This dance company introduces audience members to the experiences of the visually impaired through a performance that incorporates all senses
By Megan Tillotson | Photography by Slater Mapp
The sound of rain falling, the scent of freshly mowed grass and the touch of a warm blanket are experiences we can imagine based on our senses. In a society dominated by sight, sensory elements such as these are part of what ShaLeigh Comerford wanted to explore in order to elucidate the experiences of individuals who live with low vision or blindness.
ShaLeigh Dance Works’ immersive performance enVISION: Sensory Beyond Sight premiered in early June at The Fruit. The piece removed the barrier between audience and performers, giving the crowd a chance to fully engage with the message behind it. “It’s about taking a moment in time and expanding all of the senses of that moment,” ShaLeigh says.
The idea behind enVISION emerged three years ago when Arts Access, a nonprofit that enables North Carolinians with disabilities to have full access to arts programs and facilities, reached out to ShaLeigh to create a piece with DJ Robinson, a dancer with low vision. “From the minute I met him, it was like a collaborative fire,” ShaLeigh says. The pandemic brought the brainstorming process to a halt until August 2021, when the pair was able to begin choreographing in the studio. They brought in Krishna Washburn, a mentor to DJ and founder of New York-based Dark Room Ballet for adults who are blind or visually impaired, as a consultant to help with the research and framework for the performance. “We [knew] we were going to have to bump up against a lot of the ableist principles that are not only in society and culture, but also in dance classrooms, theaters and artistic director relationships,” ShaLeigh says.
The company also created a paid opportunity for experts who are low vision and blind to be part of the choreographic process. “As part of a group who is regularly overlooked, misunderstood and most definitely underestimated, an opportunity to share our world – highs, lows and all the in between – is paramount,” says Elvira Basnight, one of the experts. “… ShaLeigh and her company were genuinely interested in us as individuals and compassionate toward us as a group.”
A blindfold was laid on each audience member’s seat before each performance of enVISION. ShaLeigh gave the crowd a choice – watch the performance through their own eyes or experience it by removing the visual lens completely. “It was really touching to me [on] opening night when I looked out and saw almost every single audience member wearing the blindfold,” ShaLeigh says. “… They were ready for this experience and were willing.”
The performance opens with a real-life experience from one of the experts ShaLeigh brought on in the development of the performance, portraying her on an escalator at Penn Station with her guide dog. A rush of people come through, not acknowledging that she is blind, and nearly push her down. She then screams, “Stop, I’m blind!” ShaLeigh says. “The way this piece is designed, it can’t function without this opening because it lays the basis for everything else to unfold.
“I realized I wanted to uplift these marginalized stories and give them a world that deserved them,” ShaLeigh continues. Bubbles, feathers and even leaves from ShaLeigh’s own backyard float through the set to ignite the senses of the audience. A coat rack onstage doused in perfumes and colognes creates the moment of walking through a coat check. “I called each section ‘snow globes,’” ShaLeigh says. “ … I wanted those worlds to feel real and to share an experience as directly as possible.”
If you want a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process, there will be an online and in-person live screening of the documentary “Beyond Sight: The Making of enVISION” from Argyle Rebel Films at Westgate Wine in Raleigh on Sept. 10. A virtual premiere of the performance will livestream Sept. 17 on YouTube Party.
ShaLeigh, for her part, says that her biggest hope for people seeing this production “would be for us to realize that we leave people with low vision and blindness behind,” she says. “If we just had a bit more education and understanding, we would want to participate in the efforts of changing that.”