Q&A with Surface Area Dance Theatre

Words by Katie Hagan. Header image of Ashling McCann.

This week UK-based dance company Surface Area Dance Theatre will present a new dance performance centred upon an experiential understanding and knowledge of British Sign Language, d/Deaf culture, Japanese culture and Butoh, a classic Japanese dance form.

Presented at BALTIC, the performance, Behind the Face of a Rock, Throwing Stones explores the concept of using the entire body as a listening instrument, capable of harnessing different senses in different spaces. Throughout the work, d/Deaf and hearing dancers perform with SubPacs, a form of wearable technology that translates sound into vibrations. Ahead of the performance, we caught up with Ashling McCann, Charlie Dearnley and Chris Fonseca to find out more about Behind the Face of a Rock, Throwing Stones.

Q: Tell us about yourself and why you work with Surface Area Dance Theatre?

Chris: My name is Chris. I’m a Deaf dance artist and global Deaf ambassador, working as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. At the core of my work is a fusion of dance and elements of sign language. Together they reinforce visual ideas, sending messages from performer to audience, raising awareness of sign language, and acting as a role model for other dancers.

Ashling: I’m Ashling, a freelance contemporary dance artist and physical theatre performer based in the North East. I was always aware of Surface Area’s work while in Newcastle but I was able to properly meet the team when I worked alongside Chris (Fonseca) as a Choreographic Assistant for Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours!. We worked with a community cast over the course of a week and put together a feel-good production of street dance choreography interwoven with BSL to a Motown soundtrack. It was after that week that Nicole asked if I would join the company for further performances of Behind the Face of a Rock, Throwing Stones and have since performed at Dance City, The Hepworth and most recently Roche Court Sculpture Park. I’m really looking forward to our time at the Baltic and later on in the year when we’ll be heading to Athens.

Charlie: My name’s Charlie Dearnley, sometimes I go by Annie. I’m a trans, non-binary dance artist and I make work that supports integration through troubling a fixed idea of ‘normal’. I’m also training as a Dance Movement Psychotherapist, and I work in healthcare. I met Nicole years ago, maybe 7 years ago, I’m not too sure now. Way back then I approached Nicole and asked if she’d mentor me, instead of something so formal, she suggested we meet for coffee semi-regularly and share some mutually supportive chit-chat. After some time, Nicole asked me to support Surface Area’s then new project BtFoaRTS by researching the Japanese philosophy of MA and joining for the first R&D. With hindsight, my current identity and practice as an artist feels wonderfully and generously shaped through my involvement in Surface Area’s work and I do kind-of, informally and richly, feel ‘mentored’ (insert laughing emoji). I continue to prioritise being able to work with Surface Area as their ethics of inclusivity and care are felt throughout the creative process, relationally between the artists involved and I hope and believe through the creative output too.

Q: What’s the process been like making Behind the Face of a Rock, Throwing Stones, in particular working with Ma philosophy?

Chris: The project explores multiple cultural elements. As an artist involved in production, I’ve gained newfound knowledge through the creation process, as well as an expanded appreciation for diverse art, cultural language, movement, and sound. The process helped expand my creativity in new directions, enriched my understanding of accessibility, and helped me find new ways to enjoy the process as much as audiences that enjoy the live performances!

Ashling: It’s been a lovely and unhurried collaborative experience headed up by Nicole. She has shared with us many stories of her time in Japan giving us a real insight about the traditions, culture, folk dances and other influences that have shaped the piece. For example, the changing configuration of the set has been inspired by the koken in kabuki theatre, the stage hands who move so deftly as they transform the set between scenes and go unnoticed by the audience. There has been a real sense of care and attention to detail in each component of the piece, from the materials of the set, the projected images, the sounds that are mixed into the score and the origin of the movement, the culmination of which is rich and purposeful.

Charlie: Most recently, when working at Roche Court, on the first day together we blocked through a moment in the choreography as a trio and I felt a fluxing and calm sense of space that really moved me. Life surrounding and leading up to that day had been quite stressful and I felt very grateful to be within that moment, really feeling each movement and surrounding air – the stretched pause at the peak or trough of a breath. Working with MA philosophy has gifted me a developing appreciation of space, patience and presence. This acceptance of pace feels to echo across the creative process of BtFoaRTS and the work feels to have developed and grown very organically. 

Q: The work is adaptive to each environment. What are the benefits or challenges of this as a dancer?

Chris: As a dancer, the benefits of going to different environments and places has helped me become more adaptive and flexible: working to match different environments, expanding my creativity and learning how to utilise my creativity in small and large spaces. Working on these skills means the choreography can fit in lots of different environments and still work well. The challenge is definitely when this requires dancing outdoors, as it’s very different!  

Ashling: It is indeed. I really like the fact that we could go anywhere with this piece, and in each place find a certain pocket of people we can share it with. I think one of the benefits is that with a fresh space you literally have a different perspective each time, each place has its own feel which infuses into the piece. When we were at Roche Court during the flag section in which we spell human-being-peace using the semaphore alphabet, I was positioned by Tame Buzzard Line by Richard Long looking out across the Salisbury countryside on a beautifully clear day. It gave me a sense of the distance over which these messages could be communicated, giving expanse and breadth to my movement. Just after this we also made the most of the space by running down the hill between sculptures where we continued the flag section.

Different surfaces can mean that some choreography is a little more difficult, wind can blow fabric in your face if it feels like it but if anything doesn’t work, we’re able to adapt it to suit the surroundings.

Charlie: The work being adaptive to each environment means there’s a feeling of constant movement, of progress and of relevance. Just as the work transforms to negotiate and converse with the physical space, so the surrounding socio-political and cultural atmosphere also feel to shift the work. As we move through the semaphore spelling out ‘human being, peace’, my own narrative relation to the performance environment as well as events much further beyond our immediate situation, inform and transform where my mind and heart focuses – to whom and with what intention am I sending out this message? As performers, we change, and the work is reconfigured with a collaborative intention which involves each environment.

Q: What has it been like to work with the SubPacs and have D/deaf and hearing performers work together?

Chris: SubPac is a wearable technology that translates sound to vibration, allowing me to identify deeper levels of sound/bass so that my body feels drum beats and counts, tone, and tempo. This body-to-sound and vibration makes Subpacs an incredibly useful tool. It directs my intention when I’m choreographing and performing to music, as I experience music through vibration.

When it comes to performance, I believe that accurate representation breaks up stereotypes and expands perspectives. Having a diverse spectrum of dancers helps us explore what dance can be, how it creates room to think, and how the body in motion can bridge the disconnect between people. I’m passionate about work that creates an awareness of d/Deaf and disabled communities and how we can build better and equal opportunities.

More importantly, I am witness to and support in my work an expanding awareness. Bringing together d/Deaf and hearing performers and audiences, as well as technology that creates a shared embodied experience, helps this awareness continue to grow.

Ashling: Interesting!  It’s nice to know there is a shared sensation between dancers when our other sensory experiences will differ. I find it really interesting how we use technology to transform sensations, for example with the SubPacs we’re able to transform what you can hear to something you can feel but also later on we change sound waves into something you can see using mirrored film (referring to Wave, wave wave, an installation made by Chris and Graham that we as dancers interact with at the end of the piece)

Charlie: It has been a rich and deeply felt experience within which I’ve reflected on my own communication styles in new ways. Using the SubPacs in rehearsals and performances imbues me with a warmth, in knowing that myself and the other performers have a sensory connection of feeling the patterns of the sound and music. It feels a bit like working with touch at a distance and helps us to feel closer to one another. 

Prior to this project, I had very minimal experience working alongside D/deaf folk and no knowledge of BSL. Surface Area provided a series of beginner sessions to BSL over the lockdown which was hugely generous and helpful in supporting integration. I guess that’s what the SubPacs help with too, they facilitate integration in being a communicative link between people. I love hearing Chris talk about the SubPacs too and I’d be keen to read his answer to this question. 

Q: What has been a highlight of this process?

Chris: There’s quite a few! I’ve enjoyed working together as a three, there’s a section where we work with flags that I really like, and a section called ‘Mandala’. This particular piece of choreography is really enjoyable because we each bring our own individual style and I love seeing how we can fit in with one another. We all have different backgrounds so it’s not about one dancer doing ‘contemporary style’, instead these diverse styles fit well together and we can learn from each other’s creativity and craft. It becomes an exchange, and that’s a huge benefit for me as a performer.

Ashling: It’s hard to pick one thing…can the entire process be the highlight? There’s something lovely about making a piece together and being able to share that with audiences in such special and varying places. I love being able to bring people into the work we make. Maybe that’s what I like, making with some people to then share it with other people.  Also, running down that hill was good.

Charlie: The people, the team, and the culture of community that Nicole has nurtured through the project. In many ways, Nicole supports people to grow and there is a genuine feeling of compassion and care within the project, between those involved and towards the work to be done. 

Q: What words would you use to give audiences a glimpse into what the piece will be like?

Chris: Ma, teamwork and enjoyment!

Ashling: calming, gentle, dynamic. 

Charlie: To perform it feels like slowing down a storm. I don’t know what it’s like to watch from the outside. Simultaneously simple and deeply complex, with deep-rooted embodied histories and space to drink the air at the surface.

Behind the Face of a Rock, Throwing Stones will be performed at BALTIC Gateshead on 7-8 July 2022, with a workshop on 9 July. For more information visit the Eventbrite page.