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Feeling the music

Jun 03. 2013
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By Jenny Kallenbrunnen

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Sign-language interpreters help the hearing-impaired to enjoy the sounds of the ballet
Sigrid Meiser-Helfrich lets her fingers glide up and down on her forearm. In German sign language (DGS) for the deaf, this means: “I had goose bumps”.
In fact, she did not hear anything of the emotion-filled and dramatic music of the ballet that she had just attended, for Meiser-Helfrich is deaf. And yet all the same, she knew that the music was emotional and dramatic.
On hand for performance in the Saarland State Theatre in Saarbruecken was an interpreter who, using sign language, simultaneously interpreted the performance for the deaf audience.
Around 80,000 people in Germany use DGS, and within the hearing-impaired community, a rich cultural scene has developed, including sign-language theatre.
The offer of the Saarland State Theatre to stage specially adapted performances for the deaf is unique in Germany. Marguerite Donlon, the theatre’s ballet director, and sign-language interpreter Isabelle Ridder jointly carried out the project.
“Theatre is there for everyone,” Donlon says simply.
Three-quarters of an hour before the performance, the two women provide an introduction for the deaf theatre-goers to describe what will be going on acoustically on the stage. They distribute a script sheet containing many adjectives to describe the sounds of each scene. These do not include terms like “loud” or “quiet” but rather “tension-filled” or “joyous.”
In translating the music, Ridder says, the aim is to portray the emotional elements contained in the musical sounds.
“I explain what things the sounds are triggering, and for this I have to generalise or find some examples.”
While Donlon speaks of “dramatic” music, Ridder uses sign language to portray feelings of heartbreak or anger, until that point when “looking into their faces (in the deaf audience), I see an expression of ‘yes, I have also had this feeling’.” She describes sounds with feelings drawn from everyday 
experience – such as, “like a cold rain falling on your face” or “like a gentle touch”.
“Love In Black-and-White” is the name of the third ballet that Donlon has had translated. The flowing movements of the dancers on their tip-toes is silent in any case. Whether the musicians are playing short, or lengthy, musical notes can be gleaned from the speed of the dancers’ steps.
After the performance, deaf theatre-goer Peter Schaar, speaking through Ridder, said, “When I saw the powerful movements and how the dancers’ capes were whirling through the air, I could imagine the rhythm.”
Bettina Herrmann, an official of the German Federation of the Deaf, says, “This project is an exciting thing.
Fundamentally speaking, music can also be tangibly felt by the deaf.
After the performance, the deaf theatre-goers express thanks to Ridder and Donlon. They raise their hands up, spread their fingers and shake them in the air – their way of applauding.
Now Donlon has another idea – stretching ropes from the stage floor to the first row of seats.
The deaf can hold onto the ropes and thereby feel the vibrations made as the performers dance.
Dagmar Schlingmann, director of the Saarland State Theatre, wants to enable access by everyone to the theatre.
Next year blind theatre-goers will be provided headphones with detailed audio descriptions of what’s happening on the stage.

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