To dance in silence is one thing, to live in it another. While most of us reflexively recoil at the notion of what we would regard as a deprivation, some of us have no choice. Born deaf, Melbourne-based dance artist Anna Seymour enjoys a relationship with the artform, and with music, that few of us will ever fully comprehend.
“A lot of people consider silence as nothing, as an absence of something and are frightened of it,” she begins. “I mean, we live in a very noisy world, but when it gets quiet, I think that the automatic response is to fill up that silence. People pop music on, talkback radio on, they turn on the TV, they just fill up that void with noise.”
What Seymour is pointing to here is a crucial and often overlooked distinction. “We all appreciate taking in sound in different ways,” she elaborates. “Usually, of course, there’s a lot of focus on the ears but you do also take in sound with the rest of your body, whether you’re deaf or hearing. Our bodies are very intelligent, very complex. We have a lot of senses available to us; so this show is essentially about that.”
The show in question is KAGE’s Out Of Earshot, a collaboration between Seymour, three hearing dancers and Kiwi jazz drummer Myele Manzanza. The work asks audiences to re-examine notions of sound and silence and, in doing so, to be reminded of the ways in which we all take sensory perception (and hearing in particular) for granted. That Earshot will premiere as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival before moving onto the Adelaide Cabaret Festival says something about the ambitious and potentially provocative nature of the work.
Indeed, according to KAGE’s co-founder and Artistic Director Kate Denborough, “That’s the whole point of this work. We wanted to program it in music festivals, which are 100 percent inaccessible for deaf audiences. Also, for hearing audiences, it’s a chance to think differently about sound and about music.”
Long before such considerations, however, Out Of Earshot formed around the idea of cross-platform collaboration. Hence, the casting of the virtuoso drummer Manzanza in a work that sought to focus on silence. “In a way, a drummer is the epitome of the loudest noise someone can make,” Denborough explains. “So in terms of activism, this piece is about changing people’s view of sound. How we perceive sound, how we see sound; and having a group of dancers who are really articulate with their bodies, physically, is a really fantastic way of answering that question.”
As a form expressed with the body, and normally associated with music, dance is the perfect medium to explore non-verbal communications in a world of non-stop noise. “Anna isn’t differentiated in the work because she can’t hear, and again this comes back to the vision,” Denborough points out. “I mean, a lot of the work is in silence, so no one can hear. Everyone relies on eye contact. Presence. The point is not to make it easy for the hearing dancers because they can hear the drums; it’s in fact the exact opposite. It’s kind of reversing that idea of taking sound for granted and being in tune physically in different ways.”
For Seymour, tuning in has always relied on different wavelengths. “I’ve never really experienced sound,” she says. “It’s not part of my life. Sometimes in my dreams, I dream that I’m a hearing person, and that’s really quite weird for me. But you know, I can understand sound. It’s more of an intuition for me, I guess.”
It is precisely this antenna, refined by necessity, which navigates Seymour not only through the work but life in general. “Silence, to me, doesn’t mean quiet because visually the world is full of information. The equivalent of sound for me is how busy my environment is,” she reveals, before adding, “It’s really exciting for me to work with a drummer. I’ve always loved watching drummers. I’m always engrossed in seeing the rhythm taking place. It’s how I can access music.”
Taking up this thread, Denborough insists that, at its heart, Out Of Earshot is about the dissolving of commonplace dichotomies via non-verbal means. Without the crutch of sound (and especially the linear reduction of language), distinctions between deaf and hearing, young and old, rich and poor become redundant.
As a deaf person and contemporary dancer, Seymour is obviously keen to pursue this line in both art and life. “I really want to challenge the focus on sound and spoken language,” she declares. “Everything’s about what you take in through your ears, but I think it’s really important for us as a society to challenge that way of thinking, to take a different perspective on that.”
KAGE’s Out of Earshot will be presented 31 May – 10 June, at Chunky Move, Melbourne and June 14-15 at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide. For tickets and more information, visit www.kage.com.au/ooes-tickets.
Thanks to Anna Seymour’s Auslan interpreter Erin Cook for her invaluable contribution to this story.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.