enVISION: Sensory Beyond Sight | ShaLeigh Dance Works |

American Dance Festival | Friday, June 3–Sunday, June 5 | The Fruit, Durham, $20 | 

A white, disposable blindfold lay in every audience member’s chair prior to last month’s preliminary preview of ShaLeigh Dance Works’ enVISION, a new piece set to open this year’s American Dance Festival this week.

Though we hardly realized it at the time, the seemingly innocuous eye covering, an incongruity at a dance show, had just posed the work’s first challenge and possibility to us, even before any dancers entered the room.

We had a choice—provided we were sighted, that is. We could watch the performance as usual. Or we could experience it through our other senses instead, as enVISION’s creators, designers, and performers engaged not only the discrete senses of hearing and smell but the constellation of tactile or skin senses that register temperature, texture, air movement, proximity, and body awareness, along with the fusion of sensory inputs that create experiences like frisson and autonomic sensory meridian response, or ASMR.

Later, we learned that audience members would be given third and fourth options in departures even further from the conventional dance experience during this weekend’s run. Audience members can sit in a section near the stage, where sensory elements in the work will be more immersive and robust.

They can also opt instead to be taken and led by a guide, sightless, into and through the movements and experiences in the performance environment onstage, during the show.

“It’s about sharing an experience, and about stepping into the shoes of people that live in a world that’s not dominated by sight,” says artistic director ShaLeigh Comerford. “Because this is a world that we, the sighted, will never understand unless we step into it.”

“It’s also looking at that as a point of inspiration: how differently we experience when we’re navigated through touch, sound, or things that ground us in embodiment as we’re opening up the senses,” the award-winning Rougemont choreographer adds.

The seeds of enVISION began three years ago, with a commission Comerford received to create a work with Davian Robinson, a blind dancer and choreographer from Charlotte. The experience sensitized Comerford to the underpinnings of ableism in the aesthetics and practices of conventional dance. Visual ability has always had primacy and privilege in the art form: dance has always been judged by how its bodies in motion look.

But that runs counter to another fundamental truth that everyone who’s ever danced also knows: we can experience dance every bit as deeply based on how it feels. And that realization got Comerford to interrogate the assumptions that have traditionally barred people with visual impairments from dance classes to performing and experiencing the artworks themselves.

“It took a pandemic, actually, for minds to start changing about who deserves to study dance,” says Krishna Washburn, choreographer and artistic director of Dark Room Ballet, a New York–based school for blind and visually impaired dancers. She also ridicules dry, overly technical audio descriptions that don’t consider that blind audience members might have different priorities.

“When you’re just told, ‘There’s an elbow at a 90-degree angle,’ that’s not an equitable translation of what’s actually happening,” Washburn scoffs.

Robinson also dings the unimaginative language he finds at the root of resistance in dance instruction. “The Terrible T’s: this, that, and there,” he notes, number among nondescriptive words that convey little to no direction to a blind dancer.

“The challenge is overcoming the false messages and stereotypes about what’s possible, replacing the voices they’ve heard in the past saying you can’t with a voice that says, ‘Of course, you can do it,’” Washburn notes.

Comerford estimates it took a full six months of training and preparation before her company could even begin work on enVISION. First, sighted dancers in her company had to learn how to take direction from a blind person, by taking ballet lessons, blindfolded, with Washburn.

Robinson then led the group through an empowering workshop series he’s taught at Columbia University on learning how to move without a visual focus.

“When you teach someone with a sight impairment how to dance as a sighted person, it doesn’t work,” says Robinson. “When you look at yourself in a mirror you take a kind of snapshot and try to line those back up in your mind. What’s absent most of the time is what it feels like. ‘OK, you want me to be in this position. But why?’”

Washburn and Robinson both give primacy to the feelings that movement convey within the dancer’s body. “You’re allowed to trust those things. You don’t need someone else to tell you how you feel on the inside of your own body,” Washburn says.

In enVISION, we ultimately learn that dancers fully grounded in the feeling and meaning underlying movements will likely be able to transmit them to their audience in turn.

An opening section reveals to sighted audience members the chaos and specific danger that a rushing crowd in a public place poses to a sightless person, before a deeply moving sequence where somatic touch and talk defuses the potential trauma of that event. At one point, Robinson’s character asks, “Can we hold our hands on each other’s hearts? For when we do that, we can see each other.”

Thus a work created for people with visual impairments, to reflect and disclose some of their deepest embodied experiences, also serves as an important, empathetic bridge to the sighted community.

“I wanted to tell these stories. I wanted to give them the world that they deserve to have,” Comerford says.

When we talk, Washburn notes that most dance performances are designed for the sighted.

Then she concludes, “This one is not. You can still come; you are welcome because no one should ever be denied access to art. But understand: there are reasons why blind and visually impaired people should have access to dance performance. And enVISION is a performance that fully embodies these important, anti-ableist artistic principles.”

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