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David Bower blogs about the Signdance Collective’s approach to choreography / 10 January 2011

photo of male and female dancers imposed over top of each other

Photo of David Bower and Isolte © Avila Rob Walker

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From experience I would say choreography is about listening visually, with the eyes and finding the right moment to act and react. Choreography begins with a simple idea like the movement of the sea and how the light plays on water. Or it could be creating a sign name for ourselves using sign language and taking that as a basis for a movement - and then creating interaction between that movement and other sign names.

We don’t believe interaction between the dancers has to be in time - beat wise. We find that interaction is enriched using different but equally valid sense of timing.

Dance Director Isolte Avila's training at Cal Arts involved not working with music. If they did work with music it had to be live musicians.

There is a highly respected choreographer from Belgium called Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, of Rosas Dance Company. She talks about creating dance without music as a really interesting way to work as it frees and widens the dancers scope of possibilities. This makes sense as, I think, dance is more than a response to sound. There are a myriad of ways to dance. The imagination is a very powerful impulse, and perhaps by being deaf it helps to intensify and therefore focus the attention on the imagination.

For the Deaf dancer working with live musicians allows for an immediate contact with the player. We have been working with Led Bib for about ten years now. They were nominated for the Mercury Music Award in 2009 and are regarded as being some of the best contemporary jazz musicians in the world.

We are really privileged to have this resource. When myself and other deaf dancers work alongside them, we activate our imagination for example 'light on water.' We reach a consensus through improvisation and then begin to set the material into a dramaturgical structure.

Its simply ludicrous in my view for the deaf dancer to stick a CD into the ghetto blaster as there is no real life just the recording, a copy, a ghost. I think that this is also the case for the hearing dancer. Keersmaeker seems to think so. Its got to be live or nothing.

Isolte has said to me before now that I tend to choreograph indirectly. I think that's because she has taught me so much about dance that I kind of understand her vision, so I take the cue and guide intuitively through improvisation with the other dancers and musicians. I like to work in the dream state and prefer not to be too conscious about how we arrive at the end result.

Here in the UK the dance establishment has some pretty strong ideas as to what constitutes proper dance. This is part of the reason why we are regarded as controversial here and tend to generate a theatre/live art audience. We seem to enjoy a lot more success on the continent with the dance audiences there, which is interesting, mmmm...

One of the UK's greatest theatre philosophers coined the term 'The Deadly Theatre.' Peter Brook, describes it as a theatre without truth, built on imitation, that spoon feeds the audience, almost like the fast food version of art, the X-Factor to go, Britains Got Talent and Fries, Eastenders with salt and vinegar, Come Dancing with lots of mayo and Love never Dies without!!!

Jose Limon said something interesting 'The dancer is part athlete, part warrior and part poet.' I think that is a beautiful way to put it, although I think there's too much emphasis on the athletics these days!

We use a lot of sign language in our work and are trying to achieve a symbiotic relationship between sign and choreography. "Do not saw the air with the hands overly much" is a direction that Hamlet gave to the visiting troubadours at Elsinore castle. It is thought that this speech describes some of Shakespeare's philosophy on acting.

Shakespeare, and justly so, is a powerful influence on theatre today. Maybe this is part of the reason why we have such a big journey to make with sign dance theatre. It seems to reveal the hearing worlds perception of sign language. However I doubt he meant it in this way. I think he was saying 'do not over compensate.'

This is what we tend to do as artists when we are nervous. Its a big question, "How does choreography work?", there are so many different elements, so many different ways to answer, none of them wrong, and yet how do we know if it's right?

Signdance use touch/contact a lot, as it helps to tell so much of the story. It shows how individuals relate to each other in a visual way, as well as enriching the choreographic possibilities.

At the moment we are developing a new form of dance with Primoû Bayzak, a dance artist from Slovenja in the Balkans. He is a founding member of a world famous dance theatre company called 'Betontanc' who have had successful tours in the States. We have called the style ‘Signcontact Dance’ and it hails the beginning of a new phase in Signdance Collectives’ journey.

Keywords: dance,deaf culture,sign dance,choreography