Five dancers are rehearsing in near darkness. Jazz drummer Myele Manzanza presides over them at his drum kit, set up on a moveable platform. On screens around the room, sine waves pulsate in time to his snare.
Dancers lay languid on the floor around the kit. Resting her head against the kick drum is Anna Seymour, a dancer with an extraordinarily different approach to her craft. Seymour is profoundly deaf, which means she can’t detect sound at all. This is a rehearsal for Out of Earshot, the new show from contemporary dance company Kage, which opens this week. The performance– which is simply and powerfully about sound, physical intensity and communicating without words – is based around the combination of live drums and a dancer who can’t hear them.
“My world is not complete silence,” Seymour tells me. “I do respond to sound, I just have a different experience of it. We all do.
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“I can almost see sound,” she explains. “I respond to the way people move. Then there’s vibration. I don’t perceive sound through my ears, I perceive it through my body.”
Seymour grew up in Lismore, where she took dance lessons as a child. Without a proper translator, she’d communicate by writing notes with the choreographer. “I could never participate fully in classes,” she says. “I often had no idea what was going on, and couldn’t forge relationships with other people in my class because we couldn’t communicate. I’d go home and cry. The movement part I loved, but the environment wasn’t great. That was quite a conflict.”
When she was 19, something drew her back into it. “I didn’t think a dance career would be a possibility for me,” she says, “but I did it anyway. At university I had a full-time interpreter. Then I got a professional development grant that changed everything. I could fund interpreters, attend workshops, travel overseas. One opportunity led to another.”
Earshot director Kate Denborough is interested in different ways of communicating, and when she came across Manzanza drumming for a jazz band, she knew she wanted to involve him in a dance performance. “He was charismatic and physical,” she says. “His grace and movement was like watching a dancer.”
Shortly after that, she met Seymour, who leapt at the chance to work with a live drummer. The project has been developed collaboratively from the beginning.
“When I go to a show I take it for granted that I’m going to hear – to have a story told through sound,” she says. “We’re doing that visually.”
Don’t expect a straightforward story – it’s more of a conceptual narrative.
Spoken words aren’t necessary, especially in dance; bodies are clear communicators. “If you go into a cafe and see a couple who have just had a terrible fight, you can absolutely see that straight away though their body language,” Denborough says. “When I see Anna talking to another deaf person, they pay so much more attention to each other. They’re really in the moment.”
Early in the performance’s development process, Denborough started learning Auslan to better communicate with Seymour. After one lesson she got into her car, started the engine and turned the radio on; it clicked how much of an audio-centric world we live in.
“I started learning more from Anna and the deaf community about how they experience sound and communicate without verbal language. Dancers are so articulate with their bodies, and so agile with expression and emotion,” she says.
In rehearsals, Seymour communicates through an Auslan interpreter, Erin Gook, who runs around the edges of the stage, always moving, staying in Seymour’s eyeline, translating everything, from Denborough’s instructions to background chatter. “I’m interpreting burps, fire engines going past, the lot,” says Gook. “My hands start moving when I hear noise.” It's a performance in itself.
“It used to sting when people would say things like, ‘What a shame that you’re deaf, it would be so nice if you could hear this song’,” says Seymour. “Now I don’t care. You’re missing out on being able to communicate in different ways. I’m involved in this culture, the deaf community, where we don’t feel like we’re missing out.”
In a rehearsal break, I ask drummer Manzanza if he’s ever done anything like this before.
“No,” he says. “I’ve worked with dancers, but nothing as integrated. I’m as physically in the thing as the dancers. The musician-dancer line is blurred.”
“You’ve become an accomplished dancer in your own right!” says Gook.
“No, no, no,” he laughs. “I’ve gone from zero to … something. But I’m not a dancer.”
“You have!” Gook reinforces. “You’ve developed this natural movement. You’ve picked it up by osmosis.”
As if the performance isn’t already challenging enough, Kage plans to make the show accessible to the blind by incorporating an audio description into one performance. The team has no idea how it will work, but Denborough feels strongly about challenging the status quo. The narrator will have to describe movement in a compelling enough way, evoking tension and mood, without being too literal. They’ll become a performer, a part of the show in their own right.
It’s just another element to the collaborative process.
“Our society is very stuck on certain ways to get messages across,” says Seymour. “We want to remind people that there are different ways to communicate.”
Out of Earshot runs from June 1 to 10 as part of the Melbourne Jazz Festival. The June 8 performance will include audio description.