Mark Smith’s Deaf Men Dancing presented Let Us Tell You a Story as part of Exceptional & Extraordinary

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Let Us Tell You A Story is a commissioned performance by Deaf Men Dancing for the multi-partner project, Exceptional and Extraordinary. Artistic Director Mark Smith was asked to critically engage with the collections of several medical museums in relation to Deaf people, and has been touring the fascinating and provocative results. Review by Sandra Alland.

Photo of dancer Mark Smith dressed in a suit, posing in an museum archive

Artists, Mark Smith (Deaf Men Dancing) at RCS London Photo © Ian Anderson

This month Mark Smith’s Deaf Men Dancing presented Let Us Tell You a Story on a simple black dance floor installed in the gorgeous domed hall in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums. The performance is part of an ambitious and fascinating project featuring three additional commissioned artists (Julie McNamara, Francesca Martinez and David Hevey), Exceptional and Extraordinary: Unruly Bodies and Minds in the Medical Museum.

Let Us Tell You A Story begins with dancers Antony Snowden, Shane Dennis Pearson and Hearns Sebuado casually entering the room with suitcases. Wearing round spectacles and turn-of-the-19th-century white shirts, high-waisted grey trousers, grey vests, suspenders and bowties, they immediately draw our attention to the notion of history. Throughout the piece, costume and set designer, Ryan Dawson Laight, perfectly sets the tone with a portable and uncluttered design that highlights themes without becoming overbearing.

Artistic Director Mark Smith’s choreography is subdued and minimalist at first, evoking early sign language in fluid movement while historical drawings of hand-alphabets are projected in two dimensions on a large screen behind the dancers. Mostly restricted to standing on their suitcases as if on pedestals, the dancers move beautifully to rhythmic electronic music by composer and sound designer, Michael England. Despite only two weeks’ rehearsal, their movements are precise and breathtaking. There is palpable joy in the way each dancer shapes the long-forgotten signs.

When the lights turn red and ominous, we’re transported to the Milan Convention of 1880, and the most text-heavy section of this theatrical dance piece. Text both onscreen and in a voice-over recording by Smith (who is Deaf himself), details the horrifying vote of 160 to 4 hearing people, including Alexander Graham Bell, to ban the use of sign language and effectively ‘reduce the Deaf community to an inferior status’. Throughout this section, the dancers move to the words as music, and increasingly the speech is rhythmically remixed with actual music. Basing his choreography on a powerful BSL poem by talented Deaf poet Donna Williams, Smith evokes the sadness and anger of the historic moment.

Next is the humourous yet pain-filled staging of a twisted musical about enforced speech therapy. The dancers employ props including articulation cards, feathers to test their breath strength when speaking, and balloons. Like with the earlier recording, England expertly manipulates the sounds and Smith follows with evocative choreography. As the recorded vocalisations of the performers become increasingly fast and frantic, so does the dance, effectively portraying the extreme stress Deaf people can experience when being forced to talk.

Other sections of the piece include: a high-energy dance to an ear-piercingly (arguably too) loud remix of high-pitched hearing tests; a sombre and less-engaging church scene detailing historical efforts of religious institutions to offer assistance objects (like speakers, ear horns and ear banjos) to Deaf members; and an overlong, slightly-too-literal, yet still powerful segment on soldiers who lost their hearing due to exposure to heavy gunfire and explosions during World War I. Despite minor criticisms of these segments, the power of the piece is undiminished, and I have every confidence they can be tightened up for future productions.

It’s impossible to be bored watching skilled dancers like Sebuado, Snowden and Pearson, and the trio has the added draw of being excellent performers who know how to interact with an audience. Let Us Tell You A Story effectively and playfully engages with a complex medicalised history. This theatrical, funny, educational, varied and moving piece of dance deserves a life beyond its original commission.

Deaf Men Dancer will perform Let Us Tell You A Story one final time on 29 June at Science Museum, London. Don’t miss it! Reviews of the other commissions from Exceptional and Extraordinary can be found on this site.

Exceptional & Extraordinary is a collaborative project initiated and led by RCMG in partnership with 4 artists – Francesca Martinez, Julie McNamara, David Hevey and Deaf Men Dancing – and 8 medical museums whose collections, expertise and stories lie at the heart of the project.