The monumental impact of being deaf is explored in Hélène Blackburn’s physically intense choreography for 9, performed by her company Cas Public with dancer Cai Glover taking a lead role.
Before the performance starts, Glover removes a hearing aid, without which he is, himself, deaf, and lays it on the smallest of the many small white chairs that litter the black-box staging. Deafness, it seems, is a failing of the smallest bone in the body, significant beyond its size.
The 9 in the title is Beethoven’s ninth symphony, which he famously directed in its first performance although he was already deaf and could not hear it. Here, Martin Tétreault has manipulated a recording of the work. It is only partially heard – sometimes fading to a soft whisper, at others pumped out at volume but devoid of all treble notes.
The five performers dance not with the music, but almost against it. Straight-legged, as if in a nod to Irish step dance, their upper bodies bend and repeat urgent motions that have their origins in sign language. With a click of the fingers, they turn on the cones of light in the darkness of the staging. Sometimes they are gladiatorial in their performance; at others, a dancer in pointe shoes rises from the rest, or is blindfold as they perform a duet with Glover based entirely on trust.
Kenneth Michiels’ film of a profoundly deaf child playing with his friends helps frame your interpretation of the performance. On stage, children are invited to watch – and sometimes join the dancers – reinforcing that this is no abstract piece but an attempt to give an impression of a real situation which is almost impossible to experience.