Carthage 2017 (review David Crystal OBE) was written by Cuban-American playwright Caridad Svich with the aim of drawing attention to the linguistic - let alone the social - plight of those displaced or isolated by slavery, human trafficking, and forced migration. Accessing the language of power, in order to improve quality of life - or even survive - is a real problem for those whose backgrounds have never given them the opportunity to master it. As such, it is a hugely relevant theme for our times, and Arts Council England (Production Grant) and Arts Council Wales (Taking Part Grant) is to be congratulated on enabling the company to adapt the text for a stage performance and tour it to places where people need a constant reminder of the importance of linguistic issues in their lives.
Back in 2003, I gave a talk to a UNESCO conference on the world's endangered languages, in which I made the case for the arts as a crucial means of drawing the attention of the public to the subject of language, and to the crisis facing the world's languages. A language becomes extinct somewhere in the world every three months or so, and their unique voices need to be recorded and documented so that their place in the history of the human race can be remembered. But it is not just languages that need to have their voices heard, as Signdance Collective's brilliant production illustrates. Within a language, there are areas of society whose voices are never heard - or, when they are, are little respected.
There is no word in the English language to categorize what the company has produced, for it is a mix of dance, theatre, music, spoken language, and signed language. I suppose the company's self-description, 'signdance theatre' comes closest. The hybrid captures the essence of all art, which is to make us 'see' in a way we have not seen before, and the juxtaposition of the different communicative mediums certainly gave this reviewer at least a fresh perspective on the function of language and its role as a means of unification as well as separation. The performance presented us with ten multilingual letter song-poems, exploring different registers of language, and exploited the full range of dramatic effect, from its wistful gentle musical opening to the visceral impact of unison speech and daring movement.
The members of the small company themselves illustrate the inclusiveness their subject-matter demands, with their focus on disability-deaf-led teamwork. We saw four in action: Isolte Avila, David Bower, Lionel M Macauley, and Angelina Schwammerlin, whose biopics cross the boundaries of colour, gender, and disability. Their dynamic and moving performances integrate so well in telling the story that one no longer notices who is black or white, male or female, deaf or hearing. This is inclusive theatre at its best.
The company's accompanying literature contains a few lines that perfectly summarise what Carthageis all about: 'Millions suddenly finding themselves marooned inside an alien and often confused, divisive cultural environment are finding that their voices have become muted. Carthage gives the quiet voice expression, a poetical plea through sign-language, dialogue, dance and theatre for cosmopolitanism, rationality, reason and compassion.'
It is a hugely difficult theme to address: what is it like to feel you have no voice? Harold Pinter addressed it once in Mountain Language. I did myself, in Living On. Carthage reminded me not only of the plight of speakers of endangered and oppressed languages, but of all who have to cope with limited speech or language, such as the ten percent of the population who have some sort of communicative disability - those affected by aphasia, stammering, language delay, and all the other conditions that speech and language therapists deal with every day. Writing about such issues is difficult enough; performing it is a much greater challenge, which Signdance Collective have very successfully met.
The much-anticipated work-in-progress performance of Carthage/Cartagena, written by Caridad Svich and developed with the Signdance Collective International played to a packed audience. The text of Carthage/Cartagena is a series of multi-lingual letter-song-poems connected by themes of displacement, exile, and human trafficking. This verse play dramatizes moments of “desterrar,” or being ripped away from homeland and finding oneself in a foreign land. The piece stages the violent origins of diaspora, a recurrent topic raised throughout the (No Passport 2014)conference. . The verse of Carthage/Cartagena enacts its diasporic imagination in its rendering of voices of individuals displaced by wars, human trafficking, and acts of violence. As a previous reviewer had pointed out, the play on words within Carta-ajena, could mean letter from afar, as well as a letter written in a foreign language. These “letters from afar” are not only written from spaces of dislocation, but also speak from the borderlands of the real, a space beyond representation and language, encircling the edges of trauma. The text of Carthage/Cartagena draws on multiple languages, English, Spanish, Italian, BSL and ASL as a strategy to approach this “unspeakable” space of trauma through the disconnected space between languages, and the gap between meanings lost in translation.
The SDCI is the perfect company to interpret the piece because they move between so many registers of language: spoken, sung, and embodied in their specific fusion of dance and sign. Images of homeland, like a lemon tree, a cake, or a spinning top, were invoked as the final vestiges of subjectivity from the edges of the traumatic experience. The SDCI’s approach was to interpret the loss of homeland as the structural loss of innocence. Coming of age in the blown-out wasteland of Carthage/Cartagena means grappling with the shock of total loss, a retracing of the missing pieces of self, and transformation in a state of absolute exile. The ritual structure of the choreography, a spiraling transcendental meditation, made room for the co-presence of these lost voices—the casualties of violent acts of displacement—as they were re-imagined in performance. Carthage/Cartagena made for an intense and riveting end to this 8th annual meeting of the NoPassport Theatre Alliance.
Carthage by Caridad Svich and Performed by Signdance Collective 2017 Lost Voices Tour Review
In a theatre landscape where the socially motivated angry writers of the sixties and seventies appear to be ancient history, it is exciting to see this outstanding offering from Signdance. Carthage combines poetry, music, sign and dance in this masterly presentation of physical theatre. Based on poetry written by Caridad Svich the audience is propelled into a world where the voice and beauty of nature are ignored. But this is no fictional dystopian journey. We soon realise the performers are holding up our world for us to examine in all its brutality and inequality. We’re drawn into the isolation of those experiencing slavery, human trafficking and forced migration.
The fourth wall dividing the audience from the actors is very quickly dismantled and we soon begin to realise how our silence and inactivity makes us culpable. It is extraordinary how drama dealing with such suffering and barbarism can be so beautiful. This is due to the sparkling language of Caridad Svich’s poetry; the amazing acting of Isolte Avila, David Bower and Lionel M. Macauley and the haunting music of Angelina Schwammerlin.
This is a production that everyone should see. But be prepared to be thinking about it for days to come, and like me, to be filled with the hope of seeing it again and again.
Peter Read Playwright and Poet
Signdance Collective International with the life-size Bad Elvis puppet Review DAO
Salford University and The BBC hosted Signdance Collective's performance of Bad Elvis on 21st March. Peter Street went along to see the companies brand of sign-musical theatre at its very best.
"Absolutely superb, not long enough" said the Mayor Of Salford. How right he was, Bad Elvis was an hour-long tour de force. This was a unique theatre production thanks to director Sue Roberts and writer Katie Hims.
Bad Elvis was no cheesy impersonation of Elvis Presley, but more a kind of surreal tribute to him which really hit the spot. David Bower was breath-taking in his role as Aiden. He signed and spoke while dancing in a light blue zoot suit.
I was thinking it couldn’t get better that was until Isolte Avila ‘mum’ belted out “All Shook Up.” And from then on every time she finished another song the audience showed the wonder of it all by clapping and more clapping. I’ve seen various so-called singers try their vocal chords on this difficult song: she left them all standing. That’s how fabulous as it was, not only, but then the players of Bad Elvis came to the edge of the floor and invited us to take part with four basic signs of All Shook Up with BSL.
David’s dance partner Francesca Osimani who played Snow White lifted the play another notch when she danced and signed alongside him. I was worried about Francesca fitting in with deaf and disabled actors. But then watching her I doubt if anyone could have performed, signed and danced and worked the musical better than she did.
The one great feature of this production you kept thinking with surely it can't get better, but it did.
Hearns Sebuado - the landlord and brother rocked and rolled with his dance partner the life size puppet of Elvis’s the ‘King’ who was dressed in the white suit we have all come to love and adore. That puppet - sorry Elvis wouldn’t have been Elvis without out the suit. Hearns took us through every emotion first by bringing laughter tears when he introduced us to his Elvis.
Then he laughed us more when he danced and jived around with this very own Elvis while fastened to his legs. Superb. We were laughing and singing along with it all. People around me were tapping their feet and then suddenly the King just died in front of us and Hearns caressed him. As if it was some real person there on his knee, dying. It was so convincing it was then just then for a few seconds I remembered where I was on that tragic day of 1977.
You would be hard pushed to see anything as good as Bad Elvis. It was faultless. DAO
Peyrots Stolen Dolls- 2013
Puppet master and slave a complex powerful relationship
What’s the last time I felt really uncomfortable as a man? What is in my gaze – how may I look at a woman; young full of innocence and knowing? You look, you appreciate aesthetically, you want, you lust, you rape…no of course not but this challenging performance leads you to examine how each of us may be corrupted. Abuse in Ohio comes to sit on your knee. This work has connected with the zeitgeist of the times; and in so doing the interplay between man’s domination of women, their mutual support forced through circumstance, leaves an impression of one young woman and her struggle against the strength of the female collective as well as the cruelty of man.
The stage is set with a dominant evil puppet theatre arch, a hell mouth which consumes and dominates the actions of the lusting puppet master danced and acted chillingly by David Bower; his gestures and movements twisted out of shape from his true nature. The women engage in burlesque, drawing in the audience to seeing supposedly harmless sexual presentation but one where limits may not hold.
Despite their touching solidarity the young Mouche superbly articulated by Laura Goulden with a range of expression from the eyes worthy of silent films and a young Lillian Gish may not be saved by her more knowing women companions from the violent denouement.
We have a trio of women who entice Mouche through their knowing laughter and are drawn together by the experience of an older woman, whose experience and years do not save her but she retains a pride and her own power. This woman, as played by Isolte Avila, provides a hypnotic insight into the art of leadership by a woman , expressed in the manner of burlesque, she draws a character of immense sexual magnetism. The juxtaposition is that she too is naively exploited but remains a fundamental influence on the female group dominated by the puppet master. Francesca Osimini and Lilley XXX complete the dynamics of female interplay and together they are strong, enticing, alluring and scared.
Throughout the performance you feel the simmering cruelty of the puppet master and the large-scale puppet serves as a metaphor for control.
The company Signdance Collective is exactly that; the sensuality of sign movements through dance shaped with an actor’s expression. The live music by Dead Days Beyond Help – the presence of the musicians on stage is essential – is a key element in the choreography of the whole piece. Each member of the collective has their own personal moves which combine giving room to chance and innovative development wholly appropriate to the nature of the piece.
“Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
(TS Elliot- “Marina”)
The end seems inevitable but there are moments of hope and play and levity. Redemption through the solidarity of the women seems possible.
The impact of the piece and the skill of presentation was demonstrated by the consultative conclusion to the evening. Joke Menssink, who directed the work, posed questions as the audience reflected on the experience.
“How do you,(the audience ) see this piece ending? It is still in development, this is research, tell us” No uneasy silence broken only by the voice of the egotist who thinks they should have directed the piece. Instead immediate considered analysis came from the wide range of audience participants ranging in age from teens to 60s. A real discussion ensued with, I noted, the men playing a muted role. The puppet master may be threatened with death, redemption, or becoming a puppet himself in future productions. I have rarely encountered such inclusion of an audience – the collective is completed by that real dialectic.
Do not expect an easy time as a distanced consumer. This is not a nuanced intellectual experience. It is visceral and delicate. The Collective offer a challenge to the male gaze and to the female burlesque complicity. Its contemporary relevance is unfortunately assured.
Mike Jutsum MA
The Other Side of the Coin 2012-2014
As conceived of and presented by UK troupe Signdance Collective International is a hypnotic and surprising dance-theatre-sign language and live music experience.No Passport Theatre conference at New York University , Gallatin on March 1, 2013 New York City
by Caridad Svich
The movement against the ferocious, adrenaline-charged music is framed around motifs that suggest
marching, saluting and other aspects of military drills performed with a sly wink to commedia dell’arte
forms, and shape-body improvisations. A mysterious poetic, male figure in tattered clothing and unkempt, unruly hair (played by co-founder David Bower) becomes the soloist against a chorusof women. Recalling ancient Greek theatre with its solo and
choral frames, the Poet embodies the spirit of freedom, Dionysian play, and martyrdom. The performance allows the soloist to represent the un-governable energy of art itself, railing and raging against tyrannical forces outside his control.
The gestural imagery (in BSL) in this later section is anchored in repetitive gestures that
seem to become smaller and smaller, sputtering and more sputtering against an inner flame. Beautiful
to behold. TheOther Side of the Coin, in thirty minutes, manages to create a genuine, unique
theatrical world that lingers long in the mind after the performance is over. The commitment of the
company to the work, the distinctiveness of the vision of the piece, the talent of all of the company, and
the clear compassion and humanity evident in this abstracted, emotional, Lorca-inspired dream is
Hunchback Of Notre Dame 2008 BBC Radio4
'I have just recently returned from seeing Signdance Collective's performance of Half a Penny. The energy and passion of the performers is so strong it reaches out, grabs you and doesn't let go. Ripped up political speeches, oppression, fear and ofcourse "confidence" with jabs of humour thrown in...a very thought evoking piece and beautifully performed.
The work, bearing a resemblance to John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" and Brecht's epic theatre, employs theatre-music-dance-body and sign language to show that we should never forget that we are human beings, live befitting this, have the power to change the system causing wars, and should fight for our rights and freedom. They also use body and sign language to create a universal language that caters and enfolds all -including those who are hearing impaired.
The first part "Half a Penny" deals with political pressure, citizenship, predetermined roles enforced on people, consumerism, freedom, revolt and being 'human'. The visuals such as Thatcher, Churchill, Luther King, Bush, Reagan, slavery, half a penny repesenting the system are projected on the stage when a well dressed orator comes to delivers a speech composed of political cliches. Meanwhile Vox Populi and sign language interpreter Citizen Vox interferes (distorting, mocking, imitating). While the audience drifts to another world filled with music and dance Citizen Vox's lines are very effective and provocative:"You may take refuge in stereotypes, but you cannot hide there long. There is only one question to be asked: Are you human? And this is the right question: Are you human? [...] You are human. You have not earned cruelty and you do not deserve meanness. You won't benefit from being isolated or treating each other as outcasts. [...] You do not need to make a great noise about it. With the silence and dignity of creators you can end wars and the system of selfishness and exploitation that causes wars. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms
Sue Roberts - Executive Producer BBC Drama North & now SDC's Artistic Patron
New Gold- 2012 in turns funny, strange and exciting - the mix of physical theatre, sign, dance and comedy challenged the audience and was unlike anything I have seen before. The performance is a fusion of different sign languages and speech, as well as music - making for a truly multi-lingual experience. In the end, the race for 'gold' becomes something else - perhaps it looks towards a society where everyone feels accepted - a society that isn't so focused on competition and 'winning' money, gold and fame. Lizzie Ward DAO and Remote Goat *****
.... The work – because it is great has “mass” appeal speaks for itself and that is what is fantastic
Esther Appleyard director ACCENTUATE London 2012
Artistic director David Bower may be familiar to moviegoers as Hugh Grant’s deaf, and wonderfully honest, brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and with this company he is no less honest, in fact almost ruthlessly so. What he sets out to achieve in the most compelling of these four pieces is an expression of the inner journey he had to make in order to reconcile himself to “the Noise” - the tinnitus he has suffered since 1986 following an Indie gig. In this uncompromising performance he seems to become the sounds in his own head at the same time as trying to cast them out. It is as if a devil has taken root behind his eyes and he is determined not to be driven mad. Unforgettable. Providing a dizzying background to this is some excellent live rock music (courtesy of Luke Barlow) and in the first half of the evening singer/songwriter Alex Ward also performs several splendidly abrasive songs of his own, accompanied by his own electric guitar and “sign theatre” from Isolte Avila ......Whats On Stage In London ****2010