On Blindness Hands

Sometimes it is not applicable or possible to have your performers or participants bouncing off walls and running around at 100mph. You might want something much more sedate and introspective. In workshops and residencies we have often taken a process we used during On Blindness where we created a fluid and intricate movement sequence using only hands. Our intention was for the hands to betray an inner emotion, while the character does their best to deny these feelings. The process has since developed through workshops and has served this desire for introspection well. It is a very calming, creating process too.

For On Blindness we found words that summed up the inner emotional turmoil of two of the protagonists. We learned the British Sign Language for each word and used these hand signs as the starting point for creating a movement string.

This might suggest that we were looking to express the meaning of these words through movement, but that is a little more literal than what we actually did. The signs became something else. They were sometimes stretched, inverted, or reversed. The original signs were only to be the launch pad. For us to create the physical quality we were looking for we had to fight the temptation to express these moves literally. We had to find a new meaning in the quality and tone of the movement itself and let any literal meaning appear as an accident, a flash, a ghost, an echo.

To help us escape from the limiting literal meaning of these gestures, we had to get everyone to think in terms of poetry, where words undergo a transformation and express more than the sum of their parts.

Here is the workshop version:

We split the workshop participants up into groups of three. First we had to quickly teach everyone some sign language. To encourage them to avoid being literal we decided to teach them words that would be of no use to an emotional story (the opposite of the original On Blindness version). We chose random words like:


Remember, the purpose is not to tell a story containing these words in sign language. It is not about a nervous turtle’s christmas. The signs are merely new shapes for the hands. It is a new vocabulary.

Each group is then asked to explore the dynamic of these ‘words’. How does the hand move? Where does it start? Does it swoop or chop through the air? How can the gestures link together? How can one dive and emerge as a version of another? Can participants find new shapes, moves, and signs to help create a string of material? Working together, each group now creates a unison hand dance. It is important to insist upon unison. Unison is a great way to make work, even if it is not always a great way to present it (more on this below!).

Each group may want to create the work while facing and mirroring each other. This is OK to a point, but allows people to copy the leader of the group and not take responsibility for actually learning the material. Encourage them to face out in a line as soon as they can, running their material that way, as this is how you will want to see it presented.

It is very important to remind, encourage, or even demand that participants break free from the original meaning of the signs, aiming to create a short string of fluid hand gestures that explore varying dynamics. When each group has created their string, get them to loop it so that it is continuous. Once up to the required standard, you can start to play with it and test its theatricality.

Place a group on three chairs facing the rest of the room. Get them to run through their loop in unison while keeping their focus out into the room. Try it to a piece of music.

Change the dynamic. Get them to do it faster while retaining the unison. Don’t let them flag up any mistakes or laugh when it goes wrong. Encourage them as they run it, pushing the speed. They might resist, but keep pushing.

Hopefully they can achieve a speed they did not think possible.There is an interesting problem with this kind of presentation that you should highlight to the rest of the group – whenever an audience is asked to watch unison, you are actually inviting them to look for mistakes, as these are the only things they will see. They will not sit there saying ‘In time. Still in time. Still in time...’ They take unison for granted and are only drawn to the slight variations, even if the unison is impressive. Harness this.

Get a group to sit on the chairs and close their eyes. Try another piece of music and instruct the group that any one of them can start when they want, breaking free of unison. All three of them go through the actions in their own worlds. What do we see from the outside? Three individuals, but then, unexpectedly, moments of unison. Fleeting moments of connection between these people in their own worlds. Suddenly the choreography is complex and clever.

The choreographic lesson is not necessarily to allow chaos on stage in the hope that such moments appear. Remind participants that they are still in the rehearsal room and everything is up for grabs. We can still adjust the choreography with the performers eyes open to capture these moments again. It can be a painstaking process, but  ends up with a complexity that would almost be impossible to imagine, had we initially aimed for it head-on. By filming it you can then cherry-pick the key happy accidents.

There are further things to explore. If the group of three are running their material with their eyes closed, you could sneakily tap one of them on the shoulder and get them to silently leave and watch from the front. Repeat, leaving one performer, oblivious to the fact that they are on their own. Let them continue for a while before gently stopping them.

The purpose of this is not to humiliate the remaining performer – it is important now to stress what you have achieved. Ask the group how their feelings for the performers changed through that run and you might find that they really felt for the person left behind. That they were fragile. Or maybe that they gained a resilience and strength. A nobility even. If so, then the group are beginning to talk about the performers as characters. This is important because an emotional story is emerging, prompting an emotional engagement. The audience are showing empathy and sympathy inspired by choreography and context, not just the plight of their fellow performer. It is important to ask the audience how their feelings changed from the beginning, with three performers, to the end, with one. This change would not have occurred had we initially presented just one person. The change in context (someone not aware that they are alone but carrying on regardless) has redefined the perception of the choreography. This is a very important lesson to learn.

You can still play with the choreography, testing it to see if it  throws up more possibilities, characters, situations, and stories.

Try getting a group to present their sequence of movement on the chairs with their eyes open. Ask them to make all the moves smaller, existing in a small square in front of them. Ask them to focus their eyes on these gestures and to slow them down. They can appear fascinated by their hands and the positions they achieve. This can change the way we watch it. It is a much more introspective performance. Play with your choice of music to accompany it. Don’t be afraid to try different options and get it wrong. Your watching participants will have lots of comments on what music works, why it works, and how it makes them feel. All of this is crucial education.