Out of Earshot is a new contemporary dance piece from Kage that is full of heart. Designed for deaf and hearing audiences, the production is caught somewhere between the well-trod path of contemporary dance and the great unknown. Kage has a history of unorthodox approaches to dance and collaborating with extraordinary artists to come up with unique and fresh results, and this is no exception.
With most reviews I find it most helpful to try and be as objective as possible, which feels like the wrong way to approach this particular dance production. I’ll tell you why as we go along.
The director’s notes proclaim the show is about using dance as the “physical language” and the idea of listening with your eyes. This is probably nothing too unfamiliar for those who’ve seen a few contemporary pieces. This kind of dance has a long history of bringing abstract and lofty ideals to the stage. Obscure themes like wanderlust, immersion, or gratuity seem to be very common within the world of dance. The premise of a show that explores restriction in some element of performance is not particularly unusual. In fact it’s kind of tired. If you’re not into dance it’s basically the “it’s notes that I don’t play” approach.
This is not where the power of Out of Earshot lies.
The opening is a sequence of body percussion; tapping on the sternum and arms. This is followed by a series of counterbalancing poses accompanied by a collaborative effort to make the dancers into a human drum kit. The idea of a heartbeat comes up again and again. Then they use a real drum and the sound is deafening (no irony intended). It’s truly uncomfortably loud. This was my least favourite part of the show as it was a case of a space being too small for the huge sound that’s being created. This doesn’t last the whole show – so just don’t sit up the front and brace your ears and you should be fine. There are sequences of drumming on the ground – almost like a child discovering the act of percussion. Great use of pas de deux with interesting and skilful weight transfers are mixed in throughout the show.
Then about halfway through it feels like there is a change in tone. The theme becomes more biographical. A conversation in Auslan (sign language) takes place on stage – and at a point where prior to this I was pretty much ready to write this off as a competent if unoriginal show – I had an epiphany. At the conclusion of this signed conversation some members of the audience laughed. There had been some kind of joke in there but I hadn’t got it. I didn’t have the ability to understand what went on.
It was at that moment I realised I had missed a key point regarding this piece, I had looked at the show through the scope of my own experience and made no effort to truly understand the subject matter. My narrow lens of experience didn’t allow me to fully open myself to this work without some prompting. Upon this realisation I was taken back to my childhood. Much of my time was spent at school for differently abled people from all walks of life that my brother attended. I remembered the smell of the hallways and the laminated cards that velcroed the walls. I remember learning to sign with my brother – please, thank you, sad, bathroom, mum, house, and our favourite ‘big fat pig’ which we regularly used regarding each other. My brother was non-verbal at the time and signing was one of very few ways he could communicate with the outside world.
Some of the children at his school were non-hearing, but we played together all the same. The excitement and curiosity of childhood our shared language. Then Mum would drop me off for class at my “normal” primary school and from a distance through the window I would see her sign “I love you” and I would sign it back. I remember being able to share small jokes with the non-hearing children. The moment you realise that despite the expanse between our spoken language and their gestured one, we share experiences that are the same.
This work wasn’t necessarily another pretentious attempt at being experimental and edgy. It was real and it was personal. The theme of “reinterpreting the idea of silence” had caused me to miss that this had gravity and real world implications. Behind the wanky dance jargon, that is pretty much mandatory if you want to create a dance production, was a basic humanity. I was in a shared experience with people who had experiences I could never have and some of these were being shown to me through dance if I would only allow myself to see it for what it was, or at least what it could mean to me.
The last half of the show definitely felt a lot more original with use of vocals and a more intimate style of dance. Even a rendition of ‘Super Bass’ by Nicki Minaj added a moment of welcome fun to the mix. The dance here felt more narrative. Glimpses into other people’s lives. An unconsidered point of view.
The set is smart and clean. Three long LED screens show the live sound in wavelength form around the perimeter of the space. These visuals act as a guide to the music for non-hearing viewers. There was a drum kit on a moveable platform. Rows of lights that are reminiscent of something that’s part office and part hospital. Simple and effective the set is a beautiful medium to help convey the complexities of the theme to a varied audience.
There is something in Out of Earshot that speaks out loud in a language that is not just dance. It is heart and empathy. Despite it featuring lots of moments that feel like they have been overused in other shows – it has plenty of new ground to cover. To experience this wonder and perspective I suggest getting down to Chunky Move on Sturt St to give it a go!
Also if you are curious about how to show appreciation at the end of the show you might want to try deaf applause. Simply hold the hands up palms facing out and twist the wrists in and out quickly. If it looks a little bit like jazz hands and the ‘Single Ladies’ dance then you’re not too far off.