White Cane

March 21st, 2014
by Isabel Jones

Salamanda Tandem’s White Cane is designed to generate creative dialogue between visually impaired, blind and sighted people – as both performers and audience – and to place the blind and visually impaired person’s experience as central to the aesthetic of the work and its process. We are developing this idea through transmitting the world as seen, heard and felt through the rolling ball of the long white cane as it explores the ground.

We’ve started to explore the long white cane as a creative medium, as an acoustic source for ‘sounding movement’ and shaping the possibility for blind and visually impaired people to become choreographers.

These photographs illustrate the kind of atmosphere we’ve been developing in the last couple of weeks. Mickel Smithen and Takashi use their long white canes to explore the environs of Corby, with photographer Geoffrey Fielding.

Salamanda Tandem Credit: Geoffrey Fielding

Salamanda Tandem Credit: Geoffrey Fielding

One of the key aspects in White Cane is audio description; this will be transmitted through radio headsets to the audience and passers by. Audio description (AD) has recently become available via digital TV, and the major TV channels are now legally obliged to provide it on 20% of their programmes. But it is a complex, challenging, and largely undeveloped form, which can enhance enjoyment (or not) in live performance.

Since the very early days of Salamanda Tandem, (est. 1989) we have been exploring this, considering how audio description in rehearsal and performance can make it possible for blind or visually impaired people to take the leap from passive recipients, to being active creators in the process of making performance. The role of Salamanda Tandem co-director Lewis Jones, himself a blind person, was key here for us and we were able to embed the principle very early on in Smell of The Blue 1992, SubVision 1994, BodyCam 1996, Eye Behind the Eye 1999, Via Crucis 2004 and Touch Talk 2005.

Often AD separates visually impaired and blind people from the rest of the audience, transmitting an entirely different experience to them; in White Cane we consider this and explore how performers and audience whether blind, visually impaired or sighted could take the same journey in sound.

‘I have worked with Salamanda Tandem as an Associate Artist for 8 years, and have been involved as a performer in 13 site specific performances so far. In the work we do at Salamanda Tandem, audio description is so closely embedded it has become part of the art work itself and the process. It’s not just meant as a special thing for VIPs [Visually Impaired People], it is for everyone and it enables me to take a lead in the work. It shows how visually impaired people can educate others and how we can make a contribution to the art itself.’
Mickel Smithen

 The Question of Barriers – Mickel Smithen

My interest is in the inclusion of visually impaired people (VIP) in dance. Dance is very important to visually impaired people and to our wellbeing, but how do we get the opportunity to ‘see’ it. If we can’t ‘see’ or experience it then how can we ever get started? To grow, we need the opportunity to be both audience and participant. Then we might be able to become a dance maker.

Isabel Jones audio describes Mickel Smithen’s Journey

Isabel Jones audio describes Mickel Smithen’s Journey, in Salamanda Tandem’s Touchstone at Corby Cube 2014.
Photo: Geoffrey Fielding

Three of the biggest barriers here are
• The lack of audio description. Big established ballet companies may provide it but that leaves the rest of dance closed to VIPs.
• The quality of audio description where it is provided. Often the sound quality itself is poor and the actual description can destroy the magic of the performance itself. Often I turn it off, or try to use my limited sight by viewing with a magnifying glass or just listen to the music.
• The difficulty in participating in dance workshops or events. Leaders usually rely on sight as the primary means of access, going too quickly, with too many people, and not allowing time for us to touch or have the work described.

The Question of Equity – Isabel Jones

Central for my father Lewis Jones and me in founding Salamanda Tandem, and in directing ‘Eye Contact’ – a company of blind, visually impaired and sighted dancers – from 1992 to 2006, was to raise the question of ‘equity’.

Blind and visually impaired people become accustomed to the idea of being watched by sighted people without reciprocation. Looking could even be understood as a form of touching without physical contact – and it is socially recognised that there are problems of acceptability around physical contact: ‘Do Not Touch’. A blind person can neither look nor touch in return. Vision is above all other senses the most dominant in society, and it goes for dance too, where accessibility for VIP audiences is rare. It also deeply affects participation, in an art form where high status is placed in training upon the ability to learn movement via imitation from what we ‘see’ and where only a small faction uses somatic methods. In such a climate, leadership for people where sight is not their dominant sense relies on a paradigm shift from inside the artform itself.

Mickel leads an audience through Corby Cube guided by audio description Credit: Geoffrey Fielding

Mickel leads an audience through Corby Cube guided by audio description Credit: Geoffrey Fielding

In our latest work Ad Astra 2013 and Touchstone 2014, we took this a step further in devising a duet between two visually impaired dancers – Mickel Smithen and Indra Slavena – who performed independently without sighted partners. Another innovation came through sound where one of the dancers spoke directly to fellow performers guiding them live through ‘a small dance’ as she had heard Lewis do in SubVision 1994.

In April 2013 Salamanda Tandem curated a symposium in Estonia called ‘Fragile?’ which brought together experts from 29 different European countries on the subject of dance and visual impairment. It was clear that progression routes into leadership roles and employment in dance were virtually non-existent for visually impaired people. And it is clear that the involvement of blind people like Lewis in laying down first principles, and visually impaired people like Mickel who want to have a career in dance, is key to the aesthetic and political underpinning of the work, making the inclusion of visually impaired people its bedrock rather than bolted on as an afterthought.

White Cane Credit: Geoffrey Fielding

White Cane Credit: Geoffrey Fielding

In the Ludus programme, we want to create a work that involves our audience as part of the performance using sung/spoken audio description and movement, exploring how the ‘onlooker’ – as audience or choreographer – meets the ‘looked upon’ as performer or participant. That is our key to generating a space where both enter the creative frame, leaders/ followers exchanging roles – meeting through deep sensing, and a kind of mutual gaze supported by sound.

So please join us for the performance in June and share the experience of White Cane