Can we really describe dance? Olivia Muscat reviews Sarah Houbolt’s Blindly Following Matisse at Tempo Dance Festival
In late 2019 I was involved in a focus group and workshop that investigated how to make dance more accessible to blind and low vision audiences. Dance is difficult because it involves describing abstract concepts of movement to people who may have no reference or understanding of what they are.
The chief problems are that people use many words used to describe the same movement and many movements are described using the same words.
Once you start blending descriptions of leaps, arm movements and spins together, one after another, they become jumbled and it’s nearly impossible to form any sort of meaningful picture in your head. This is especially true for people who have never seen how dancers can move their bodies or who have no experience of the very basics of dance and of moving their own body in choreographed steps.
I took dance as a child and in my high school years was involved in every musical theatre production I could fight my way into. I have some basic understanding of dance terminology and how it feels within my body to perform certain dance steps. But even with this knowledge and understanding, I find it very difficult to follow descriptions of dance performances. The language gets repetitive and I often become very bored very quickly.
When I first heard about Blindly Following Matisse, an online dance film created by Sarah Houbolt for New Zealand’s Tempo Dance Festival, I was intrigued to say the least. Sarah Houbolt is a vision impaired dance artist, and audio description was built into the production process for this work from the beginning.
It started with audio description because, in order to base her own work on the paintings of Henri Matisse, she needed to have the art described to her. Based on those descriptions, she choreographed the dance, describing it herself.
Can I say I enjoyed watching it? I’m not actually sure.
I was definitely impressed by the artist’s skill and ambition, but I also felt that the audio description might have been played with a bit more. Maybe it could have more subverted traditional expectations of what we think audio description should be. I was expecting something different than what I got. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I discovered that I find it much easier to be captivated by a dance performance when the dancer is interacting with another object. The references to the object and how the dancer is interacting with it make it much easier for me to picture what is happening, and make the performance much more interesting. Towards the end of the film, Houbolt began to use objects and I found those sections much more enjoyable than when she was dancing alone. Sometimes these objects were simply beams of light or colour, but it made a huge difference.
Watching this film made me appreciate live movement much more. It’s much more difficult for me to appreciate dance and movement in the online space. I realised how many clues and how much context I get from the sound of feet hitting the floor and how much of a sense of people’s movements I can pick up just from being in the same space. I would appreciate Blindly Following Matisse a lot more if I could catch the incidental aspects that you only really get from a live performance. But it was created specifically for the online space, and it wouldn’t be possible to recreate it in a live setting.
I learnt too that sometimes I get way too caught up in things being exact. Listening to the artist’s descriptions, I found myself irritated by the use of words that have no concrete physical concepts attached to them. They made the description far too open to interpretation. Two sighted people, for example, would be watching exactly the same movement, leaving no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
Then I scolded myself: my preconceived baggage about visual performance art were leading to a very narrow-minded view. Yes, sighted people would be getting the same visual information, which they are then free to interpret in whatever way their mind works, just as anyone listening to the audio descriptions is given the same description and is left to interpret and understand it using their own context and experiences and knowledge. Who am I to say what is or isn’t a misinterpretation?
I was caught up in being unable to know the precise movements and forgot that there is so much more to art and performance. It means to me what it means to me. And while we still need to improve access to dance performance for audiences who are blind or have low vision, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have the same experiences as our sighted counterparts.
As long as we’re given the opportunity to appreciate the performances and to bring our own visualisations, references, experiences and meanings to a versatile artform like dance, that’s actually okay. What we need to work on is giving the people who need them the tools and knowledge to understand and interpret the movement of individual dance works. It can’t be achieved with audio description alone, but we need to start somewhere.
Perhaps if Houbolt’s audience had been given the descriptions of Matisse’s paintings that were the inspiration for her work, it may have had more weight and meaning. Personally I have no frame of reference for Matisse’s art; I’ve never seen any of his paintings, or had them described to me. For me the performance was completely without context, and I can’t simply google to find out what I was missing.
I’m also curious to know how different this experience would be for a sighted person who watched it with and without the audio description. But maybe that doesn’t matter, either: it was created with audio description and isn’t meant to be viewed without it. Because the artist wrote and performed the description, she is telling us exactly what she wants us to know; and what we do with that information is up to us. It’s certainly unique, in that unlike conventional audio description, the description is not coming from a (supposedly) objective place.
The artist knows what she wants to convey and describes to that end. I’d like to see more artworks like this, with accessibility built in from the ground up as part of the artist’s process, not just as additional bonus material. An artist doesn’t have to be disabled to do this, either.
Dance still isn’t really my preferred artform. But I appreciate that there are people like Sarah Houbolt out there who are trying to make the thing they love accessible to as many people as possible.
Blindly Following Matisse, written and performed by Sarah Houbolt. Cinematography and editing by Jamie Gray, choreographic consulting by Amy Mauvan, composition by HC Clifford. Tempo Dance Festival. Online until July 26.