Audio description and dance

By Bridget Crowley, Audio Describer

Some weeks ago, Matthew, the VocalEyes CEO, asked me to write about audio-description for dance to mark my retirement. It has taken a while because it was just so difficult. The trouble is, that after twenty years, stirred up memories can be wonderful and fun – but sometimes hard to handle as well. There’s probably a book here somewhere!

Dance is notoriously difficult to describe. It has its own language – or languages – depending on whether you’re describing classical ballet or contemporary dance and other styles in between. And you’re describing an activity that is probably quite alien to many viewers, with or without sight. What are those people doing with their legs at that angle, or hanging about up there in the air, or wrapped round each other in such contortional ways? And quite possibly, why – what does it all mean?

Because of my dance background – when I walk into training or rehearsal, I do understand what it’s about. I feel at home. I know how much hard work, fortitude and dedication it has taken to achieve the dancers’ level of artistry and skill – and so, as a describer, I’m as responsible for doing justice to these rare beings and their choreographers, as I am for the understanding and enjoyment of our audience.  I want to be certain that the dancers would recognise and approve of what I’m saying – as many of our audience who have danced would do. No raised eyebrows! And for the audience who have never danced, the description still should be, and sound, authentic.

The whole thing has been one great big learning curve, but from the point of view of technique, I think the things that matter most are:  first, to remember that brevity is the soul of dance description. Cut, cut, cut is the mantra. Next is sensing when to shut up and let the music and the ambient sound tell the tale. But above all – and I think this is an area that isn’t always fully understood – to be aware that the voice is part of the music. The voice is another instrument in the orchestra, as well as part of the dance. I could expand on that last one, but I won’t. Anyone who wants to know exactly what I mean can get in touch!

The high spots have been so many, that it’s difficult to pick them out. They aren’t always about the actual describing, but what goes on around it – the many lovely and enthusiastic people we’ve described for, and the glorious dance pieces I’ve been privileged to work on. And when you work with a company on a regular basis, being part of the family that is a dance company and greeted like welcome friends every Saturday afternoon for the AD matinee, is also part of the joy.

First of all, Northern Ballet, which is still the flagship in terms of good VocalEyes practice. Always two describers, one from the company so there’s continuous liaison, and a third describer for the dry run to give notes – especially for a new work. Brilliant Insights, or workshops give a chance for our audience to experience and understand the style of the choreography. Our audience were always excited to meet the charming, enthusiastic dancers who came to the Insights, talked and worked with them with endless patience and skill. They handled and even sometimes tried on countless costumes and props and heard about how the mechanics of the show worked. Latterly I was lucky enough to sit next to their Premier Dancer while she took on the mantle of Premier Describer, taking to it like a duck (or possibly a Swan perhaps) to water – an intuitive and musical describer with an incredible eye for detail. She’ll still be there, working alongside other Vocaleyes describers than me, sending them copious photographs of a new production weeks in advance and getting wonderful, precise pre-show notes written before you can blink.

A high speed few weeks with Scottish Ballet, fine-tuning the already excellent service was breathtaking but fun. They took on the good practice message of two describers, in their case both of them ‘in house’, and a preliminary workshop. Happily that model is still in place today. In one far north city, the equipment might not have been the latest model, but the audience was one of the biggest and most appreciative of all.

And then there was New Adventures – and indeed it was. Trying to capture the complexity of the likes of Sleeping Beauty, Edward Scissorhands et al, was a never-ending challenge. We never managed to train a member of the company to describe, although several were anxious to try, but we had constant communication with Dance Captains, Company Managers and dancers. And for the creation of The Red Shoes we attended rehearsals, which opened up new and creative ways of working.  At that time and for a magical couple of years, a young man who had once danced the enigmatic Swan in their Swan Lake sat beside me in the box, becoming a sensitive and strong describer until his health made it impossible for him to continue. Although the New Adventures workshops were usually short and confined to a brief look at characteristic arm positions with the Dance Captain – Swans Asleep, and Swans in Profile for instance – the touch tours were terrific, with stage crew and wardrobe always present.

There’s a book to be written on ‘Great Stage and Company Managers I have Known’, those who know who you are when you turn up for a performance, smile as if they really are pleased to see you and make things happen when needed. Those who take pride and pleasure in explaining to our audience how stage machinery works and producing something special, like a full sized motor car or a moving trackway, to oohs and ahs of delight.

For me there are these great, individual memories – but the abiding memory will be the performances – every time I was suddenly on the music and ‘dancing it with them’.  It’s lovely when after the show, one of our audience says something like ‘you were on the music, weren’t you – phenomenal’ (which has happened) but it’s the doing of it, the feeling of it, that matters. And I shall miss that so much. I shall even miss the not-so-goods – the ‘get it better next time’ moments that keep you aiming for the perfection that’s forever out of your grasp. An esteemed Third Describer’s comment: ‘I lost the will to live’, after an early, disastrous attempt at a high-speed piece of contemporary dance, is etched into my memory. I can smile now, but the scissors came out then, I can tell you. But I learnt – we learnt – and I believe we did get better and better.

So wouldn’t it be good, to leave this amazing dance world knowing that dance audio-description was flourishing – that there was still a two-way collaboration that ensured good practice, that dance was being treated by theatre managements with the seriousness and respect that the description of drama is. But sadly, it’s not. For a while it really was – but somewhere it’s been lost. Here I speak only for companies that have been closely associated with Vocaleyes – apart from Northern Ballet and some solo performers who still keep the faith.  I don’t know about the rest of the dance world, but I hear rumours.

Sadly one of our important London dance venues has decided to cut the VocalEyes standard of good practice. Single describers, often with no real dance experience, and with no third-describer to give notes, are working with major dance companies who come to London from round the world. With the honourable exception of Sheffield’s Lyceum, many regional theatres are following suit.

There seems to be no way of communicating the fact that their audiences are losing out, but perhaps more important for the theatres, their reputation for excellence is losing out as well. I understand the financial restrictions, but the audio-description of drama is kept going as it should be, in the same circumstances. Dance is back to being treated as the Cinderella of audio-description and it’s not fair for our audience, who are famous for never complaining.

But to leave on a higher note – thank you VocalEyes for giving me all these great times. Believe me, it’s not the audio-description that has brought me to this, but all those Saturdays on National Rail that just became too much. Thank you, dear Michael (Kenyon, Theatre Programme Manager) for your patience and support and for putting up with the moans. Above all there’s another book due for ‘Fellow Describers I have Driven Mad’. You have all been amazing and put up with my idiosyncrasies and foibles and done a truly great job of audio-describing the well-nigh impossible. Keep the flag, the VocalEyes standard, flying as best ye may against the odds. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart – you know who you are and I’ll never forget.

Though as Bridget says, audio description of dance is always heard with the music, we thought readers would still like to read some of her AD here. Below are two excerpts.

Fairy solos from Sleeping Beauty, Act 1. Choreography by Matthew Bourne, music by Tchaikovsky.

Fairy Feral, the Fairy of Spirit flashes on, in misty grey. Fast, neat steps. Straight arms see-saw side to side. Eyes sparkle with a wicked grin. Quick pirouettes and leaps to circle the room. A foot extends on the heel. Aurora’s arms reach out towards her.   A leaping turn. Stop! Eye to eye with Aurora.  [Applause]    Feral makes way for Fairy Tantrum, the Fairy of Temperament, his coat coat an angry purple. Quick snatches up with a flick of the wrist. Fingers jab the air. Twists, turns, arms across his body, slaps down a foot.

Springs around the room, legs lift before him. Hops, flicks his wrists.   A crouching cartwheel.  Coat tails fly. Stomps around. Extends an angry leg. Stamps, thrusts down fists.  [Repeat music]    And off he goes again, jabs the air.   Again he circles.   Makes for the crib with high turning leaps ——–  points at Aurora. [Through applause] She starts, looks up at him.  At COUNT LILAC as he sweeps in.   Slides low towards her, skims across the floor, peeps up at her. Up and away.  Slow, regal turns, one arm high, one leg curved behind. Pirouette – turn, turn, turn.  High bounding leaps, to balance, assured, arms outstretched, head high. [Applause]

Runs to join his fairies by the window. They rise as he passes. Slides forward on one hip, wheels to Aurora sitting up in her crib. Passes his hands over her eyes.  High leap – swings into slow turn.  Fairies run forward  – and pose.

The duet, (or pas de deux), closes Act I of 1984, a ballet based on George Orwell’s novel, with choreography by Jonathan Watkins. The music is by Alex Baranowski.  The Artistic Director of Northern Ballet is David Nixon OBE.  The characters are Julia and Winston who have fallen in love, against the prohibition of such a relationship in the harsh regime of Big Brother.

Julia is there. They gaze at each other across the space. She steps towards him, measured steps – She takes off her jacket to reveal the top of a pale pink slip.   She takes his hand, leads him back towards the centre. Her eyes locked with his, she pulls her skirt down over her slender hips. Winston takes off his trousers – his shirt. He’s in white jockey shorts, his chest bare. She steps towards him, the lacy hem of her slip ripples.

She pulls his hand to her waist, flings it up – he hooks up her thigh, pulls her to him.  She whirls past, one leg high at the side. She turns, turns, leans into him, as if exploring, discovering him. He holds her,   a kiss – her leg trembles high at the side. She whirls away, steps back. Holds him close behind her.    Reaches for his hand. He pulls her across his body – her legs fling out behind. Down – he bounces her across his knees, up into an arc overhead.

He takes her, hand under her thigh and circles her overhead. Back – forward and up she goes again.   Face to face – he presses her up –  her legs stretch wide behind her. He turns her in to him, and whirls her, arched against him like a ship’s figurehead.

He sinks to the floor. She stretches back, sinuous, strong. Looks down on him. She moves away – pirouette – her hands caress her own neck. She weaves a gliding path back to him, looks down. Limbs reach high – she turns – takes his hands, pulls him up to loft her high, high – floating. She slides down. He lifts her, arching against him,    runs softly. Turns her, now facing, now facing away.

They step apart, lean away – hands reach towards each other. She steps to him. Slides first his one arm then the other round her, rises up close, close, her arms round his neck. He drifts her up and round, her legs in a low v as they spin.   She pulls him away, away, away – And up she goes, her legs fly.  Round, and down to sit on his knee in a deep plié. Up again, and down, his head clutched to her belly.  Over his shoulder she wheels –

Down to the floor, she rolls to straddle him – almost a kiss but drops away, her back to him. He sits up, uncertain.  Hugs his knees. She sits tense – as if the moment has passed.

He reaches to touch her shoulder. She turns – meets his eyes. They kneel to face each other. He holds out a hand. She takes it. Then the other. They rise. He holds her, glides her back, tosses her lightly.  Takes hand and foot to swoop her low.  AND UP OVERHEAD SHE SOARS.  They twist and turn, tangled and entwined.

Joyful now, he lifts her free and airborne through the space.   Up, to curl down.   She leaps to him, spins in the air – he holds her, her legs wrapped round his waist.  A passionate kiss. She runs. He captures her. Slides her back, back, swings her this way, that – her legs wrap round him, unfold high.    [WAIT] (Surge and tumble)

He dives her forward, whirls her, tosses her in ecstasy. She pulls away, a fluid arabesque.  He swings her to the floor and up high in his arms. She runs, teasing, he catches her hand.  Grabs her against his chest, her long arms and legs unfold, like supple stems uncurling in the air.  She folds in and down, turns to him. They gaze, a little breathless at the sight of each other. Sweat streams down his chest. Her slip clings to her. They step away from us, a little space between them. Pause. Julia holds out her hand. He looks down. Takes it. They look back at the place where they made their magic and slowly step into darkness.

VocalEyes would like to thank Bridget for her many wonderful audio descriptions, and making magic for so many audience members over the years. She’ll be missed.