Ladies and gentlemen, the dance performance is about to begin. Please put on your blindfolds.
Dana Salisbury calls her newest work Unseen Dances, and she means it literally. The piece, which will have its first performance September 20 at Green Space in Long Island City, explores the ways in which audiences experience dance if you take away their ability to look at it. “No one’s tried making dances for people who can’t see,” Salisbury said. “And because this work hasn’t really been done, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t take much to blow people away.”
The premise alone is mind-blowing: audiences will be blindfolded and then brought into the performance space, where they will be guided to sit, stand, walk, and occasionally support the dancers’ weight. Everything they need to know about the performance—the location and effort of the dancers, the qualities of the space—they will sense through air currents, sound, smell, and touch.
“I think there is an intensification of feeling,” Salisbury explained. “Normally you forget all of the stuff that goes on behind you, but you don’t when you’re blindfolded. All of a sudden, three-dimensionality is the name of the game. And as a result, you feel all of your body more. You get a lot of sensation.”
Salisbury, a former visual artist who came to dance in her forties, speaks from experience. She is the creator of Dark Dining, an event in which diners eat a four-course meal and experience live performances by musicians and dancers—all while blindfolded. Originally conceived as a one-off fundraiser, Dark Dining is now a hot ticket for adventurous sensation-seekers. Since its inception in 2005, about a hundred events have taken place in restaurants and art venues in New York City, Seattle, Miami, and beyond. “In the process of doing Dark Dining I’ve learned a lot about how people respond when blindfolded,” Salisbury said. “There’s an openness and a willingness that’s very exciting.”
Salisbury’s exploration of non-visual perception began in 2004 with Whole-Body-Seer, a piece she describes as being about “what you know that you can’t get your eyes to tell you.” Her inspiration was an article by neurologist Oliver Sacks about a blind man whose vision was restored. Even though the man technically could see, he was unable to process what he was looking at. “This man had a dog that he loved, but he couldn’t see the dog,” she explained. “He could not turn it into a dog without touching it.”
One day, while rehearsing Whole-Body-Seer in the studio, Salisbury peeled and ate an orange with her eyes closed. “All of a sudden I noticed things like the oils of the orange spray,” she recalled. “Peeling it, I could feel the oil. I could smell the oil. And when I segmented it and put it in my mouth I could feel every one of those little juice cells. It was intense. And I thought, who needs to illustrate this when you can give that experience directly?” Thus, Dark Dining was born.
After a few years of doing Dark Dining, Salisbury found herself restless to push things further. “You can’t ask people to do challenging material over dinner,” she said. Salisbury got her chance last year, when she was invited to create a Dark Dining event to open the KO Festival of Performance in Amherst, Massachusetts. Given a black box theater and more than 20 performers, she was able to create her most ambitious performance yet, complete with action happening on a catwalk overhead. Audiences loved it. The seeds for Unseen Dances had been planted.
“It became clear to me that for most of the people the food was not primary,” Salisbury said. “And that’s when I started realizing that I knew not only how to create work without food, but that I would be able to then take it into more challenging settings.”
Making dances for people who can’t see them brings up a whole new set of choreographic considerations. For instance, a performer’s ability to extend her leg 180 degrees isn’t as important as her ability to convey confidence and comfort when touching audience members.
And then there’s the matter of the floor: is it wooden, sprung, marley? Does it make noise when you walk on it? If so, how do you get from point A to B if you don’t want to share that with the audience? And, speaking of the audience, are they sitting or standing? In a circle or scattered throughout the space? In Salisbury’s experience, when you put people in a circle they feel a sense of camaraderie and safety. “But if you scatter them after they’ve been together, [they] feel abandoned.”
But the overall sensation is a kind of relaxed hyper-alertness. “I think the majority experience a sense of bliss, an attention to details that you usually never pay attention to,” Salisbury said. “One of the major problems for me as an artist is to keep my big mitts off and let people have the experience.”
Unseen Dances will be performed at several venues throughout New York City in the coming months. For more information, visit www.danasalisbury.com/current.html.
Michelle Vellucci is a Manhattan-based dance writer and book critic.