陳國慧與顏素茵就口述影像的發展進行對談 Bernice Chan in conversation with Dorothy Ngan about the development of audio description （照片由國際演藝評論家協會（香港分會）提供 Photo provided by International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong))
城市當代舞蹈團安排的演前導賞工作坊，讓參與者透過觸摸舞台設計的模型（觸感），了解表演空間的設計 Pre-performance workshop arranged by City Contemporary Dance Company, where participants could know the design of the stage space by touching the set design model (tactile)（照片由香港展能藝術會提供 Photo provided by ADAHK)
顏素茵在控制室為劇場演出提供現場口述影像服務 Dorothy Ngan providing live audio description service for a theatrical performance in the control room／攝 photo：Jack Li（照片由顏素茵提供 Photo provided by Dorothy Ngan)
What makes good audio description for dance: Exploring the development of audio description in Hong Kong
Text: Bernice Chan
Translator: Eva Kan
While dance appreciation comes naturally to most of the audience, there is increasing concern in society as to how the arts can genuinely welcome audiences of all abilities to appreciate and participate in arts events. Over the past decade or so, public awareness and in particular that of producers, artists and arts groups of this issue has been strengthened due to the efforts of various local organisations such as Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK), and the Hong Kong Society for the Blind (HKSB) in facilitating the development of audio description (AD) for visually impaired audiences through policy initiatives, striving for resources, continuous training, education and promotion, etc.
“There is a long way to go when speaking of equal rights in Hong Kong. Arts accessibility services embody equal rights and continue to need more promotion, through which we hope at least to attract the attention of audiences who need AD. Even if it’s perceived as a gimmick, that may not be a bad thing.” Dorothy Ngan So-yan, an experienced audio describer and arts administrator interviewed for this Focus piece, says frankly in the article “The Perplexity of Not Daring to Comment — My Unlimited Stage [Dance Video with Audio Description]” published in dance journal/hk 23-4 Issue in August 2021.
在香港舞蹈團演出前的導賞工作坊，參與者透過觸摸表演服飾，探索不同質感在舞台上的呈現，有助了解作品內容 At the pre-performance workshop of Hong Kong Dance Company, participants touched the costumes and explored the appearance of different textures on stage, which was helpful in their understanding of the content of the dance work（照片由香港展能藝術會提供 Photo provided by ADAHK)
If we take ADAHK’s Arts Accessibility Scheme, supported by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust in 2011 as a starting point, equal access to the arts over the past ten years has progressed from being regarded as a ‘gimmick’ to being recognised as important by the arts sector and the public. There are a lot of companions on the ‘long way’, even though we know there is still some distance to go. The Arts Accessibility Scheme website lists dance productions which have provided AD services under the Scheme since 2011. In the early period these were mainly Hong Kong Ballet’s open rehearsals, later on more dance groups and productions on different scales have gradually joined in. Ngan conducted a study entitled “Research on Accessible Theatre in Hong Kong – Overcoming Visual Barriers” and published a report in September 2020 with the support of West Kowloon Young Fellows Scheme (Performing Arts). The statistics shown in the report revealed room for development for providing AD services in performing arts: “Between 2011 and 2019, the total number of local theatre performances which provided AD services for visually impaired audiences was only around 260, with an average of 28.9 performances each year. Compared to the total number of over 6,000 performances each year, this came to less than 1%.” (Page 8) and out of these less than 15 were dance productions.
The Arts Accessibility Scheme Manager of ADAHK, Chan Ka-yin, says that drama performances are more popular, as they have storylines, while the nature of dance works is inevitably often abstract. As a result, early on dance productions equipped with AD were narrative works or those that people are more familiar with. As one of the first batch of local audio describers who received training in 2008, Ngan explains what are the biggest challenges of using AD to describe dance. She first notes that even though there are different performing arts forms, the principle of AD is the same, that is “say what you see [in the performance space], not interpreting it but describing it in precise and objective words, giving clear information for the audience to use their imagination”.
However, the most difficult thing is how to synchronise AD with dance steps, and also the grasp of rhythm, “when the movement is completed, the AD cannot lag behind”. Ngan says jokingly that AD can still ‘closely follow’ a solo dance , but if it is a group dance, or the choreographer chooses to fill the whole stage with movement, it is difficult for the audio describer to convey the full picture. Ngan reflects that if she was in the audience, she would also have to make choices of what to look at in this situation, and therefore she would help the AD user to choose. When doing this, she thinks about what the choreographer would like the audience to see: “If the choreographer would like to display a chaotic scene, the AD should not be focused on an individual’s movement.” During meet-the-artist sessions, we often hear audiences ask about the choreographer’s intention, as if hoping to receive the ‘right’ answers, while the choreographer may want to leave room for audiences to use their imagination as much as possible. However, when applying AD to a dance work, the message and vibe that the choreographer intends to portray become crucial in order to provide the most suitable information for the audio describer to practise the principle of AD.
香港芭蕾舞團安排演前工作坊，在導師帶領下，參與者自己舞動身體，了解作品內的主要動作 Pre-performance workshop arranged by Hong Kong Ballet, where participants moved their bodies to understand the main movements of the work under the guidance of the instructor （照片由香港展能藝術會提供 Photo provided by ADAHK)
Improvisation is common in dance works, and Ngan says audio describers frequently need to watch, think, and surmise: “Solos and group numbers can take place at the same time on stage, and the audio describer has to decide what to focus on, or, when taking different things into consideration, those considerations must be close to the choreographer’s thoughts, plus the describer also needs to determine the timing of the description. These are not casual decisions, otherwise it will be unsettling for the audience as well as unfair to the choreographer.”
In fact, consensus with the choreographer is important to create effective AD for a dance work, as the audio describer needs to have information such as the background of the work and the movement style of the choreography. Direct communication with the choreographer is ideal. For example, the choreographer of Freespace Dance 2023: She Legend does AD research herself, so Ngan was able to communicate with her at a very early stage. It also matters whether the arts group itself is aware of the value of AD. The performance with the most comprehensive ancillary services that Ngan has participated in is Birds of Paradise Theatre Company’s Miranda and Caliban: The Making of a Monster, an overseas production staged in Hong Kong in 2016. She worked organically with the audio describer who was accompanying the company. The actors even made recordings introducing themselves, so that the audience could learn to recognise the voices of the characters before the performance.
Another question is whether choreographers understand and believe in AD. Ngan says, “I understand that choreographers would worry how we use words to present a dance work—the form is undeniably changed—reproducing body movement together with theatrical effects in language is complicated. They think the work may become dull and uninteresting. Even if the choreographer gives the green light, another problem is whether the audience could understand and perceive it.”
Nonetheless, audio describers still need to grasp the fundamental principles of AD—being clear and precise. They may not use too much creativity in their language, as practicality is more important. Dance, however, has more relatively abstract forms, which are not easy to understand for people who are born blind. For example, the word ‘float’ should be avoided. Ngan also notes that in ballet, where there are many lifts,“If we say the male dancer lifts up the female dancer—the beauty is lost. It would be better if we use expressions like ‘carry (her) in his arms’, ‘raise’ or ‘lift lightly’ ”. You must remember to use plain language and try not to repeat the same word too many times, or the audience's imagination will not be inspired: “You need to think more about using a variety of words, to imagine how you can convey a rich picture to the audience through your description.”
Ngan says that for most audio described dance works, a script is prepared, because once a few seconds are missed, that will affect the rhythm: “It is around 3.5 to 4 words per second (in Cantonese), if one misses a few seconds, that might affect the reception by the audience. For dance, writing the first draft of a one-minute performance with non-stop movement takes an hour, followed by continuous amendments and refinements.” As for finding ways to deliver the sense of rhythm, she says one needs to know how to count the beats and speak in time with the music, or articulate a sentence in four, five, or seven words: “Of course the audio describers have to be engaged themselves. When the performer moves slowly, you need to match that.” It is really important to find this ‘shared sense’ when doing AD.
As for the audience, how can they find this ‘shared sense’? In recent years, AD for dance has undergone a number of different developments worthy of being taken further. Chan mentions that five to six years ago, they started to take reference from overseas dance groups and hold pre-performance workshops for visually impaired audiences, where participants could move their bodies to understand the main steps and the energy required in the dance piece, or touch the costumes to feel the weight of the fabrics, thus giving them a fuller understanding of the composition of the work. In 2021, for the production of the AD for Hong Kong Dance Company’s Mazu the Sea Goddess, a visit was arranged to Tin Hau Temple in Aberdeen before the screening, in which the efforts of different stakeholders brought the beauty of dance to life for different communities.
Chan recalls that early on they started with a graduation exhibition at the School of Dance of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, exploring touch workshops related to dance with the students. Chan says they started with the Academy with the aim of planting seeds for the future by letting students learn how dance can be presented in different ways and shared by more audiences, so as to benefit the development of AD or other accessibility services in the future.
Another area of development is the training of audio describers. Ngan says when she received training in Hong Kong in the early days, she briefly learned the application of AD for all art forms through limited sessions, while in recent years, considering the differences in AD strategy and development for different art forms, organisers have consciously separated visual art and performing arts and assigned different experts to provide training. Also, audio describers are split into groups to focus on the art forms they are more familiar with or more skilled at. This kind of development maintains the quality of AD, as well as allowing audio describers to focus on accumulating experience, which will benefit audiences in the long term.
Ngan says training must include practice, and the AD courses in Hong Kong have become more standardised and systematic in recent years, compared to the less rigorous methods in the early days. Even if the students are trained, the quality of their work inevitably varies, and whether they have sufficient “time, passion and capability to commit to the service” is always a big question. Therefore, making the training more standardised and systematic in the long run can improve sustainable service delivery. Ngan gives the example of the “Audio Description Training Programme of Film” organised by HKSB, saying that its recent elementary and advanced courses are more comprehensive than the previous ones, as they include professional recording training and vocal training, as well as internships and mentorship; ADAHK is also a pioneer, combining teaching by overseas tutors with follow-up by local ones, as tutors who speak Cantonese have a more accurate understanding of the vocabulary and rhythm of the language.
In fact, in addition to communicating with the choreographer, preparing the script and watching rehearsals, an individual audio describer is responsible for the whole of each performance, as switching audio describer would mean obliging the audience to adapt to a new voice, which is not ideal. Therefore, being an audio describer means putting in a lot of effort and participating in AD services requires a serious commitment. Of course the commitment to AD needs to be shared by different players in the industry. With the rising awareness of the importance of arts accessibility, Ngan thinks that arts groups should seek to learn more about the distribution and composition of local audiences with different abilities and needs. They can then reach out to various organisations to explore building potential audiences and formulate targeted promotion strategies and support services, so that everyone can enjoy the arts equally. This vision of accessibility is a flower that needs to be watered continually by different stakeholders, so that the fragrance of the arts does not fade.
Research report on “Research on Accessible Theatre in Hong Kong – Overcoming Visual Barriers”:
Bernice Chan is the General Manager of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong). She has curated over 50 local and international projects about performing arts criticism.