NOISE by Nua Dance at The Place | Review

Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin

I am deaf. And I love dance. So I must say, I was very, very excited to see Nua Dance’s NOISE at The Place featuring the brilliant Deaf dancer Chris Fonseca, who I was thrilled to see in his element.

It was not only Fonseca that drew me in. The concept of a ‘promenade performance’ that claims it is ‘not just a dance piece… [but] an invitation to a physical experience,’ is also pretty rare and tempting. The title NOISE doesn’t give much away, and I approach the show with curiosity about how deafness will be considered.

However, considered it most certainly is! Entering The Place I immediately see a trolley of electronic ‘subpac’ vests and a couple of technicians strapping people in. When it’s my turn they tell me that I will feel the music through vibrator pads, which cleverly translate the aural sounds into their equivalent vibrations. My vest-attacher jokes, ‘Be careful at the end! It might make you start dancing yourself!’ I laugh but must admit I think, we’ll see. I have never experienced these vibrating vests before, although I’ve seen that they have growing popularity in the deaf community. Deaf DJ Troi Lee incorporates them into mixing workshops and dancing events, and they are at the forefront of the changing attitudes about deaf access to sound and music.

Also right at the forefront is the Access Consultant of NOISE, Ruth Montgomery. I have come across her and her company Audiovisability before, and they are fantastic; ‘making audio visible’ is their mantra, and they use myriad ways to encourage deaf engagement with music. Although there are very few deaf people in the audience I am pleased to say it is a very accessible event, with the vests, with Ruth Montgomery and Chris Fonseca on board, and with several interpreters around in bright t-shirts.

And an even better start from the piece itself, happening before we knew it. All of us showgoers were congregated in The Place foyer, chatting and waiting in groups. Then I noticed Fonseca walk past us, so I excitedly tapped my friend. “Should I go and say how much I’m looking forward to it?” I asked her, but before she could answer he had started actually dancing! It was a beautiful kind of solo, sort of inward-reaching and solipsistic with its arm twines and spiralling angles. He stayed in the same small spot, and it was marvellous how the crowd of us made one big swivel to see him. I think we were all so surprised by the swift start that conversations just naturally went unfinished and forgotten. After a few minutes of lyrical loveliness, Fonseca made off for the stage. We all followed him in a sort of daze, into a room which was daze personified, with mirrors hanging down at random angles, moody blue lighting bouncing off them, and slightly trippy projections on a large back wall.

Another dancer came in. She was Shelley Eva Haden and she looked fantastic, all edgy silver futurism, big headphones and short slicked blonde hair a là Ema from the Chilean film EMA. As if to prove her cool, she began with a very impressive stint on a large balance board, controlling its steady sway with immense inner strength. With blue beams reflecting on her slowly rolling back, Haden reminded me of a kind of mythical sea dweller emerging after hibernation. Through my hearing aids I could hear delicate sounds, apparently a part of Vivaldi’s Aria, noise in the lower-case. Fonseca walked over to join her, playing with her experience of noise by removing her headphones. Suddenly it sounded like feedback. Unsurprisingly, Haden’s priority was to replace her headphones and resume for her and us the melodic Vivaldi. This fluctuation was interesting and well-reflected in a careful duet that tested the balance board to its gravitational limit.

The dynamic totally changed when the third dancer entered the stage, Tommaso Petrolo. He changed his outfit into the very epitome of upper-case NOISE, a somewhat steampunk amalgamation of punky moon-boots, what looked like leather, and a face cover. Stomping about to ever-increasingly loud sounds, a thumping heartbeat undertone and intensely building electronics. At this point I began to feel the vest working in sync with the noises filtering through my hearing aid microphones. Petrolo’s dancing entirely embodied what I felt, what I heard, in a cacophony of floor-based motion that ensured all attention was riveted to him. He imbued his movements with such energy and defiance that it matched the shaking that my vest was doing. The vest-attacher wasn’t wrong!

For me, the highlights of NOISE were moments of utter synergy between what we saw, what we felt, and what we heard. Choreographer Neus Gil Cortés achieved that in several instances with her cast of three dynamic dancers. A favourite moment was during a Petrolo and Haden duet, when they transformed their bodies into literal inversions of one another. She dived forward into a downwards facing dog while he plunged backward into a crab, and they joined together leg-to-hands like an enormous arachnoid. Somehow, they moved back and forth. It was thrilling.

Just as the audio went on its own journey, so too did the dancers and therefore us. They kept changing their location in the space, sometimes gradually and oftentimes erratically, meaning we often needed to swiftly step back to avoid colliding with a toned and extended limb. An effect of this was that, as promised, we had an interactive experience of not only the piece but one another, needing to interact mostly non-verbally. A little taste of the deaf experience!

Certainly for hearing audience members, the value of needing a clear line of vision to access the show made a cognitive connection with the deaf audience members, for whom sign language is often the preferred or only mode of communication and which obviously requires vision to work. I thought it was interesting when the three dancers split up in the space and danced simultaneously in different corners of the room. We either had to hone in on the one we had chosen to stand by, or try to take it all in peripherally. I of course gravitated towards Fonseca but I must say that the assurance of Haden and the flourish of Petrolo caught my eye more than once.

Towards the end of the piece they all came together for a trio, although by the feeling of my subpac, it was convinced it was a quartet. The audio was rousing and rib-rattling, urgent and harsh. Energy poured from body to body. And then – it stopped. I didn’t know what to expect but what I take away from NOISE is something I’ve rarely seen in dance before but hold very dear; an exploration of the varieties of ways we experience ‘noise’ as a concept, be it the intrusion of another on our private music-listening moments, or the strong vibrations of a subpac or a dancing body, or even the loud projection of a clothing style… I found NOISE both highly enjoyable and highly accessible, and definitely a concept worth making some noise about.