“I’m going to end up in Timbuktu,” Bailey Anne Vincent jokes about navigating the New York bus system. The Washington DC-based dancer, choreographer and director (from her multi-genre, body-positive Company360) instead opted for an Uber to meet her collaborator, BalletNext artistic director Michele Wiles, and myself at a downtown restaurant. -City of Manhattan.
Deploring the challenges of the buses, Vincent’s complaint does not concern their routes. While you might never know it from chatting with her or watching her dance, she is largely deaf. She began to lose her hearing as a teenager due to a condition called atypical cystic fibrosis, a complicated diagnosis that affects a number of her organs. But that didn’t stop Vincent from dancing. She trained at Rockbridge Ballet in Virginia before college and then danced with a small company in the DC metro area. At 31, Vincent has hardly slowed down.
BalletNext’s ongoing work will combine American Sign Language with ballet. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, courtesy of Overdrive PR.
His latest project, with Wiles as co-choreographer, integrates ballet and American Sign Language (ASL). The two dance directors presented an ongoing screening this week ahead of its March premiere at New York Live Arts. She and Wiles hope to bring inclusiveness and awareness to the dance community regarding the needs of the hearing impaired, without sacrificing technical or artistic standards.
The two met thanks to a “cold email” Vincent sent Wiles in the fall. “I sound like a creepy stalker, but I was kind of a big dance nerd and a BalletNext fan,” Vincent said. She pitched the idea of creating a ballet incorporating ASL, but didn’t expect much response. Wiles, however, was intrigued. ABT’s former lead dancer doesn’t hesitate to take on a challenge. Exhibit A: She left the first company at the peak of her career in 2011 to found her own troupe. Experimentation is one of Wiles’ core principles: “That’s why we’re here with BalletNext,” she says. “Because we want to take risks.”
The idea of integrating ballet and ASL seemed organic to me. “It’s a plus for BalletNext, for the choreography that we do. It inspires me to create something in a new and unique way,” says Wiles. The unnamed piece features five dancers, including Wiles, Vincent and members of BalletNext.
From left to right: Bailey Anne Vincent, Violetta Komyshan, Michèle Wiles, Alice Regnouf and Egle Andriekaite. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, courtesy of Overdrive PR.
The process started with Vincent who taught some ASL signs. For example, placing the index fingers next to each other and then moving them apart indicates a feeling of disconnection. A single finger held at chest level gives the feeling of being alone. Adding ballet vocabulary, Vincent and Wiles associated “disconnect” with a dive and “loneliness” with a sustained. From there, they combined more signs and steps, working out, repeating, or cutting out certain sentences.
An internal metronome allows Vincent to dance through time without hearing the music, while in everyday life, she manages through lip reading. When choreographing, communicating the details is easier with a performer. For this trip to New York, Vincent’s friend and fellow dancer Emily Moran was able to help. She even performed Wiles and Vincent’s introductory comments for the audience at the screening.
Vincent equates the play’s signature with poetry rather than prose. It deals with more abstract concepts, like being out of touch with others, rather than spelled out scenarios. Likewise, dance and ASL are not always literal. A single hand sign can represent an idiom rather than an exact translation of a word. With the exception of pantomime scenes, the language of ballet evokes feelings, not specific words.
Dancers have something to gain from practicing non-verbal language. “Nowadays, anyone can kick it in the face,” says Vincent, but without a shoulder and without art, ballet can appear like a robot. “In ASL, your face is your inflection.” She notes that posture and expression can transform a nodding phrase – or a ballet step – from a soft question into an angry statement.
In addition to incorporating ASL, Vincent and Wiles challenge the idea that spikes and landing jumps should be smooth and graceful. “We’re thinking of doing it a cappella where the music is completely cut off, like we’re not all hearing,” says Wiles, “and the only way to hear is to make those really loud peak sounds. ” Even without hearing his shoeboxes hitting the ground, Vincent calls out: “Being noisy is liberating.
Wiles and Vincent hope the emotional impact of their play will resonate with audiences of varying abilities. Vincent thinks it will be touching for deaf members of the audience: “It elevates this language that is so important to the deaf community.” To their hearing counterparts, Wiles says, “This will open their eyes.”
Although the piece is still in its early stages, Vincent believes that dancing and choreography with a prominent collaborator like Wiles is already boosting notoriety. Even small things like having a singer perform the curtain announcements is a good place to start. “Deaf culture can be very positive,” says Vincent. “Instead of having that thing taken away from us, we get this beautiful visual language that looks so much like dance.”