Audiovisability: the project that drove my creativity

For three months last year, I was an artist and writer with Audiovisability, supporting their research and development (R&D) project funded by Arts Council England.

The project revolved round deaf Para-dressage rider Laurentia Tan, a multi-medal winner who has been competing in Paralympic and global sports events for ten years – and yet has never won gold. It came about due to her growing frustration over barriers to participating in individual freestyle, the only dressage test set to music.

My role was to shadow her in a variety of ways – online discourse, information-sharing meetings, interviews, flying to Cologne for a weekend – and combine that with my own research and development, eventually writing a report accompanied by my own drawings. The result can be viewed here, with a shorter version on Disability Arts Online here.

Laurentia has cerebral palsy. It was for that reason – among others – that Audiovisability’s creative director, Ruth Montgomery, invited me to take part. I am, after all, a parent to a child with cerebral palsy who has explored that road through my blog and my Kindle book, My Daughter and I, which can still be downloaded from Amazon UK. Besides Laurentia and I had been wanting to meet for years – almost since my daughter Isobel was diagnosed at age one in 2010, just after the sportswoman had entered competitive dressage.

Audiovisability therefore facilitated a precious moment where, Laurentia paid us a personal visit and lent Isobel her latest silver medal, won at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, to wear for a photo opportunity. I can’t overstate how significant this was for my child’s self-confidence, for her younger non-disabled brother to witness this, and how proud I felt that day.

Meanwhile Ruth sought to both bring the R&D to a wider audience through a variety of creative disciplines, with music at its core, and use it as an unique opportunity for the artists to build on existing skills and expertise.

So not only did Laurentia boost her music literacy through a combination of music lessons and collaborative discourse – but as one of the contributing artists, addressing a subject that I knew very little about enabled me to spawn a new writing language; which in turn, also pushed my drawing into a more innovative, almost allegorical style.

Given the almost polarised demands of the two strands – bombarding my mind with structural, grammatical thought for long periods of time (even when taking a coffee break!), and then switching to freeform drawing – it was possibly the most challenging and intensely creative task I’d taken on.

Nevertheless, it provided an invaluable opportunity to drive both forms of creativity to new places, transforming my art and my writing as a whole. This new development will be crucial in realising an ambition that I have of producing illustrated children’s books in future.

I am privileged to have worked alongside such a wonderful bunch like the Audiovisability crew, and I look forward to more collaborative work with them. Indeed we are planning for workshops, funded by Decibels, to take place at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury later this year, which will explore similar dressage music themes with their students.

May I extend deep thanks and appreciation to Ruth Montgomery, fellow musician and producer Eloise Garland, sound designer Chris Bartholomew-Fox, German dressage coach Volker Eudel, film director Louis Neethling and most of all, Laurentia Tan and her mother Jannie, for their kindness, patience and time.

Re-taking off Outside: review of David Bowie’s Outside tour first-night performance, Wembley Stadium, 14th November 1995 

 

Note: This review, originally an assignment set by my MA tutor at Central Saint Martins School of Art in 1995, helped me land a Pass with Distinction, and is still considered my best work from that time. Today, in tribute to David Bowie – who died yesterday morning (10th January 2016) – I share it, unabridged, for your reading pleasure.

Having read the reviews of the American leg of his Outside tour, I expected David Bowie to be clad in blazing Rock Star silver. So his selected outfit for Wednesday’s concert at Wembley Arena – his first in Britain for five years – was a surprise. The former Thin White Duke emerged dressed in an artfully stained, crumpled top and trousers that matched the drapes of the masked dummies hanging on the ceiling, and did not change once.

The antithesis of Bowie’s impeccable dress sense, the subdued choice turned out to be deliberate. In it Bowie was able to slide into various character roles as each new song came on – a fiercely sensual Minotaur, a pensive ‘art-crime’ detective, a contemptuous Andy Warhol – with the ease of a mime artist, concentrating his portrayals to the upper part of his body. By the concert’s end, I was left reeling from a virtual resurrection of the old chameleon resplendent in Technicolor.

Support act Morrissey, who preceded him, displayed characteristic ardour in sampling his new album, Southpaw Grammar, lunging repeatedly at an illusory opponent to the strains of Dagenham Dave and narcissistically stroking a bare, fleshy chest to cheers from a half-full Arena.

However, not even an impromptu kiss of the hand from a kneeling fan could raise the temperature like Morrissey’s professed hero could. As soon as the backing band opened the concert proper with the soulful Motel, the whole crowd stood up like a thousand rows of luxurious glam-rock eyelashes opening in anticipation.

Curiously restrained after Morrissey’s foppish excesses though he seemed, Bowie moved with more panache. He struck precise triangular poses with one foot stretched back, the microphone stand leaning inwards to meet his refined profile.

To some unearthly notes, he mimed – beautifully – a bird cruising in slow motion. As Andy Warhol, he stood with his back to the audience, every now and then repeating a haughty half-turn with hand on chin, and then twitched and shook under a flashing solarium light before letting out a silent scream.

A highly developed and futuristic concept places Outside in 1999, centring round an ‘art-crime’ detective, Nathan Adler, and his investigation into the murder of 14-year-old Baby Grace Blue. Gruesome as certain details sound – apparently the victim’s “stomach was carefully flapped open and the intentines removed, disentangle and re-knitted…into a small web” – the story does give Bowie’s band a far more definite idea of how Outside should be played.

In preparation for the recording of Outside, Bowie’s long-time collaborator, Brian Eno, is said to have handed out cards instructing stuff like: “You are about the encounter such a scene of utter destruction that can happen to any human body that you view it as a thing of beauty” to individual band members.

Pretentious? Perhaps. Then again, who else would risk artistic integrity for the sake of such stirring avant-garde music? Satirical? Probably. Could you honestly take seriously Adler’s reflection on Baby Grace’s death that “it was murder…but was it art?”?

Art, design and media is increasingly resorting to apocalyptic means as we near the end of the 20th century – be it a McQueen frock, a Tarantino film or a Hirst shark. Outside is meant to be a satire of our times, a means of illustrating Bowie’s concern about where all this is heading.

Outside re-embraces Bowie’s androgynous chameleon-like persona. The new album is strongly reminiscent of Diamond Dogs, his stylishly apocalyptic 1974 offering, and indeed, the stage is framed with hanging cinema signs announcing ‘Open the Dog’ in French and English. Other old favourites – among them Andy Warhol, which originally appeared on 1972’s Hunky Dory album – Under Pressure and the immortal Man Who Sold the World were also played out to souped-up tunes.

Watching a deliciously hallucinatory recital of The Man Who… I even imagined for a minute that I was viewing a Space Oddity. “Oh no, not me/I never lost control/You’re face to face/With the man who sold the world,” the familiar transatlantic voice warbled, as an awesome sequence of solarium lights flashed, swooped and swerved in Close Encounters of the Third Kind-like chorus.

One main difference materialises between Bowie then and Bowie now. He is make-up free except for the dark eyeshadow encircling those freakish eyes. The physique, once skeletal, is compact and hints at musculature. He might be playing different characters, but instead of dressing up as them he leaves their physical appearances in his computer. Baby Grace, Detective Adler and the Minotaur appear in the accompanying tour catalogue and on the album sleeve, their faces morphed from visages of people who fit the archetype and Bowie’s own.

Since Scary Monsters in 1980, Outside marks Bowie’s return to his aesthetic best. (Hugely popular though it was, Let’s Dance in 1983 ultimately compromised Bowie’s creativity, consequently becoming the beginning of a new low: Bowie fell out of tune with Mars and risked turning into just another coke’d out rock dinosaur struggling to recapture his lost youth. The singer has said that the Let’s Dance era was one he would rather forget.) He evidently relishes performing, and the result is an exhilarating piece of theatre.

All of Bowie’s collaborations with Eno have met with cultish acclaim before, particularly Low and Heroes, both of which cemented Bowie’s status as a far-reaching avant-garde rock musician. If plans go accordingly and Outside becomes the prelude to a trilogy, prepare for your senses to be sent reeling once again to another planet.

(c) Melissa Mostyn 1995

Review: Deafinitely Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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David Sands (Bottom) and Alim Jayda (Puck). Photo by Simon Kane

Following the success of Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost as part of the 2012 Globe to Globe project, they return to Shakespeare’s Globe with a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in British Sign Language, until 7 June. Review by Melissa Mostyn

This is an edited version of the review that originally appeared on Disability Arts Online on 5th June 2014.

 

The condensed air of high summer has a knack of filling us with unrequited longing, so that upon nightfall, we grow misty-eyed. It is no coincidence that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – one of Shakespeare’s most delightful romantic comedies – makes ideal viewing in a reconstructed amphitheatre close to a warm June sunset.

Not so easy to reconcile is the idea of presenting bona fide Shakespeare and its many allusions in British Sign Language, and in a manner that befits monumental raked seating like that of the Globe Theatre. Yet that is exactly what Deafinitely Theatre’s bold and dexterous production has achieved, mixing in not just spoken English and BSL but also Visual Vernacular – a highly innovative visual storytelling method derived from intrinsic sign language culture – song, music, and dance to intoxicating effect.

Central to the play is the story of four real-world lovers: Lysander (Adam Bassett) and Hermia (Fifi Garfield) who love each other, Demetrius (Lee Robertson) who loves Hermia, and Helena (Charlotte Arrowsmith) who loves Demetrius. Providing the play’s bookends is the wedding of Duke Theseus (Ace Mahbaz) and Hippolyta (Nadia Nadarajah) which brings all the characters together in the end with its festivities.

Hermia’s father Egeus (Ralph Bogard) wants her to marry Demetrius or else die or be a nun, and asks Theseus for permission to instrument her fate. Dismayed, Hermia and Lysander elope to the forest, but not before Hermia confides in best friend Helena. Hoping to gain Demetrius’ love, Helena reveals their plans to him, but he rejects her in dogged pursuit of Hermia.

Flitting in between the lovers are a group of gormless tradesmen rehearsing a play for Theseus – including Nick Bottom (David Sands) and Francis Flute (Jason Taylor) – and the fairies, representing the otherworld: king Oberon, furious with his queen Titania (here Mahbaz and Nadarajah become the real world’s alter-egos) for stealing a boy changeling and seeking revenge. He sends Puck (Alim Jayda, nimble as a Nijinsky-meets-Peter Pan) to cast a spell on the sleeping Titania, ensuring that she falls for the first person she sees upon awakening.

Puck being Puck, the mischief-making goes further than it should, with both Demetrius and Lysander chasing a witless Helena, Bottom (by now an ass) becoming the perplexed object of Titania’s affections, and the jilted Hermia throwing hilariously enraged punches with her two hitherto lovers. Towering over them all is a charismatic Mahbaz as Oberon and Theseus, both desperate to regain order in the worlds they govern.

The inevitable happy outcome becomes an excuse for a play-within-a-play, where Sands (his Bottom having regained human form) and Taylor, flouncing in a blonde wig and girly dress, mirror Lysander and Hermia’s story as convivial lovers trying to communicate via a makeshift wall. Punching out a brick, so they could poke out their arms and sign to each other, has never looked so funny or picture-perfect.

As if the concoction couldn’t seduce us enough, Peter Burgess dresses the characters in a contemporary time-warp of banker pinstripes, avant-garde foliage, Edwardian skirts and dandy waistcoats festooned with ties. Was that a mosquito bite I swatted from my ankle at the end, or Puck’s tickle? Swayed by the musk of a gentle summer’s night, I could not be sure.

Review: Poetry and Sign

Poetry and Sign was a unique event exploring the relationship between sign language, spoken poetry and dance, which took place at King’s Place in central London on 15th May.

Photo by Lauren Harris
Photo by Lauren Harris

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 19 May 2014

As a harbinger of Deaf Awareness Week, which begins today, Remark!’s collaboration with Poet In The City was a strategic move that enabled sign language poets Ashley Kendall and Jean St Clair to showcase their talents alongside actor Tim Barlow (a cochlear implant user), Rambert dance choreographer Deborah Galloway, and performers from Roehampton Dance.

I am always more drawn to poetry when it is performed in BSL, rather than seeing it performed in spoken English with the words projected alongside on-screen. It’s not just that it is more accessible; rather, by default it calls for a much more animated and physical delivery, ensuring that images of flowers, snow, horses and even wind materialise from one solitary upper body alone.

I liked all of them! But one stanza that stuck in my mind was from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy eve’:

‘He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.’

What the performance did admirably was to demonstrate how spoken poetry contrasts with its BSL interpretation. (Here, I use the word ‘interpretation’ loosely, for reasons given below.) Essentially, the event was structured so that each time a poem appeared on-screen – it could be Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, or Ted Hughes – it was first recited orally by Barlow, and then performed in BSL by Kendall and St Clair, taking turns.

Rather than relay information in the manner of a formal interpreter, they developed their own take on the poetry, enabling them to bring not just a fuller BSL perspective but also their warm, individual personalities into their performance.

I liked the fact that instead of having voice-overs, it was left to the audience to follow their performance using projected words on-screen behind them, as guidance.

That some of the poems initially looked difficult to translate into BSL, but in actuality never were, also made me smile; it reinforced how fluid BSL is as a language. “It is not the fittest, or the strongest, or the cleverest that survive,” Charles Darwin is claimed to have said, “but those who are most adaptable to change.” Given its protracted oppression, no language can be proven to be more adaptable than British Sign Language.

Here and there, the poetry was intercut with speeches. Jean St Clair gave a sounding-board for how creative English-to-BSL translations work; Tim Barlow talked about how he became deaf and how that influenced his decision to become an actor.

Unfortunately, Deborah Calloway provided one of the few irritations of the evening when she perpetually obscured her assigned sign language interpreter with her exaggerated choreography. This might have been fine if she was dancing. In fact, she was simply explaining the theory behind her movements. As for the Roehampton dancers moving (and signing) abstractly to a solitary drum – the less said about them, the better.

That aside, Poetry and Sign attracted a full house, and for three perfectly good reasons – Kendall, St Clair and Barlow – I’d say, “More please!”

Review: Frozen, by fingersmiths

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Originally developed at the National Theatre Studio, ‘Frozen’ sees a cast of Deaf and hearing actors bring fingersmiths’ visual and physical theatre style to the stage, in the first major production of the play in 10 years.

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 9 March 2014

[I write as a member of Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB, some of whom saw the play at Stratford Circus and took part in a group critique of Frozen after the performance.]

Right from the offset, you know that Frozen is going to be a hard-hitting psychological drama. As the lights go up you are confronted by a compact, split-level set, all harsh white angles everywhere that set you on edge.

You don’t feel in harmony with what you’re seeing; no flowers or homely living-room paraphernalia to make you feel like a cup of tea. Thus the scene is set for a contemporary piece of theatre that keeps your nerves fraying throughout.

Frozen explores issues arising from the abduction and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Rhona, and how the crime ‘freezes’ the three main characters – Ralph, the girl’s killer, Nancy, her mother, and Agnetha, a criminal psychologist – into states of fraught emotional paralysis from which they are unable to escape.

A vivid, gut-wrenching and complex drama, Frozen also highlights the challenges in determining whether a crime should be treated as a sin or a symptom of mental health issues (Ralph is himself a victim of paternal child abuse). A large chunk of the play is dedicated to monologues, enabling insight into the characters’ changing thought processes as they struggle to make peace with their individual pain.

Eventually the monologues draw the characters together in raw symbiosis via one-to-one meetings. The final thaw-out is provided when Nancy visits Ralph in prison years later, with three simple-yet-hard words – ‘I forgive you’ – unleashing an extraordinary change in the serial killer.

In the hands of Fingersmiths, Frozen went smoothly from a three-hander to a bilingual ensemble of six without losing its edge, due to a high-calibre cast that kept us gripped all the way through. Detailing exactly what each actor excelled at is impossible given the talent involved, but Mike Hugo and Neil Fox-Roberts (both of whom played Ralph) and Hazel Maycock, as the speaking Nancy to Jean St Clair’s BSL counterpart, were flawless.

In bilingual Deaf theatre, the idea of having characters in duplicate – one signing, one speaking – is not new. I liked the way the pairs interacted with each other symbolising an internal dialogue, but the decision to move away from mirroring each other as well didn’t always quite work.

By entering the stage independently of each other and on different floors at the beginning, the two tightly-suited Agnethas (Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri), highlighted the sense of each being alone in separate homes. This left me slightly confused as to whether they were playing the same character, or just happened to have synchronised thoughts and actions as different people.

The two Ralphs were more successful with the BSL-using aspect (Fox-Roberts) pointing nonchalantly at the tattoos of his speaking counterpart (Hugo) while the latter recalled their history.

I welcomed the approach as a refreshing and bold experiment in theatrical dynamics.

Review: So Beautiful, by Chris Fonseca

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Chris Fonseca’s debut dance video was created with the lyrics to ‘So Beautiful’ by Musiq SoulChild in mind. Melissa Mostyn asks what makes this piece of romantic choreography unique?

Originally published in Disability Arts Online, 18 March 2014

So Beautiful is exactly as the title describes. An aesthetically pleasing, easy-on-the-eye choreographed piece, for the first two-and-a-half minutes you do not realise the dancer is deaf – that is, until he turns his head in close-up and pauses. Other than that, it’s just some guy who could be chilling out on a Sunday, texting a loved one in bed surrounded by a collection of vintage watches and washing his face before he gets into his moves.

And what moves they are. Minimal, yet precise and idiosyncratic, they could not belong to anyone but Chris Fonseca, who performs them. This is not a video targeted specifically at Deaf audiences. You need to be a member of the Deaf Community to know who Semhar Beyene, the female co-dancer who appears at Chris’ front door three minutes in, is.

Why is this important? Can Deaf people not dance? Of course they can – Beyene is one of a number of accomplished Deaf dancers who can adapt well to whatever pop-music routines they’re asked to deliver.

But this is where So Beautiful deviates from the Deaf Community norm. Within ghettoised communities, it is not unusual for members to emulate mainstream pop stars – Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake – in their performances, and in that respect, the Deaf Community is no different. Groups like Def Motion and X-Factor-alike sign-karaoke contests are devised for the exact purpose of entertaining their Deaf audiences, who enthusiastically lap up every second (and long may that continue).

Rare, however, is the opportunity to watch a well-crafted routine like Chris Fonseca’s, and feel that it came from him alone.

Of course, skilful film direction and editing plays a vital role in the presentation of So Beautiful, and the discovery that the work was done by none other than Bim Ajadi, a consummate Deaf film director, made me smile.

Although he is credited at the end, downplaying Ajadi’s involvement is a clever strategy that reinforces the sense that So Beautiful is a dance video that has moved out of the ghetto; the twist being, it gives Ajadi scope for more creative freedom too. This is not intended as a slight on his more Deaf-orientated work. Rather, he should be allowed to work outside the ghetto if he so chooses.

It’s been pointed out by Dao’s editor that as an art form, dance allows more room for manoeuvre in terms of presentation of identity – often making it hard to tell if the work is coming out of the experience of marginalization, unless it’s encoded within the artist’s practice.

I’d say that especially applies to the Deaf Community. Precious little deaf access to professional dance training, coupled with a proliferation of pop-music videos and DVDs since the 1980s, ensures that those within the Deaf Community seek out easier ways to learn to dance, but sometimes incline towards sheer mimicry due to the challenges of practising moving in tune. This often results in them emulating well-known routines with a degree of quiet, intense concentration that you don’t get with hearing dancers, who ironically tend to show more facial expression in the duration.

In contrast, the ease with which Chris Fonseca shifts and twists his body in So Beautiful is as if he’s slipped on his own dancing shoes without realising it. If he removed his CI processor before the film began, how would I know he was deaf?

Review: Paralympic Flame Celebration

 

Rachel Gadsden in action at the Flame Celebration. Image (c) Kay Young Photography 2012

Just posted a review of the Flame Celebration, which heralded the start of the Paralympic Torch Relay in Stoke Mandeville, on Disability Arts Online. See full article here:

http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=1872