Multisensory Performance Builds Connections and Understanding

This year’s American Dance Festival opened with the premiere of enVISION:Sensory Beyond Sight by ShaLeigh Dance Works at The Fruit. Conceived specifically for individuals who are low-vision or blind, this imaginative and immersive performance literally presents the audience with a new sensorial way to experience dance and theater.

Audience members are invited to either don a white blindfold (many complied) or elect to more fully participate by allowing their bodies, deprived of sight, to be guided into the work on stage by a performer. Another group of six audience members wearing eye covers and seated in the front row are also provided with an enhanced immersive experience. (Both groups are given a short orientation before the performance begins.)

Through this portal, the audience is then taken on a multisensory journey that requires full attention. Sound, such as the patter of rain or the resonant tones of wind chimes, soothes. Familiar noise, like movement in a busy airport, feels predictable. Chaotic noise, however, is disorienting (even to the sighted) while sounds of a crowd stampeding in panic is ever more frightening to someone who is blind or low-vision.

Watching the blindfolded participants being gently caressed by their performer guide or wrapped in a blanket triggers warm feelings. Crunchy leaves and gentle winds, fuzzy sweaters, feather boas and silk-swishy pink skirts add to the tactile experience.

Davian (DJ) Robinson, a choreographer and dancer who lost his sight as a child, along with Artistic Director ShaLeigh Comerford, use these particular tools to begin an exercise in building connections and understanding for both sighted and unsighted audience members.

Dialogue, music and dance work in tandem to stimulate both sighted and low-vision / blind audience members throughout this 45 minute performance. Composer Eric Hirsh sets the meditative and soaring mood that underscore the themes of the show, while Erik Ramquist provides excellent support as sound designer. Movement by a wonderful ensemble of dancers captures the experience of intuitively responding to a sequence of notes. 

But this was my experience as a sighted audience member. While my imagination soared with the sheer abundance of sensory input, audience members who chose to be blindfolded noted a more personal, creative stimulation – one not hampered or limited by the “sights” of the performance. For them, the journey was more intense and personal since they became folded into the narrative. 

And that is the point of this innovative work: To interrogate our sighted perceptions and to make dance a more inclusive art form.

The American Dance Festival runs through July 20th. For more information visit https://americandancefestival.org/season/.

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