Reviewed by Andrew Smaje
Review Date: 21/10/14

AURICULAR

from Surface Area Dance Theatre

17 Oct 2014 @ Surface Area Dance Theatre

‘Auricular’ means ‘relating to the ear’ – and in this performance for deaf and hearing audiences, the sounds the ear would normally experience, music and speech, are transformed into dance, movement and shared vibration.

Surface Area Dance, supported by Dance City and BALTIC, has created a piece that explores forms of silent speech (specifically BSL) and wordless songs (the ambient music of zoviet*france). It’s a fascinating journey through the senses, using the visual to amplify the aural.

We sit in a wide circle, on plain wooden chairs. Three dancers – Nicole Vivien Watson, Molly Hodkinson and Rachel Jean Birch – are sat among us. Each is wrapping a red ribbon around their braided hair; behind them are three large flat screen TVs, each showing a head and shoulders image of the performer, expressionless and motionless apart from the occasional slow blink.

In contrast to this silent, speechless neutrality, the dancers begin to stir. At first, they appear to be signing in BSL. Their movements grow in physical size and expressive colour – eventually the whole body seems to be forming words and phrases. One expressive physical language, BSL, becomes another expressive physical language: dance. The physical expressiveness of BSL is transported to deeply sensual territory.

Auricular is a series of sequences, variations on a theme. The first segment sees the theme at its purest. The variations that follow don’t always have the same impact.

A bridging sequence in which the performers move their heads slowly to the right to the accompaniment of shrill tweeting (not the social media kind) is unfathomable but, fortunately, brief. What follows has more potential: the TV screens, still showing the same speechless image, travel around the space, the performers choreographing them in a slow, encircling dance. It’s visually arresting, although I wasn’t sure what idea was being explored. The faces on the screens remained unchanged and expression-free, whilst the sequence itself is too short to offer much exploration.

Next, a performer produces a kind of vibrating ear, the inner core of an audio speaker, which she passes to the audience, and which we pass on to our neighbour, like a game of pass the parcel. Among an audience of 50, anticipation visibly wanes. The audience begins to chatter (in BSL or otherwise) and to disengage from what’s happening.

This sequence may have worked in a more intimate space and with a smaller audience: we might have seen and shared our reactions more – and we wouldn’t have had to wait so long for our turn. There’s an interesting idea at work here – the performers are leaving it up to the audience to create an effect. However, if there is little or no audience response, then the performers have no means to steer us towards that effect. Perhaps a stronger reaction might have been provoked had the dancers integrated themselves more into this sequence – perhaps interacting with fewer people but to greater effect?

The final sequences are more successful. A solo dancer speaks a poem in response to the speaker’s vibrations. It’s an ode to undefined sound, reflecting the soundtrack’s pulsating nebulousness. Finally, the dancers converge in the circle’s centre, passing sounds between them, as if in the act of creating a new language.

The soundtrack by zoviet*france is mesmeric, transmitting its powerful yet languorous pulses through the wooden floor and the wooden chairs, right into your ribcage.

Surface Area has set itself a fascinating challenge – to transform one figurative language into another. Auricular has a strong starting point and although the ideas in later segments aren’t developed as strongly as they might be, its first and most substantial sequence is full of ideas that are beautifully realised.