How to Convey Dance to Those Without Sight? All Hands On

Posted by The New York Times

It was neither awkward nor sensual — more like a group of mechanics huddled over an engine, discussing its capabilities and how it works. In this analogy, Mana Hashimoto, a blind professional dancer and choreographer, was the head mechanic, and her body was the engine.

At a workshop on a recent Saturday, Ms. Hashimoto was surrounded by four students from the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School, a community school for the blind and visually impaired that’s near Lincoln Center. They followed her movements with their hands: One touched her belly. Another had a hand on Ms. Hashimoto’s head, and still another ran fingers along Ms. Hashimoto’s outstretched arm as she began a long, low backbend.

“How are your feet? Is one in front of the other?” asked Andrew Zhang, 22, who lost his sight completely in a childhood accident.

“You can feel it,” Ms. Hashimoto said, grabbing one of his hands and placing it on her shin. “They are like in a natural position.”

Ms. Hashimoto was performing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a contemporary dance choreographed to the Simon and Garfunkel song, that she will present on Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the museum’s annual collaboration with the Lighthouse Guild (the music school’s nonprofit parent organization). In the past, the event has focused on helping the visually impaired experience visual art through music and poetry.

This is the first year that dance will be featured, and Ms. Hashimoto’s hands-on workshop was preparation. The walk-through was meant to enable the students — about two dozen took part in two separate workshops — to recall the action onstage while they sit in the audience for the performance, or to sing in the a cappella ensemble that will accompany Ms. Hashimoto.

Showcasing dance, without the audience’s necessarily seeing it, is Ms. Hashimoto’s life’s work. Her performances and workshops bring dance, a medium with a strong visual component, to those without sight while also providing a new experience for a sighted audience.

“I create moments of stillness and darkness to start to be aware of the rest of the senses available,” said Ms. Hashimoto, who connects touch, sound and sometimes scent with a performance space and the movements that fill it.

For a moment, she said, she thought she would have to give up dance. How would she see the instructors? Know the position of other dancers? Critique herself in a mirrored studio?

A friend suggested that they take a dance class together, so that Ms. Hashimoto could memorize and refine the movements through touch and verbal cues. When a teacher was moved to tears watching the two interact as one — something of a performance in itself — Ms. Hashimoto said that she understood that she had something distinctive to offer the art form.

Now, she needs remarkably little to perform: a cane to feel her way onto the stage and either a cross made in tape or a small sheet of carpet to define her dance space and direction. Her performances are mostly solos, partly to avoid colliding with other performers.

In a workshop that she runs a few times each year, “Dance Without Sight,” Ms. Hashimoto brings the sighted and the visually impaired into her world. Participants — those who have vision close their eyes or use blindfolds — explore Ms. Hashimoto’s dance space, taking note of how sound reverberates off walls, while feeling textures and the layout.

Time is spent touching the material of Ms. Hashimoto’s costume, as she describes its color, shape and how it moves with her. Then her body becomes the focus, as participants follow her movement with their hands.

“We would touch the lower back — you can actually feel what her limbs are doing, the full movement of the body that way,” said Fred Hatt, a visual artist who took Ms. Hashimoto’s workshop. During the final performance, spectators can hear the sound of the dance and feel the rush of air as she transforms her space.

Since the early 1980s, film and TV shows, theaters and museums have steadily increased accessibility to the visually impaired, said Joel Snyder, a pioneer in audio description services. But dance lags behind. “People have found it challenging to describe something that is somewhat amorphous,” Mr. Snyder said. “In a museum, it is one thing to describe a landscape, and something else to describe a Jackson Pollock. I liken it to that.”

Offering a visual description of dance can be a heavy lift. Mr. Snyder and his wife, Esther Geiger, a certified movement analyst, will watch videos of the choreography and attend rehearsals to write a script. But they are always prepared to improvise their descriptions — not unlike calling a sports game — during the performance. “We want to let the other sounds be there as well,” Mr. Snyder said of the balancing act.

He said he knew of only a handful of dance troupes in the United States, like AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, Calif., that regularly provide audio descriptions. (Beginning this summer, a majority of Broadway shows in New York will have at least a prerecorded audio description.)

For Ms. Hashimoto, touch adds another layer to verbal descriptions. At the music school’s workshop, Madeline Mau, 11, who sees light, shadows and bright colors with her limited vision, molded her own movements to imitate those she felt through Ms. Hashimoto. She said that she was grateful that Ms. Hashimoto allowed her such intimate access to her body and personal space.

“I’ve been able to translate dance into something I understand, not just a visual medium,” Madeline said. “There was just so much emotion — loneliness, happiness, love.”

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