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Hear the Dance: Audio Description Comes of Age

Camille walks a diagonal. Her gaze toward the ceiling falls.

Her right hand cups her mouth, left hand follows as she walks backward.

She peers over a lifted leg, taps the ground …

… circles the knee and extends arms and leg into a forward stride, walking.

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Hear the Dance: Audio Description Comes of Age

Recent experiments in describing dance, like the film “Telephone,” approach it not just as an accessibility service but as a space for artistic exploration.

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By Siobhan Burke

Nov. 11, 2023

The dancer Krishna Washburn remembers attending a performance years ago by a well-known modern dance company at a large New York City theater. Washburn, who is blind, opted to experience the show with audio description: in this case, a track that narrated the dance as it was happening, delivered through a headset.

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Intended to make the performance more accessible, the voice in her ear had the opposite effect: She left the theater feeling alienated, excluded. During the finale, a work famous for its deep emotional resonance, she heard people in the seats around her crying. But the audio description evoked nothing that seemed worthy of tears.

“I’m listening to: ‘Two dancers enter stage right; they proceed down the front diagonal,’” she said in a video interview, recalling the describer’s mechanical tone. “‘Two more dancers join them.’ And I’m like: ‘Why did they get you to cry? What’s really happening? There’s something I’m not getting.’”

Washburn now looks back on that moment as a turning point — away from feeling grateful for any attempt at audio description, and toward imagining and advocating more.

The founder and sole teacher of Dark Room Ballet, a ballet curriculum designed for blind and visually impaired students, Washburn is also the co-director, with the choreographer Heather Shaw, of “Telephone,” a film exploring the creative possibilities of audio description for dance. Presented around the country since its premiere last year, “Telephone” will be screened virtually by the New York City dance hub Movement Research on Nov. 15, followed by a conversation with the filmmakers.

transcript

The creators of “Telephone” wanted everyone in the film — 15 dancers and 13 audio describers — to have full artistic freedom.

Camille walks a diagonal. Her gaze toward the ceiling falls. Her right hand cups her mouth, left hand follows as she walks backward. She peers over a lifted leg, taps the ground, circles the knee and extends arms and leg into a forward stride, walking. Mouth open, brows furrowed, shoulders rise, shrug, shiver, she turns and walks back. Elbows rise, the right hand meets the back wall, sliding and then pushing against it, catapulting into an upward spin and then dropping, contraction. Her torso hovers over a lifted leg, pointed toes, open wrists, hands push knee until her whole body is open and extending. She folds in and drops down, she stands. She pivots, her back turned, eyes peering over shoulder, her whole body shifts from side to side. A large sweep of her arms, legs galloping, her head drops, her body turns, her right leg slides into a wide lunge, throwing the right arm forward like she’s bowling. Her arms exchange direction and push out, palms and fingers stretch. She stands. Feet planted squarely beneath her, her head melts over her right shoulder, she twists, her arms sweep up and around in a movement of exhalation, an undulating wave around her. Something above catches her attention. She finds the ceiling again and leaves her hands and arms behind as she follows her gaze. Walking further forward along the diagonal.

The creators of “Telephone” wanted everyone in the film — 15 dancers and 13 audio describers — to have full artistic freedom.

Resisting rote description, the film seeks to give anyone, with any level of sight, a rich sensory experience while ruminating on themes like the purpose of performance and the universal necessity of art. At one point, Washburn shares a message specifically for blind and visually impaired audiences: “We made this for you,” she says. “You are not going to be missing anything.”

Since emerging as a formal access tool about 45 years ago, audio description in the United States has become increasingly available across the arts, bolstered by broader movements for accessibility and disability rights. But while you’re now likely to find it in movie theaters, on streaming services and at Broadway shows, it’s less common in dance. Developed for dialogue-driven media like theater and film, the conventions of traditional audio description don’t necessarily translate to a largely nonverbal form of expression. Which is perhaps one reason that dance artists, and especially disabled dance artists, are devising their own alternatives.

“Telephone” joins a wave of recent experiments in audio description for dance that approach it not just as an accessibility service but as a space for artistic exploration. Among these are works by the visually impaired choreographers Christopher Unpezverde Núñez, Kayla Hamilton and Iele Paloumpis — all based in New York City — who weave movement with description spoken aloud for the whole audience to hear.

In a more high-tech vein, the disability arts ensemble Kinetic Light has developed a mobile app, Audimance, that lets users switch among multiple description channels, or blend them, creating an immersive soundscape. One track might focus on narrative and emotion; one on lighting and projections; another on more poetic evocations of the dancing.

But outside the work of disabled artists, audio description for dance remains “really, really rare,” said Washburn, who also teaches workshops on describing dance. “When it’s present,” she added, “it’s not always high-quality,” at least in the United States. (Britain, she noted, has a more “supportive and integrated audio description culture.”)

Ideally, Washburn says, audio describers should be part of the choreographic process from its inception — and adequately paid for that time. More often, though, their contributions are tacked on at the end, informed by little if any consultation with the artists.

Describers are not receiving “the time and information that they need,” she said, “to create description that captures the emotional qualities and artistic essence of the performances.”

ACCORDING TO JOEL SNYDER’S 2014 book “The Visual Made Verbal,” audio description “as a formal process of translation and accessibility” originated in the late 1970s, with the work of the communications professor Gregory T. Frazier. It first was used in theater, television and film, narrating actions not evident through dialogue or other sound.

Snyder, a pioneer in the field, worked for what he calls “the first ongoing audio description service,” founded in 1981 in Washington, D.C. In a phone interview, he and his wife, Esther Geiger, an audio describer and movement analyst, said it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they worked on a dance project. In the past few years, Geiger said, she has observed “more awareness” about providing audio description for dance, but the execution is often hurried.

“What I’ve found is that they’ll sometimes throw a very experienced theater describer at a dance performance, just to try and make it accessible,” she said. “And the automatic fallback tendency will be to try and say everything that’s happening, which is impossible in real time.” Her more deliberate approach “is a lot about leaving stuff out and deciding: What’s the essence?”

Colleen Connor, a blind audio description coach and the founder of Audio Description Training Retreats, in Los Angeles, said that dance tends to raise lots of questions — and anxieties — for those learning to describe. “It’s a different animal,” Connor said.

In traditional audio description, describers are often encouraged to “say what you see”: to report, not interpret, so audiences can arrive at interpretations of their own. A neutral tone of voice is the norm. Adhering strictly to these practices might make sense in the presence of dialogue and other auditory information that helps to tell a story: music, sound effects, environmental noises (traffic, chirping birds). But dance communicates so much without words, and often not in service of a narrative, amounting to something more ambiguous, abstract.

Kinetic Light’s Audimance app, designed by Laurel Lawson, allows audience members to switch among multiple description channels, creating a layered experience of sound like the blend of voices in this film version of “DESCENT.”

In lieu of on-screen captions, the artists created an enhanced transcript for the video above here.

For describers of dance, “it might be more appropriate to delve into more emotional words,” Connor said, “or have more emotion in your voice that complements the performance.”

Washburn puts it this way: “People don’t go to dance performances to have the experience of a person lifting an arm or traversing from one corner of the stage to a different one. That’s not why they’re there. They’re there to feel something. If you don’t give them the opportunity to feel the thing, then they’re not getting out of it what they deserve.”

WITH “TELEPHONE,” WASHBURN AND SHAW, who met in an online choreography workshop at the height of the pandemic — Washburn lives in Harlem and Shaw in the Bay Area — abandoned any audio description rule book. They wanted to give every participant, 15 dancers and 13 describers, full artistic freedom.

“We wanted to avoid that prescriptive ‘talk about this, but not about this,’” Shaw said. She often cites a friend’s comment about the project — that it’s “a film to be listened to.”

Inspired by the game of telephone, the filmmaking process began with a dance phrase that Shaw choreographed in her apartment, slinking around a hallway corner and along a wall. She filmed the phrase and sent it to an audio describer, whose description was passed along to Washburn and another dancer. They sent their results to another describer, and so on.

In the final version, each dance unfurls to the sound of its describer’s voice, layered with Emil Bognar-Nasdor’s atmospheric original score. (The film also includes American Sign Language interpretation throughout.) Some describers are impressionistic in style, others more direct. In pared-down interludes, Washburn speaks into darkness, the screen black, relaying personal and philosophical reflections that help to welcome the audience in.

At a screening in the East Village in August, Dolunay Kocabag, a low-vision actor and dancer from Turkey, was moved to tears. In an interview, she said she had never before attended a dance performance or film with audio description.

“I didn’t know what a big difference it would make,” she said. “Whenever there was some body part talked about, I felt energy go there in my body. I felt the impulse to move.”

“I really felt like: This is for me,” she added. “Now I have some way into this.”

BEYOND “TELEPHONE,” ARTISTS ARE offering other ways in.

In Paloumpis’s “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky” at Danspace Project last year, performers departed from the usual structure of a single describer, experimenting with the more intimate act of describing one another. Hamilton, a recent resident artist at Jacob’s Pillow, also plays with the idea of multiple perspectives, illuminating the subjective nature of perception.

For the 2022 American Dance Festival, the blind choreographer Davian Robinson collaborated with ShaLeigh Commerford, the director of ShaLeigh Dance Works in Durham, N.C., on a piece that aimed to heighten all senses but sight. Carolyn Lazard’s recent exhibition “Long Take,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, juxtaposed three modes of describing the dancer Jerron Herman, on three screens in a darkened gallery. (Lazard was named a MacArthur fellow this year.)

Núñez, a Costa Rican choreographer whose work invokes his Indigenous heritage, said he is interested in “the rhythm, pace, intonation, pausing, silence, quietness, stillness in audio description.” In “The Circle or Prophetic Dream,” his words approach poetry, a blend of the literal and metaphorical — and of Spanish and English — spoken as he and two dancers revolve through space, accompanied by live acoustic music.

transcript

In “The Circle or Prophetic Dream,” performed at Danspace Project in 2022, audio description is spoken in voice over for the whole audience to hear.

Water rises from the shoulders through the neck to the mind to the neck and descends to the chest and hips as a tornado. El pecho se relaja y suaviza. The chest relaxes and softens. The hips start feeling like liquid. Las caderas comienzan a sentirse líquidas. Liquid, líquido. Liquid, líquido. Liquid, líquido. Liquid, líquido. Liquid. Líquido. Chest and hips begin circular movements from right to left. From back to front. Back to front. From back to front.

In “The Circle or Prophetic Dream,” performed at Danspace Project in 2022, audio description is spoken in voice over for the whole audience to hear.

For Núñez, the choice to build audio description into his work, rather than providing it through an optional headset, came in part from a desire for “everyone to be on board,” he said. “I wanted the nondisabled community to experience audio description, as well.”

At Kinetic Light, Laurel Lawson, the developer of Audimance, would like to make the app available to other dance companies, allowing anyone to offer audio-described performances. In addition to funding, reaching that goal will require “getting choreographers to understand how exciting this is — how much more there can be to their work,” Lawson said.

Cheryl Green, a describer for Kinetic Light, said that slowly but surely more arts organizations are understanding the importance of audio description. “I think the message has gotten out: D.E.I. needs to be D.E.I.A.,” she said, using the shorthand for diversity, equity, inclusion and access. “Accessibility is not hard, and it’s not scary.” Not to mention, she added: “It grows your audiences. It simply does.”

As Washburn spreads the word about audio description, she also stays grounded in the communities closest to her. What matters most to her about “Telephone,” she said, is how it lands with disabled audiences, like the regulars in her Monday-night online ballet class.

“When you’re a disabled person who is drawn to dance, drawn to art, you kind of feel alone,” she said. “And what I hear from my students the most is that this film makes them feel not alone.”

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

Video credits:

“Telephone” excerpt (2022): directed by Krishna Washburn and Heather Shaw; choreography and performance by Camille Tokar Pavliska; audio description by Seta Morton; American Sign Language performance by Ian Sanborn; music by Emil Bognar-Nasdor.

“DESCENT” excerpt by Kinetic Light (2018): choreography by Alice Sheppard in collaboration with Laurel Lawson; performance by Sheppard and Lawson; audio description by Cheryl Green, George McRae, Erin deWard, Eli Clare (poetry), Dylan Keefe (soundscape); music by Joan Jeanrenaud; lighting and projection by Michael Maag.

“The Circle or Prophetic Dream” excerpt (2022): choreography by Christopher Unpezverde Núñez; dance performance by Núñez and Rafael V. Cañals Pérez; audio description by Núñez; sound composition and performance by Alfonso Poncho Castro.

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