Abstract

In this essay I argue that blindness offers up a most fruitful perspective through which to rethink the visualist aesthetics of dance. As will become clear from three case studies, both choreographers and performers often draw on blindness's multisensory knowledge and practices as to transform the creation, transmission and reception of contemporary dance. Whether through the auditory exploration of space and presence or the haptic appropriation of another's movement into one's own body, blindness brings along an intensely affective, sensory plenitude to the dance theatre, which is at odds with the formalism and distanced judgment typical of the more conventional, predominantly visual approach to dance. The result of such promising experiments within contemporary dance is the emergence of a more inclusive aesthetics in which the creative potential of sensory differences is no longer suppressed, but ultimately acknowledged.


For centuries, Western reflections on aesthetics have centered on visuality; if the experience of listening was invoked, then it was always in the context of music or poetry (Howes 75). However, as Tobin Siebers has indicated, disabilities frequently disrupt the visual biases of cultural criticism. While producing or consuming art, people with a disability rely on uncommon sensory practices that tend to highlight the often-neglected corporality of aesthetic enjoyment (Siebers 2-5). Such a reactivation of all the sensory channels of our bodies is exactly what happens when blindness enters the dance theatre. As I will argue in this essay, blindness, thanks to multisensory practices and knowledge associated with it, also offers up a very fruitful perspective through which to rethink the predominantly visual aesthetics of dance.

Dance is widely understood as one of the "visual" arts and consequently as a form of cultural expression that cannot be directly appreciated by a blind audience. Yet, as I will point out by discussing various initiatives by blind as well as sighted artists, contemporary dance has recently taken a more open and inclusive approach that leaves the old, ableist and visualist demarcations behind. In the first two sections of the essay, I will focus on two projects in which I, as a blind observer, was directly involved. Bettina Neuhaus's solo NEWS (2007) was my first encounter with contemporary dance and was for me an intensely sensuous experience, which was clearly at odds with the conventional distanciation of a sighted beholder. NEWS made me realize how much blindness has to contribute to the critical reception and creation of dance. I follow my exploration of NEWS with a discussion of Eline van Ark's choreographic experiment, The Invisible Dancer (2013-2015). For this piece, Van Ark asked both blind and blindfolded sighted people to attend, listen to, and comment on her dancer's rehearsals. As I will explain, blindness proved to be a crucial driving force in the development of a strictly non-visual choreography. In the final section, I turn to the performer's role and discuss the work of blind professional dancer Saïd Gharbi, who strongly believes in blindness's power to open up yet unrealized potentialities of the dancing body.

But before entering the dance theatre, let me warn the reader that this article does not draw on lifelong expertise in the field of dance. Instead, it is the work of a literary scholar with a vivid interest in the cultural history of the senses, in disability theory and in aesthetics, whose text-based ideas took an unexpectedly concrete turn during various dance performances. The result, in which autoethnographic accounts are paired with interviews and more theoretical considerations, is an essayistic invitation to take blindness to the dance floor. 1

NEWS or the (re)discovery of the senses

Bettina Neuhaus's request in the winter of 2008 for me to attend her dance solo NEWS raised all kinds of questions in my mind. To be sure, since I lost my sight, at the age of five, I had frequently enjoyed the feeling of dancing myself. As a teenager, one is easily dragged onto the dance floor to give it a try for fun. Yet, although I could very well imagine how dancing functions, the question remained: How would I be able to 'watch' it without any accompanying audio description? In my experience of a flamenco show I attended in Granada, the rousing guitar and stamping feet drowned out all the other possibly perceivable sounds the dancers made.

This is how I mused over dance's apparent inaccessibility to blind people before going to NEWS. As I soon learned, not a single note of music would be played during this avant-garde solo choreographed by Deborah Hay. The dancer would only have recourse to "body sounds" (Neuhaus). Before the performance began, Bettina let me explore the dimensions of the spacious studio in Amsterdam, where the "spectacle" would take place. Together with the long curtains drawn in front of a wall of mirrors, the vinyl flooring ensured good, warm acoustics. The costume Bettina put on for the solo and allowed me to touch consisted of grey half-length trousers made of a coarse, hairy fabric and a silky white blouse. Here is a quotation from my notes, taken shortly after the twenty-minute performance, in which I attempted to capture my impressions:

It is deathly quiet in the studio. Even the heater's irritating buzz soon fades away, when suddenly two bare feet begin to walk on my left. Gradually, they cross the dance floor diagonally to the upper right corner. A firm clapping of hands instinctively makes me jump. The clapping goes on, rhythmically though not severely measured. It echoes through the room of which it has become the epicenter. Skin is touching the floor again, on all fours this time, a swishing blouse near the ground. It seems like a drawing, a geometrical pattern being set out here in the dotted lines of the steadily progressing, crawling body. The figure is now rising on the right, releasing a shrill, protracted cry 'Rucututu!' or something like that, once more 'Rucututu!', and once more… The comic bird has alighted again, crouching in the compact density of the rustling flesh. It has stretched out on the ground, audibly breathing, almost panting. What is happening now? At first hearing, it seems as if the body is rolling on the floor, yet considering that it takes place on the other side of the rectangle used, about ten meters from here, it is hard to distinguish. It might as well be a kind of jerky creeping, joints, and bones knocking on the tiles. Let's hope that doesn't hurt… But listen! There is that crystal-clear voice again, indefinable sounds that transcend the flesh, dispersing in all directions, whirling through the air. The figure has knelt down a short distance in front of me. I could almost touch her, if I stretched out my hand… While it sounds as if something is being turned over on the floor, there is a soft vague rustle. That is not caused by clothes… An arm displacing the air perhaps? No, it is something else: the dancer is whispering, in a very low and incomprehensible voice…

This brief account reveals that the piece did not produce anything like a "disinterested" aesthetic experience, as the proponents of the idealist tradition would typically have it. In their view, what is so unique about experiencing art is that it temporarily brackets one's personal interests and sensations, as to become a distanced spectator exclusively focused on the intrinsic qualities and formal structure of the work (Osborne 32). While enjoying NEWS I certainly noticed the geometrical patterns and recurrent figures set out by the dancer, but my appreciation of such formal elements was deeply entangled with the bodily involvement which I, unlike the idealist beholder, felt throughout the performance.

How are we to explain this difference? As David Howes, one of the pioneers in the field of sensory studies, points out, idealist aesthetics not only presupposes an autonomous, passionless judgment of form, it is also predicated on the separation of the senses (75). It is no coincidence therefore that idealist aesthetics privilege sight and hearing, because these are the distancing senses par excellence, perfectly in line with the premise that, being absorbed by the artwork's formal unity, the beholder will be freed from his or her own 'lower' sensuous desires. Although it is true that I mainly listened to NEWS, in my experience those auditory impressions were inseparable from the tactile and proprioceptive sensations which the dancer's actions stirred up in me. Moreover, given that such sensations are directly connected with primary emotions, NEWS affected my whole body by provoking a series of different, intensely 'carnal' reactions such as terror, laughter and empathy with the dancer's imagined pain. My sudden, unfulfilled desire, near the end of the performance, to stretch out my hand towards the dancer, demonstrates most explicitly that my blindness is incompatible with an idealist division between a supposedly 'disincarnated' audience and the work of art.

By the same token, NEWS also magnified the performer's embodied presence or "sensory plenitude" (Howes 80). I was listening to an unconventional dialogue between a body, her clothing, voice and the material environment. This performance did away with the causal and communicative relations between the sounds, so that each of them gained in intensity. The dancer drew attention to the silence and noises of her body, her rhythmic breathing, panting, whispering as she was moving through the room. Meanwhile, her stepping, crawling and rolling were gradually unfolding geometrical patterns, generating unexpected audible figures that reshaped the entire space.

As Tobin Siebers and Michael Davidson have convincingly argued, whenever disability irrupts into art it will uncover the corporeal nature of aesthetic experience that idealism fails to recognize (Siebers 1-20; Davidson 222-230). In this context, Siebers urges us to rediscover the eighteenth-century understanding of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline: "This notion of aesthetics, first conceived by Alexander Baumgarten, posits the human body and its affective relation to other bodies as foundational to the appearance of the beautiful—and to such a powerful extent that aesthetics suppresses its underlying corporeality only with difficulty." (1) One could perhaps object that this affective relation between bodies is inherent to all human interaction and therefore not necessarily definitive of aesthetic encounters. Yet, whereas in daily activities those bodies' affective relations lie hidden behind the curtains of functionality, an aesthetic experience by contrast draws those curtains back to show us the sensory plenitude that makes any kind of interaction ultimately possible. In the case of NEWS, it is clear that this performance offered me aesthetic pleasure, as my senses and emotions moved along with the performer's playful exploration of her own body in space.

By foregrounding the sensuous density and temporality of the performing body, NEWS had made me more aware of the fluidity of corporeal shapes and categories – of a fundamental unsteadiness that visualist, disincarnated thinking usually hides. Did NEWS attempt to make me hear and feel how a human being transforms into an animal, or was the opposite metamorphosis being staged? Taking the tension between the hairy trousers and the smooth blouse into account, as well as the bird's cry and the whisper, I conjectured that the solo focused on the twilight zone between the human and the animal. And what was my own place in such a chaotic evolution? I was not at all sure of the answers to these questions, but I did not doubt that I had, for the first time in my experience, attended an intriguing, accessible dance performance.

The Invisible Dancer or a non-visual choreography

Although Bettina Neuhaus's solo NEWS was obviously enjoyable for a blind beholder, it could still be watched. But what if, from the very start, a dance piece was designed just to be listened to? That was the question which the Dutch choreographer Eline van Ark formulated, when she first conceived of The Invisible Dancer in 2013. Van Ark pondered asking sighted members of the project's audience to close their eyes in order to focus on the audible movements of an unseen solo performer.

Yet to create such an unconventional piece, the young choreographer would have to temporarily unlearn the predominantly vision-based skills she had acquired in her training and somehow train her ear for dancing. As Van Ark pointed out during an interview I conducted with her in preparation for this article: "When making a choreography one always plays with the audience's presumable reactions and expectations. However, since I didn't have any experience whatsoever of listening to dance, I had no idea what to expect. That's why I decided to organize a series of open rehearsals which would allow me to try out all kinds of things on many different listeners" (Interview).

It is important to emphasize that Van Ark's project never aimed to simulate blindness, i.e. to sustain the naïve illusion that the performance would somehow disclose blind subjectivity to sighted people. Van Ark's aural choreographic poetics instead stemmed from the inclusive desire "to let everybody – no matter whether blind or sighted – experience dancing through listening and to perceive a bodily presence in space differently" ("[ik wil] iedereen, blind of ziende, dans laten ervaren door te luisteren en op een andere manier lichamelijke aanwezigheid in de ruimte waar te nemen"; my trans.; Van Ark qtd. in Baanders). It is therefore more accurate to say, to borrow a phrase from Alex Porco, that The Invisible Dancer hinted at blindness as "a desirable practice" in the dance theatre. As Porco explains, speaking of disability in terms of "desirable practice" is not to deny the existence of social exclusion or cultural stigmatization that so often erase bodily and mental diversity from the social space. On the contrary, defining disability as a desirable practice attempts to counter the systematic normalization of difference by highlighting that "[d]isability is not a problem in need of correction but a positive resource, especially as it pertains to aesthetics" (Porco). Indeed, when blindness was actively engaged by The Invisible Dancer, the dance benefited from blindness as "a positive resource", because this disability would inevitably bring along particular sensory practices and critical knowledge that are potentially disruptive of art's normativity.

Consequently, during the initial rehearsals of her project in 2013, Van Ark sat with a blind audience so as to learn from these "listening experts", as she called them, which exercises carried out by her performer were aesthetically appealing to the ear and which ones were less so (Van Ark "CLOUD"). Thanks to the fact that Van Ark made video recordings of the complete working process, we may now deduce from this initial audience's reactions that those listeners were as astonished by audible dance-figures as I was during NEWS. As one lady remarked enthusiastically: "You can tell all kinds of things through audible motion!" (Van Ark "CLOUD" 6:05). Or as someone else noticed: "Silences between the movements become much more intense than the silence before the very start of the performance" (1:30).

To be sure, one needs to be careful not to essentialize blindness, as if, for example, it always implies the same set of refined listening practices. As anthropologists Kathryn Geurts et al. observe, just like any other type of embodied experience, "disability sensibility" is shaped within a local context and has its own cultural values as well as political and institutional realities (89-90). Michael Schillmeier has argued similarly that certain sensory practices can be either disabling or enabling depending on the specific social circumstances and material conditions (127-154). With respect to dance it is clear that the visualist setting of a classic Western ballet performance would exclude blindness altogether, unless the spectacle had been mediated by an audio description. 2 By contrast, initiatives such as NEWS or The Invisible Dancer embrace from the outset a multisensory and therefore more inclusive approach, enabling a more bodily diverse public to attend.

In the case of The Invisible Dancer, Van Ark invited people with differing abilities (including myself) to give further feedback during eight open rehearsals, which took place in Amsterdam over the course of 2014 ("Documentatie werkproces"). Although Van Ark had already decided early on that her solo dancer, Aïda Guirro Salinas, would only rely on her own body's interactions with the room to produce sound – thus not having recourse to any external sound source or instrument - there were still many aspects of the choreography that needed to be tested and developed. The open rehearsals, for example, saw various experiments regarding the arrangement of the listeners' chairs to ensure that everybody could enjoy the performance equally, the final result being that listeners would be seated in a circle facing each other, with one opening between them where the dancer could freely step in or out the circle. Another issue was whether or not the dancer would directly touch the audience, by suddenly tapping on somebody's arm, leaning on a shoulder or even crawling under people's legs. Van Ark ultimately dropped most of these tactile manipulations, considering that only a few people could be involved and the rest of the audience tended to lose focus while passively waiting. What she did preserve for the final choreography though was playing with the sensation of nearness, as the dancer could suggest her presence nearby by creating a breeze or taking advantage of the creaking floor. At the strictly auditory level, Van Ark discovered that repetition was key. As she explained to me: "When a specific movement or figure recurs over and over again, then the listener is able to pick it up and to fill in its various components" (Interview).

Undoubtedly the most striking result of this unique development process was the way in which people with different abilities gradually reached common ground within a non-visual, multisensory aesthetics. Even if The Invisible Dancer never aimed to simulate blindness, it is certain that the performance was a defamiliarizing experiment for both the choreographer and the temporarily blindfolded listeners. It forced them to give up visual control and rely on sensory practices that are much more common among (though not essential to) blind people. All the same, by substituting the distanced judgment of the gaze for a more direct, emotionally charged interaction through senses other than sight, The Invisible Dancer prompted blind and sighted participants equally to discover new, surprisingly enjoyable sides to dance, such as the reconfiguration of space through audible movement and repetition, as well as the haptic play with the dancer's polymorphous presence and proximity. Van Ark's non-visual approach thus ultimately led to the exploration of innovative formal and temporal structures that a visualist choreography would not have revealed.

Saïd Gharbi or the potential body

In this final section, I would like to give the floor to a blind dancer, Saïd Gharbi. Gharbi, who was born in the Moroccan city of Tangier in 1968 but has spent most of his life in Brussels, became blind at the age of fourteen. He did not consider dancing until his mid-twenties, when he became involved in 1993 in a performance by Ultima Vez, the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus's renowned company. Thanks to Vandekeybus's innovative approach, based on his belief in bodily intuition, Gharbi became aware of his capacities as a performer. Gharbi recalled this approach during a conversation I had with him: "Vandekeybus would typically ask me to touch the movement he was demonstrating. He didn't so much need me to copy that movement perfectly. Vandekeybus was more interested to see how a blind person would interpret what he had just experienced through touch. How blindness would incorporate the proposed movement." (Gharbi) This approach brought about a tremendous shift in Gharbi's thinking, as it attempted to replace the 'normal' dominance of ableist bodily and aesthetic knowledge with a model of equivalence, where visuality and blindness may enter into dialogue on equal terms, where one perceptual modality – such as a tactile impression – can be transposed into another modality, such as a proprioceptive interpretation.

Consequently, this collaboration with Vandekeybus not only marked the beginning of Gharbi's career as a professional dancer, but it also encouraged him to keep on developing his own artistic strategies and sensory practices as a performer. When asked about the latter, Gharbi points out that, first of all, he prefers to dance barefoot, because it allows him to recognize different textures on the floor and thus to determine his position on stage. He gives the example of the Ultima Vez production Mocumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, which premiered in Brussels in April 2017: "In this piece, we are supposed to dance on a circle-shaped carpet. Now they have covered the stage around that circle with latex, so it is very easy for me to distinguish." Logically, sound sources such as a centered loudspeaker at the back of the stage can be very helpful too. But as Gharbi explains, "sound is sometimes no less disorienting. At some point in the Mocumentary, I am dancing in the very middle, surrounded by six others, but during the rehearsals I tended to lose track because of the extremely loud music drowning my landmarks." In similar situations, contact with the other dancers on stage provides the solution, as they can give subtle directions if he occasionally drifts away from his position. Indeed, Gharbi stresses that, in addition to tactile and auditory cues, this human contact is of paramount importance in constituting his sensory and affective environment on stage: "Thanks to the other performers I can easily calculate distances: I feel their presence. At a certain moment, our bodies will move together, even without the need to see each other." Or as he put it in an earlier interview: "While dancing the other performers need me as much as I need them. We are on an equal footing" ("Tijdens het dansen hebben de anderen mij even hard nodigals ik hen. In het danslokaal word ik als een gelijke behandeld"; my trans.; qtd. in Lahousse 16).

Although it may be easier for a blind person to dance solo and without music, Gharbi loves the risks his blindness entails, as it also never fails to challenge him as a performer or to set new standards for embodying contemporary dance. This is not to deny the many obstacles and prejudices that he has encountered throughout the years in this visualist cultural context, but he has never sought to pass as a normally sighted dancer either. Rather, while reminding us of a lyrical essay by disability theorist and performer Petra Kuppers in which she mused on pain as her dance partner, Gharbi considers blindness and the questions it poses to be an open gateway to the as yet unrealized potentialities of the dancing body. That is also why Gharbi and his wife Ana Stegnar, herself a dancer, have founded their own dance company, Les Ballets du Grand Miro, which organizes blindness-themed performances and workshops. There are sessions for sighted school children, for example, who are taught how to touch a movement or listen to spatial dimensions, thus introducing them to alternative modes of perception. But, as Gharbi tells me, he also frequently participates in workshops for people with differing abilities throughout Europe: "Such workshops are wonderful experiences! All the participants contribute to the project, put in a great effort to realize the performance. No matter whether someone is able-bodied, a wheelchair user or visually impaired, people become aware of each other's singular creativity and indispensability for the group."

Conclusions

As theorists such as Mairian Corker have rightfully argued, we ought to pay more attention to disabilities as sensed modes of being and doing things in view of their potential to reshape our collective, 'normal' ways of imagining the human body (41). We urgently need more (auto)ethnographic and phenomenological accounts of embodied experiences of disability; a better grasp of the alternative sensory practices and cognitive strategies that people with a disability tend to develop will serve to shake loose the current, stifling norms of corporeality. And indeed, I have seldom felt the deep truth of this theoretical insight as strongly as in the dance theatres where blindness has stepped onto the floor.

Though this article's overview of such initiatives is limited to Western Europe and is far from exhaustive in its reach, these case studies will hopefully be sufficient proof that blindness is a source of multisensory knowledge that can transform the creation, transmission and reception of dance. For contemporary dancers like Neuhaus, Van Ark and Gharbi, blindness brings with it a whole range of sensory practices and formal innovations that undermine the conventional, visualist understanding of a dance performance. The auditory exploration of space and presence, the rhythm of body sounds and repetitive geometric patterns, the haptic appropriation of another's movement into one's own body, are but a few, instructive examples of blindness's contributions to dance. Blindness unsettles the distanced judgment of the piece, by provoking a more affective, intensely sensuous exchange between dancer and beholder. Blindness also discloses an enormous variety of listening and touching practices that both choreographers and performers may want to incorporate into their work in order to rethink their art's form.

I will leave it to experts on contemporary dance to reflect on the historical significance and future possibilities of visual disability's active engagement with their artistic discipline. Yet, the result I have witnessed as a dance lover, is the emergence of a more inclusive, multisensory aesthetics where sensory differences are no longer suppressed. On the contrary, they have suddenly taken the lead and invite us to follow.

Works Cited

Notes

  1. I could not have written this article without the efforts of and help from the performers, for which I am very grateful. Many thanks to Bettina Neuhaus who offered to dance her solo in private for just a friend and myself, as well as to Eline van Ark and Saïd Gharbi, who both agreed to an extended interview and happily shared all the documentation (e.g. video recordings, articles etc.) I asked for.
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  2. It should be noted that, if such a translation from the visual into the verbal is carefully done, it may similarly provoke aesthetic pleasure. As Eleanor Margolies has rightfully suggested, the audio describer should not give any dry, factual account of what is happening on stage, but rather try to verbally recreate the effects and atmosphere of the dance spectacle.
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