Just listen to that choreography

Sign language for the hard of hearing at theatre and opera has been a welcome development. But to provide the service for dance is political correctness gone mad, says Lynne Walker
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The Independent Culture

The signing was not of words, since they're seldom basic to dance, and not of the choreographer's artistic intentions since they should be clear to the eye, but of the music. Dance fans with mild to severe hearing loss could now in theory appreciate the highs and lows, the scrapes and tootles, and the tempos and rhythms of the accompanying music.

Actually, there were some words in the only recorded soundtrack of the evening - Bruce Gilbert's "Feeling Called Love" and "Do You Me? I Did" - in Michael Clark's Swamp. As the dancers limbered up, the valiant signer, Paul Whittaker, mimed a strummed guitar and communicated the opening words of Wire's punk hit with gusto. Whether or not he also conveyed any white noise, hum or hiss, I can't say as I was trying very hard not to see him. But I simply couldn't miss him. Surely only someone with little sense of the drama of dance or the atmosphere of a subtly lit scenario could have placed a signer - who needs to be lit up to be effective - a mere step or two away from the dancers?

With this extraneous gesturing figure sited well within the range of vision of most of the audience, what chance was there to be able to focus properly on the dancers' intricate sequences of movement? And what was left of the brooding atmosphere of the world premiere of Rafael Bonachela's Curious Conscience, evoking the luminous nocturnal soundworld of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings? Precious little, even for deaf viewers, I imagine.

No matter how hard I longed for the poor view of the stage that plagues me in so many theatres - big hair or a bobbing head blocking my view of the stage - the perfect sightlines of the Lowry's Lyric Theatre offered no such lucky escape. A puzzled friend, situated well to one side of the balcony and catching only the odd glimpse of the signer's hands, actually assumed that the dancers must still be in need of signalled guidance through their movements.

To his credit, Paul Whittaker, of Music for the Deaf, himself profoundly deaf, seemed quite at ease in his unusual role. He's fascinated by the relationship between rhythm, music, sign language and dance, and he worked valiantly at the Lowry to prove it. But the audience couldn't help but be distracted or fascinated or irritated, depending on its personal reaction, by a series of movements that didn't correspond in any way with the carefully co-ordinated sequence of activity going on alongside it. The signing may have given some indication of the sounds accompanying each piece but it was utterly to the detriment of the dance performance as a whole.

Sign-language interpreted performance (SLIP) in the opera house - where there are at least words - has attracted as much controversy as surtitles and, although the Royal Opera and English National Opera have been putting on SLIPs for years, it still arouses the ire of some baffled opera-goers. It's easy to respond to all this with frustration or cynicism. I'm fortunate enough not to have sign language as my first language. Therefore, I'm clearly not in a position to appreciate or understand its essential role. But in the same way that I can't tolerate coughers at concerts, I'm pretty sure that if I were hard of hearing then I wouldn't want my fellow audience members at a dance show to be so blatantly distracted from what it had come to see.

Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of Rambert, takes a rather different view. "I found this first-ever signed performance surprisingly moving," he enthuses. He, of course, is familiar with Rambert's repertoire, has had plenty of opportunity to watch and appreciate the work and doesn't need to concentrate, as the rest of us do, on a one-off viewing. Besides, he regards it as part of the company's mission to reach as wide-ranging an audience as possible.

But how would he react to a choreographer or designer who queried the validity of their creations being hijacked in this way? "I would not look kindly on anyone working with Rambert taking that attitude, or throwing a hissy fit just because one performance of an entire tour was signed." So will it be restricted to just one performance? "If funding was available, I would like to think we might introduce more, in response to the enquiries we have received. And I would like to look at incorporating sign language into the spoken introductions at matinées and at our pre-show talks." Signing explanatory speech is a quite different issue, of course.

The positioning of hearing-impaired audience members to one side with the interpreter between them and the stage might be one possible solution. But a better idea could be the system that is being introduced this season by the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in its in-the-round stage space. Deaf theatre-goers can sign up for a seat which will be served with an individual small screen providing sign-language interpretation by live video link. An enterprising idea, it could well catch on across several art forms, including dance, if it proves as successful as it did during a trial run.

If the notion of an evening of dance interpreted in sign language seems strange, perhaps it's not much odder than the idea of presenting close-up shots of singers' tonsils, woodwind-players' lips or a keyboard-player's fingers on an overhead screen in a concert. What next, I wonder. Art galleries with a caricature stuck in the corner of each portrait? Classical concerts given to the accompaniment of easy-listening versions of the same music? Plays staged with filmed versions running overhead? The possibilities are endless.