Leeds-based dance company Unbound Dance Theatre's groundbreaking first production

Dance is generally considered to be very much a visual artform and for blind or visually impaired people in particular, engaging with dance, as an audience member or performer, may feel too difficult but a new Leeds-based dance company is seeking to change that and find innovative ways of making dance more accessible.

Unbound Dance Theatre, founded by choreographer Sandrine Monin in 2023, is on a mission to challenge preconceptions and open up the dance space to everyone. The company’s stated aim is ‘to champion inclusivity, connection and expression’, all of which is manifested in their first show Fireflies at Dawn premiering in Bradford tomorrow before touring to Leeds and Wakefield. The piece, developed over a period of two years, has been co-created and will be performed by visually impaired and sighted dancers.

The show uses embedded audio description, sounds, lights and touch as well as new wearable technology which enhances the movement of the dancers on stage and creates a live soundtrack. The piece and the company itself grew out of what Monin describes as “a transformative experience” when she had the opportunity to lead a dance workshop with blind and visually impaired participants back in early 2020.

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People came up to me afterwards and said they felt much better and more confident and that really stayed with me,” she says. “I applied for some funding and in 2022 started doing more workshops with the visually impaired community. I began thinking about how we could make dance more accessible to them and to try and understand their lived experience.”

Unbound Dance Theatre's production Fireflies at Dawn. Picture: Simon K AllenUnbound Dance Theatre's production Fireflies at Dawn. Picture: Simon K Allen
Unbound Dance Theatre's production Fireflies at Dawn. Picture: Simon K Allen

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After another successful funding bid, Monin began to explore the possibility of co-creating a performance piece, conducting wide-ranging, thoughtful research. “Every sightless person is different and every individual is unique so we were trying to gain insight into the whole spectrum,” she says. “We had many conversations with our workshop participants and then we started developing tools and methods – touch was the first, then how to make connections through sound.” The company has been working with a researcher at the University of Leeds using wearable technology. “The sensor is the size of a matchbox and you can hold it or attach it to your body,” explains Monin. “The sounds react differently as you move so it is a way of describing movement through sound. You can ‘hear’ what the movement is which helps both the visually impaired performers and audience members. The idea is that the experience will be the same for blind and sighted audiences.”

A professional dancer and choreographer for over 15 years, Monin trained in classical ballet in her native France and went on to work with several internationally acclaimed contemporary dance companies. She moved to the UK in 2012 to work with Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre and was with them for seven years. During that time, she developed and expanded her choreography practice, which is grounded in the exploration of our senses and emotions, and she has done extensive work around mental health and wellbeing. Fireflies at Dawn features five performers – two of whom are visually impaired – and the process of creating and developing the piece involved courage, sensitivity and trust.

“There was a lot of bravery,” says Monin. “Both our visually impaired performers are over 50 and have never been involved in the performing world, what they have achieved is amazing and for the sighted performers I asked them to do a lot of work with their eyes closed in order to level the playing field. It is about being brave and developing trust. The aim of the show is to communicate what it feels like to live with sight loss and we interlink that with basic deep-seated human fear which is so relatable. It is about recognizing those fears and how through connection and community we can face them together.”

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Unbound Dance Theatre's production Fireflies at Dawn. Picture: Simon K AllenUnbound Dance Theatre's production Fireflies at Dawn. Picture: Simon K Allen
Unbound Dance Theatre's production Fireflies at Dawn. Picture: Simon K Allen

While it confronts such complex issues, the piece also highlights the uplifting, positive aspects of dance and movement. “Our research has shown the joy that dance can bring and the sense of belonging both within a group and your own body,” says Monin. “It is a very hopeful show on how to find that joy. We hope that it not only moves and inspires audiences but also contributes to creating a more compassionate society.”

Looking to the future, Monin would like to further develop the potential for accessibility that working on Fireflies at Dawn has demonstrated. “A lot of tools and methods we have developed through this project can be used by anyone with different impairments,” says Monin. “We want to create an inclusive dance space and challenge preconceived ideas of what dance is and who it can be performed by.”

Fireflies at Dawn is at Bradford Alhambra Studio, June 11, Slung Low’s Warehouse, Leeds, June 29 and CAPA College, Wakefield, July 10. unbounddancetheatre.com