“I know who I can take to the Romeo and Juliet ballet!” I exclaimed to myself, while flicking my braille display down the to-do list I was days behind on. “I'll take my mother.”
As we looped around The Civic car park for the second time looking for a park, I worried whether Mum would enjoy it. After all, her idols were the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Auckland Live and the Royal New Zealand Ballet were partnering to audio describe the ballet – a first for New Zealand – so that in itself made me happy. I suppose if I had any high standards, they'd have landed on the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, tasked with bringing to life Prokofiev's rich and evocative score.
My contemplations ended abruptly when we stepped inside The Civic foyer and were invited to begin a touch tour, provided especially for blind and partially sighted patrons. We were encouraged to feel and admire everything from the sack-like material of the commoners’ costumes to the elaborate velvet capes for the ball — not to mention the rapiers in the sword-fight scenes; the point shoes; and several of the intricate masks, variously featuring feathers, horns and decorative designs.
The history of ballet
After the touch tour, we were treated to a talk by Pagan Dorgan from the RNZB about the history of ballet and an explanation of ballet terms. As we imagined ourselves back in the courts and large ballrooms of Louis XIV, she offered us the chance to try out a few dance steps for ourselves and provided mini mannequins with moveable joints for those less inclined to feel uncoordinated in public.
I was contemplating placing myself in the second category but my mother, who danced ballet for years as a child, encouraged me to stand up front.
"I got mine when I was nine," she commented when Pagan explained that girls these days are advised not to wear point shoes till their bones have fused at 12 or 13 years. "I remember that day, I was so proud."
In preparation for the start of the show, I fetched my earpiece, through which the audio description would be channelled. I listened attentively as Nicola Owen, one of the two audio describers (the other was Neha Patel), relayed us introductory notes about the costumes, the general character of the protagonists (e.g. flamboyant, elegant, has youthful flair) and some major scene changes.
These notes were also emailed to us in advance but there was so much information it was a relief to hear them twice.
During the show itself, I found the APO's precision, grace and concentration through such an epic score to be extraordinary – as was that of the ballet dancers, by all accounts.
Appetite whetted by words
But what really stood out for me was not just the existence of the audio description, which ran through the entirety of the play and left moments for us to enjoy the music; that, of course, was a massive undertaking in itself.
What most stood out was the depth and abundance of descriptors and verbs that I and the other blind and visually impaired audience members were treated to. My appetite was whetted by words such as preening, shimmering, canoodling and rebuffing. There was such a plethora of expressiveness in the language employed by the audio describers that the plot really came to life via the description of its choreography.
"That pas de deux," said Mum rapturously, as we lined up for ice cream after Act 1. I smiled. I too had experienced the initial hesitancy of the lovers, their youthfulness and their graceful oneness.
I studied classical flute at university so I can begin to imagine how hard the APO worked on such a technical, nuanced and intricate score. I'm also a Paralympian so I can begin to conceive of the immense dedication required of the ballet dancers to stay on top of their game.
And I'm a translation student, so I can contemplate the mental effort, Thesaurus-checking and willpower that would have gone into making the audio descriptions so colourful.
"What it meant to attend a ballet with my mother"
But I could not have known what it would mean to attend a ballet with my mother: to experience the whole show, not just the music. It was an artform I had subconsciously assigned to the "unreachable" pile.
"When you were two," Mum reminded me fondly as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the motorway, "you could do all your arabesques, first position, second position, plié ... I always wanted to take you to the ballet."
Áine is a blind university student completing postgraduate study in Spanish and French. She has attended various audio-described productions and concerts and loves to support initiatives that help to make Aotearoa more accessible for everyone.
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