Arts & Culture

The Delta Project combines hearing and HoH dancers in Under My Skin

Wednesday 4 May
The Delta Project combines hearing and HoH dancers in Under My Skin

- May 04 at 10:15 AM

“But how can deaf people dance?”

It’s a question often asked of the non-hearing members of Melbourne dance troupe The Delta Project, and one that frankly, they’re getting a little sick of answering.

Dancer Elvin Lam, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, understands why people might struggle with the concept.  “But dancing isn’t just about the music, it’s about the studying of movement,” he said.

“It follows your feeling, and if I feel like I want to dance and I want to move my body in a certain way, then I do.”

An initiative of Arts Access Victoria, The Delta Project formed in 2012, when renowned deaf choreographer Jo Dunbar, who has worked with Strange Fruit and Deaf Can Dance, joined forces with deaf dancer Anna Seymour.

“It was about starting a company of deaf and hearing dancers, to put them on a level playing field,” said Dunbar, who is profoundly deaf but has some hearing with a hearing aid and lip reads.

“I wanted to have that collaboration between deaf and hearing artists because so far there’s nothing of that kind in Australia, and in England, where I’m from, it does happen.”

The name was inspired by the natural phenomenon occurring when two divergent streams of water meet, usually forming a flat plain of muddy sediment.

“We want The Delta Project to signify bringing two bodies together, two worlds together,” said Dunbar. “And from that mud or sand we can mould something and create something out of that.”

The Delta Project’s latest work is Under My Skin, funded by Creative Victoria and the Australia Council for the Arts and premiering at the Next Wave festival of emerging art on May 5. Two hearing dancers, Amanda Lever and Luigi Vescio and two deaf dancers, Seymour and Lam, perform in the piece, choreographed by Dunbar and hearing choreographer Lina Limosani.

Under My Skin plays with the idea of different personas; the masks we wear in different situations. Dunbar was inspired by her late speech teacher, who passed away two years ago.

“What I learned about her after her death was that she had many different personas,” said Dunbar.

“She would wake up in the morning and decide who she was going to be that day. It made me think more about how we present ourselves in the world.”

The aim of The Delta Project is to create works that cannot only be performed by deaf people, but appreciated by them too.

To this end, Under My Skin is extremely visual; the lighting, designed by Richard Vabre, doubles as visual cues for the dancers, while new media artist Rhian Hinkley has made projections out of images of the dancers faces that will be cast onto the dancers’ bodies and onto the wall behind them.

“It’s about seeing them in close up, obviously for the deaf audiences a big part of sign language is facial expressions so we wanted to give the audiences the ability to see their faces at times,” says Hinkley.

Sound designer Russell Goldsmith had the task of creating a score for people who can’t hear.

“It’s an electronic dance score but I’ve started with the lower frequencies and based the rest of the show around that,” he said.

“There’s lots of bottom-end content, lots of sub content that can be felt rather than heard and that appeals to the body more than the eardrum.”

Organs in the body usually perceive sound waves that are lower than 100 hertz, while humans generally can’t hear sounds lower than 20 hertz. Goldsmith has based most of the soundtrack between 25 and 100 hertz.

“The challenge there is to create work that sounds interesting and doesn’t sound like you’re trapped inside a speaker at a rave,” he said.

He compares it to an artist painting a canvas for the colour-blind. “I’ve had to turn off that part of my brain that’s concerned about what I can hear and to think about what others can hear, or feel,” he said.

Spoken text is commonly included in contemporary dance these days; here snippets of Auslan have been incorporated into the choreography instead, but Dunbar said it’s a case of a random word signed here or there rather than meaningful dialogue.

“Rather than being pedestrian or literal, we’re trying to be aesthetic about it,” she said.

Organisers of the biennial Next Wave festival say the 2016 program is the most accessible yet for both artists and audiences with a disability.

Tactile tours allowing blind or low-vision patrons to have a hands-on experience of the work will be available for six events, Auslan interpreting will be provided at 16 events, and a range of other special features include audio notes, open captioning and a “relaxed performance” for those with learning disabilities and sensory or communication impairments.

“We were definitely interested in working with artists with disability and specifically did seek out those conversations but we also worked to upskill artists who don’t identify as having a disability to think about inclusivity in their own work,” said Next Wave’s new artistic director Georgie Meagher.

“It is kind of scary as well, we’re learning about how to do all these things and we’re learning them for the first time, that’s kind of tricky but we’re learning to just go for it.”

“And to know that we’re probably not going to get everything right first time but we think it’s more important to try and to lead by example.”

Under My Skin is at Arts House, Sydney from May 5-8. 

Under My Skin choreographer Jo Dunbar (centre) and dancers L-R Luigi Vesca, Anna Seymour, Elvin Lam and Amanda Lever. Photo: Justin McManus

Article source: Annabel Ross, Sydney Morning Herald

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