About Strange Lands and People

Radio Interview auf dem DRS 2-Programm “Bühne frei”

zwischen Benjamin Herzog und Joshua Monten

12. Oktober 2012


English transcription

BENJAMIN HERZOG: Franz Liszt’s Sonata in b minor is the central music in a dance theater production which had its premiere last night at the Tojo Theater in Bern. “About Strange Lands and People” is the name of the project — which also involved sign language. Choreographer Joshua Monten is now with me in the studio. How are you feeling on the day after the premiere?

JOSHUA MONTEN: Quite tired, but also quite happy. After so many weeks of work it was a wonderful surprise to see how so many individual componants, ideas and improvisations all came together into a unified whole.

Sign language plays a role in your project, but so does music. I have to imagine this is something which is intended primarily for a hearing audience.

We set ourselves the goal of creating a dance performance which would be meaningful for both hearing and hearing-impaired audience members — but in different ways. The hearing-impaired miss a large part of the music — although there are special places in the theater where loud passages can be heard through vibrations in the chairs.  But the dancers do describe some parts of the music using sign language. On the other hand, there are also elements in the piece which hearing audience members don’t necessarily understand.

You translate parts of the music into sign language. What other roles does sign language play in your piece?

Sign language is a form of communication. The dancers interact with each other using dance or sign language, or both at the same time. This creates a multilayered piece, with communication occurring on many different levels — and sometimes completely breaking down.

You’ve said that sign language is attractive for dancers, something special.

Definitively — the manual dexterity we see in sign language is extremely attractive for us. It’s a great example of how expressive movement can be, especially in the sense of Tanztheater.

How was it for the dancers to work with sign language?

It was a challenge. Sign language is a new world in which there are many unfamiliar things you have to pay attention to. Even though they’re quite talented movers, the dancers weren’t used to having to show such a high level of precision in their fingers. And it was always an issue for us about how much facial expression should be included in a phrase. Dancers are more used to letting their bodies do the expression and keeping their faces relaxed. But in this case that doesn’t work at all: it makes the signs incomprehensible. There always needs to be a facial expression, a feeling, a meaning attached to the signs. That was a fairly unusual experience for the dancers.

The face has to dance along with the rest of the body….


This all begs the question: how can sign language (which is actually quite narrative) fit together with music — with this Sonata in b minor, for example?

At the beginning, they didn’t fit at all. Nonetheless is was exciting for us to squeeze them together and to make a sort of juxtaposition. We thought that since the music is so important for us hearers, we should look for a way to share that experience with the hearing-impaired. That’s why there are moments — right in the middle of their dancing — where the dancers describe the music. They sign sentences like “This part sounds like a fire alarm” or “Here the music sounds like a lonely forest, and you can hear the dancers panting.”

You seem to be hinting that there’s an ironic level to all of this, that the dancers sometimes do things which are quite opposed to what the music suggests.

Yes. All of these different levels of meaning — facial expression, music, dance, and sign language — can sometimes have quite different meanings. For examples there’s a section where the music is heavy and dramatic, and although the dancers are jogging in quite a chipper way, they describe the music accurately with signs and words. They say, “Here the music is sustained and simple”; then it changes and they say, “Here the music is loud like bombs.” But they keep on jogging as if nothing had changed.

Jogging to the Sonata in b minor by Franz Liszt certainly seems ironic to me. But the hearing-impaired in the audience can’t hear the music. How are they able to appreciate this irony?

There are other ironies inherent in the sign language texts we use. And only some of these texts are translated into spoken language. That means that there are some jokes which only the sign language speakers understand.