Myele Manzanza makes sound. Terrific sound. He plays drums. He plays the floor like it too were an instrument. Every surface, by this extension, has the possibility of being an instrument. And Manzanza also tap, tap, taps sound on Elle Evangelista, beginning with her shoulders. Standing face-to-face, he transmits sound to Evangelista. You can hear sound, yes. But you can also feel it as vibrations within the body.
And so begins KAGE’s new collaborative work, “Out of Earshot,” presented in the Chunky Move studios. Quietly. Intimately. With a question. How do we experience sound? Premiering as part of Melbourne International Jazz Festival, sound is not something we hear only with our ears. Sound is felt.
We take it is a given that when we hear sound, we are not just using our ears. All our senses are engaged. Sound is experience. From the hot tingle of goose bumps on the forearms, the lump that materialises in the throat, the heart that feels as though it were out-of-body soaring. Our feet tap as rhythm takes hold. A smile broadens as a crescendo is reached. Some, they may even ‘see’ the music as it flies through the air like some superb bird of synaesthesia. To me, sound has the effect of unifying those in the room, making us all instruments, like Manzanza playing Evangelista’s torso. We hear sound and the brain fires off happy notes throughout the body. Sound is, to this end, pleasure.
But if you cannot hear sound, can you experience it? Of course! The question is redundant long before I began typing it. Joining New Zealand jazz drummer Manzanza on stage is Melbourne-based dancer Anna Seymour, who also happens to be profoundly deaf. “I can almost see sound. I respond to the way people move. Then there’s vibration. I don’t perceive sound through my ears, I perceive it through my body.”1
Operating from the premise that we, the audience, will apply our own experience of sound, mistakenly recording its ‘absence’ as silence, Kate Denborough (concept and direction) is interested in “changing people’s view of sound. How we perceive sound, how we see sound; and having a group of dancers who are really articulate with their bodies, physically, is a really fantastic way of answering that question.”2
If a world without sight is not akin to shutting your eyes, why would deafness, by any degree, be similar? Placing a pair of protective earmuffs on can, for me, only simulate an experience that is sketchy at best. I cannot truly know what it feels like to be deaf. However, I can, through focusing on how I hear sound, become aware of sound and the role it plays in my life. I can become aware of a sense that colours my own actions. As American deaf visual artist, Christine Sun Kim describes, within “Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound. Sound doesn’t have to be something that is only felt through the ears, it can be felt tactually or experienced as a visual or even as an idea.”3
And movement is dance. And dance is the body. And dance is a drummer on a rotating platform. Every sound made as Manzanza’s sticks connect with bass drum, or trace around the rim of a cymbal, is described by how the dancers’ bodies respond. Sometimes, they are physically ‘pushed back’ from the sound, as if winded in the chest, and other times they appear drawn magnetically to the snare drum’s beat. To this end, the movements of and shared language between Manzanza, Seymour, and Evangelista are to who I am drawn. The pull of the low base serves as a visual link.
Sound is also shown as a visualised sound wave that traces three sides of the room. Running across three long, narrow screens, almost like musical bars, sound is drawn. As sound flexes its muscles, the sound wave jiggles into action, forming a spiky sea, then a rolling ocean. ‘Seeing’ sound is beautiful. And perhaps the closest I will get to the experience of synaesthesia. A harsh sound is angular, a smooth one, fluid. A continuous line conveys tempo, and by being placed chiefly in peripheral sightline of the audience, save for the central band, it connects to Seymour’s own strong peripheral vision.4
Skirting the edge, the significance of silence as a refuge: noise can be a visual disturbance. Here, silence is about turning inward, finding calmness in an abrasive, busy world. Silence is a sanctuary from too much information.
Noise/music is not purely linked to pleasure: as Manzanza plays his drums as audible assault, the dancers wheel the platform he is upon towards the front of the stage. The sound is so loud within my body; I want to shut it out. Fingers-down-the-blackboard and other discordant sounds to make me wince, providing a shift change within the work.
Having never subscribed to silence as a metaphor for deafness,5 for me, “Out of Earshot,” was at its strongest when it focused upon the universal language of how we connect. Here, the literal movements, such as when all five performers sank to the floor in a contented state of spent exhaustion, hands upon their hearts, tapping their own heart’s beat, felt tender and true. Here was a living, breathing entity. You cannot make-up a heartbeat, just as you cannot lie to yourself. Here was the exposure of body language.
- Anna Seymour in interview with Will Cox, “Out of Earshot: Dancing When Deaf,” Broadsheet, May 31, 2017
- Kate Denborough quoted by Paul Ransom, KAGE’s “Out of Earshot: Speak without speaking,” Dance Informa, May, 2017
- Christine Sun Kim quoted in KAGE Media Release: “Out of Earshot: Vibrations and Reverberations,” April 14, 2017
- Anna Seymour in radio interview, “Deaf dancer stars in KAGE’s ‘Out of Earshot’” Books and Arts Daily, Radio National, June 2, 2017
- “In 1845 the poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney referred to deaf students as “silent beings”…. Such tropes became par of the course, a convenient shorthand for evoking and denoting deafness. A cursory glance at American poetry about deaf people from the period turns up countless titles with silence, including ‘The Silent Path’, ‘Silent Voices’, ‘Our Silent Ones’, ‘A Silent Life’, ‘The Silent Children’ and ‘Sacred Silence’.” Christopher Krentz, “Essaying the Unsayable,” Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 67–68.