear, so with individual soundtracks. This he linked with the idea to hear the inside of your own body, but amplified. Basically, for most of that residency we did work in the dark with a strong interest in sensory work. The whole process was about trying to find nothing in the room, which was empty, to explore nothing.'

Simon Vincenzi: 'It's from those discussions in the first block about the dark and about not seeing, that we came out with the fact the we could actually open our eyes. However long we were in that state, at the end of the two hours we could take our blindfold of. One of the first reasons to work with the blind performer Tim Gebbels in one of the next blocks was to know what it was, or to start looking at what it was, not being able to open your eyes. If you are sighted, closing your eyes cannot not have the same meaning as the experience of blindness. For us it became a space of imagining, and attuning to the senses in a different way - closing the eyes as a way to enter a different world. This focusing has a strong relationship to metaphor, which is not the case for a blind person.' Bock continues: 'Yes, that's what we found out. These ideas have historically grown: the blind as the visionary, as the one that can see or sense. When we started working with Tim we discovered that abstraction is such a luxury. As a blind person you're just constantly met with the harsh realities in the world: you hit or bang things, there is so much movement and action going on that is all about safety.'

'Tim put lots of journeys onto me and I didn't know what they were, and he explained: "Oh, that's the journey from the tube station back to my house", or "That's changing from the central line to the line at Oxford Circus". He knew those journeys and he could reproduce them in the studio, including the environmental sounds and streams of air. I also did those journeys and asked Tim to put them onto me emotionally in some way. We were really shocked to get to know how extreme from his perspective some of those things were to do. Safety, going home, and the whole thing of being watched and not being able to watch. You know, just a functional thing like mining a seat on a carriage without touching people inappropriately. Or how you move forward in a queue in the post office, a queue that is not a straight line but that snakes, so that the queue might move while you're part is not moving - that's a really difficult thing for a blind person. For us, the romance of blindness went away very quickly. In improvisations, Tim was putting all these extreme journeys onto me, throwing me around. And then Simon proposed to do this journey with the light off, which meant that the people watching were also in the dark. Tim found that really difficult, because the sighted people weren't able to be sighted, which is normally part of his world, namely that others are able to see and make it safe.'


Sharing the space

A second thing that bothered Bock & Vincenzi was their naivety to pursue an interest in 'the blind experience', without realising that it is primarily people that are blind. Bock: 'It's only through working over a period of time that we recognised that blindness is a different thing to different performers. We were looking for something unified, you know, we had to boil something down about being blind, and were embarrassed that we could to some extent learn different things from different blind people. Like Mike Taylor, he has a particular physicality of slowness, which is related to his blindness, he is not butoh-trained or anything. How he maps and goes back over things or goes to find things, that's through slowness, a quality of moving that he's extraordinary in. 50 I guess different blind people bring in different things that relate to them as performers, but that are not always so obviously linked to their blindness. Even if we claim that we're trying to bring it back to the individual, our interest in blindness will always be exotic. It will always be part of the mystery of working with different people with different senses. But we are more understanding now and care about these issues.'

Even though the status of metaphors was put at stake in the physical research, language became an issue. Bock: 'A thing that came up working with Tim and with other blind performers was the question of how we share the space, how we share the process together, how we could find a language. We did improvisations in a room where nobody got to see them, very small movements, linked with narrative or sensations, so we started to talk and describe what we were doing.' This process of self-witnessing eventually lead to research on audio description, but had also a practical and political aspect to it. Vincenzi: 'We set up a research block of two weeks with three people who could see and one person who couldn't. And it just felt really awful, unpleasant. So from that day we discussed how to try to make this space as equal and shared as possible. There was always someone who was describing to Tim what was happening. Later during the process, we had many discussions with Tim and the other blind performers about always being seen, about the power of the gaze of the others. Within the rehearsal process, if someone came into the room we would try and announce it so that they knew what was changing in the space and who was looking at them.'

Bock: 'A lot of the activity of blind people has to do with fitting in into a sighted world and dealing with the sighted anxieties of their blindness. Mike is leaving the room and he is going straight for the door, or on other days he might be heading the wrong way... and he is actually happy to take 37 seconds to arrive at the door rather than being helped out by someone sighted, driven by the anxiety of always getting things right. He might find things in a different way, with a different structure, mapping out his journey. It's exhausting to be pulled and hold and directed by others all the time. It's tiring in a way that doesn't need to be.'


Vocabularies and audio-description

Out of working in the dark, exploring nothingness and inquiring into sensory work, a chain of research blocks developed organically over the course of four years. Bock: 'In the blocks we used different vocabularies and languages. We worked on light, on body sounds and internal perception, we went out into the city and made city journeys. We found a line through the vocabulary of those themes. At some point we looked at trying to reconstruct one of these internal body journeys falling inside of oneself, falling into chambers, ... What would it be to reconstruct two and a half minutes of something that is actually unreconstructable? So we started to make transcriptions which we tried to repeat. Still now, in Here, As If. .., Nanette Kincaid performs those journeys, and they're all fixed choreographies. But they've disappeared into something else, we can't believe that this is what we saw in the studio back then. It's so ephemeral, it's very strange. Many of the vocabularies relate to away spaces, they refer to other spaces as much as the things allow us. We happen to be there, our bodies happen to be there, but we're driven, because of all various kinds of texts we're listening to, to abandon ourselves to these other spaces.' Vincenzi: 'They're also ways of inhabiting a different space or person. It's all about inhabiting someone else, or inhabiting someone else's room or someone else's time - and about how not losing your own body.'

On the 20th of March 2003, Bock & Vincenzi staged A Show That Will Never Be Shown in a dark and empty theatre in London. Apart from the performers, only four people were present to document the show: the poet Fiona Templeton actually saw and described the performance, the medium James Brown was invited to investigate the presence of 'spirit audience' in the theatre, witness Rose English sat in the wings and could only hear what was going on, ,and photographer Henrik Thorup Knudsen documented it from the back of the stage. Templeton's audio-description was made into a sound work for the telephone, the four documents are now also available as a book: invisible dances... from afar: a show that will never be shown. Not only did this performance orient the course of the research more towards products. The issues of sharing the space, self-witnessing and developing vocabularies and transcriptions became connected with an artistic interest in 'audio description', a common practice to make film and theatre available to blind people.

Bock: 'Working in the studio and describing what we were doing to Tim, we came quickly to the limits of description and were bored about the descriptions as well. We were wondering if the motivation was still there and then started to explore the audio description in a broader way. The collaboration with Fiona Templeton came out of that. We looked at what you could do with it in theatre shows and galleries, and there is a certain reductiveness in audio description. As we always wanted the research project invisible dances ... to become a show at some point, we were wondering how audio description could exist in the show as another layer.'

Vincenzi: 'So many audio descriptions that we heard in the theatre are very practical, like "The king is sitting by the fountain ... " Once I was seeing a show and the audio description wasn't actually a description of what was happening, it wasn't true - because I could see, I was listening to the audio description and looking at what was happening on stage. For whatever reason, they restaged it that day, or the audio describer was reading from the script, what he was meant to, while everything had changed. Sitting in the theatre, I thought: "He's lying, don't listen to it! The king is not sitting by the fountain!" There has to be another way of describing in a more emotional way, and also acknowledging that this work is really complicated to describe. We wanted to explore what someone is seeing emotionally, whether that was a more interesting way of understanding a show. We tried to find a poetic rather than a practical approach to audio description.'

The main paradox of audio description is that it pretends to be an impersonal, allegedly neutral description, as if it were produced by a detached eye. Thereby, the audio description not only conveys information to blind people, but provides them with a highly stable and disembodied notion of vision, language and their relation. But then, as description is strongly connected with imagination, is it up to sighted people to occupy the imagination of the blind? Vincenzi: 'Again, it's a political thing. When we were talking about the telephone piece, Tim said that we would run into problems. As a blind person, politically speaking, you expect to have as much as possible the same view and experience as a sighted person, in which case you have to say: "Frank has come from the left, he is now standing, facing right, ... " Tim found it interesting that we took another approach, but also called it dangerous ground.'

'The description that Fiona gave, was only emotional and she just referred to herself the whole time. She also talks about how hard it is to describe and about what these words are. It's an amazing work on the difficulty of describing what she sees and when description fails, when words collapse. At some point the only way Fiona could describe what she is seeing is through producing sounds, like stuttering, where words become sounds. That was a fascinating and unexpected response, but she is a poet, so that's also her language. Besides, she knew we had no idea of what she was going to say for those two hours, but she also knew that if it was interesting it would go on the telephone. She also knew that the audience she was talking to couldn't see anything, they couldn't see anything that she was seeing.' Bock: 'She was also referring to the connection of mouth and ear which you have on the telephone, so her words became embodied again, not only in language. Hopefully that is what this work is about: a shared sense of body. Hopefully it also seeps into the audience, in whatever personal way, through experiencing something.'