“Theatre in the dark? Why not just listen to the radio?”
Before having been to any of Buenos Aires’ surprisingly broad range of ‘blind’ performances I didn’t know how to answer this question. At first theatre in the dark can sound uninspiring: isn’t the whole point of seeing a show the fact that you actually get to see it? But after sampling three blind events I found that in many ways the experience was more intense than watching a conventional performance.
The events I went to see (sort of) weren’t just about listening to music or theatre in the dark. By taking away your sight, they aim to stimulate not just your ears, but all your other senses as well. This went for taste and smell in ‘A Ciegas Con Luz’, a show in which you eat dinner in complete darkness while listening to music and theatrical scenes. It went for touch and spatial awareness in ‘Tango a Ciegas’, a tango class that also takes place in pitch-blackness. And it went for your sense of reality in ‘Club Silencio’ a bizarre event in which you are blindfolded and listen to a performance inspired by the surrealist films of David Lynch.
In fact, all of these shows end up stimulating your senses of perception in completely unique ways. It was innovative theatre and I can say with certainty that it was nothing like settling down and listening to a bit of radio over breakfast.
A Ciegas con Luz: Blinded by the light
A Ciegas con Luz, a gourmet musical, is the headline show at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Ciego. The performance, like the theatre itself, is the brainchild of director Martín Bondone and producer Gerardo Bentatti, who were both interested in developing the concept of theatre in the dark since it was born in Argentina in the 1990s. Gerardo had been working since 2001 with Ojuro, a theatre group of non-sighted actors, and he helped create Argentina’s first sell-out blind performance, La Isla Desierta. Martín had a background in both economics and art, and wanted to create a new project, partly inspired by the restaurant Dans le Noir in London, which serves food in complete darkness. The two men got together, and their ideas took off. In 2008 they rented the current space in calle Zelaya, and the Teatro Ciego was born. Now the theatre presents a variety of shows and classes, with different options on offer for both the visually impaired and the general public.
A Ciegas con Luz is the main show at the theatre, and, like all the other performances, it takes place without lighting. The first few moments are in some ways the most intense. The darkness in the room is not the kind that you’re used to in your bedroom at night. It is so pitch black that you cannot see your hand an inch in front of your face. After a few moments of disorientation you do start to adapt to your surroundings, but the fact that you can’t see even the tiniest speck of light gives you the strange sensation of being in a dream. The feeling never really goes away, and for me is the most memorable thing about the performance.
The first part of the show is based around dinner (really the way things should be). Martín tells me that the food is created with two aims in mind: firstly to keep the audience guessing, but secondly not to betray their confidence by giving them things they won’t like. The entire meal is made to be eaten with your hands and exploring the texture of the foods and guessing what they are before you put them in your mouth is part of the pleasure of the experience. Our waiter described eating with your fingers as a “return to childhood” and this proved true on lots of levels, as you are literally relearning how to relate to your food once you can no longer see it (in my case, learning how not to keep sticking my fingers in my neighbour’s desert).
Moreover, being in the dark gives you a strange sense of losing your inhibitions. I found that not only could I eat however I wanted without being embarrassed, I also started talking to the other people at my table in a much more open way than I would have done if I were seated in a normal restaurant with strangers. The actors, both blind and sighted, say that they also enjoy this sense of impunity; they can act and sing in whichever way they want, and no one looks at them strangely, simply because no one can look at them at all.
Some light music is played throughout the meal, but it is only when dinner is over that the real performance begins. The musical show is led by Luz Yacianci, a classically trained singer who blends theatrical scenes with singing and interacting with the audience. She plays the part with great skill and complete confidence. The types of music performed during the show are actually quite varied, from tango to folklore to classical. However, not only does she master the different styles, she also has such great control over her voice that she’s able to throw it across the room, and play with your sense of the space, as you begin to be unsure of exactly where she is. The other four performers have key roles, but she is the dominant force and, true to her name, she really does guide you through the evening like a light.
However, although experiencing all of this in the dark is intense, both Martín and Luz are firm that the performance is not supposed to make you feel as if you were really blind. “It would be scary for the audience and impractical, you would be crashing into tables and would feel unsafe” says Luz. “We want the audience to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable.” The cast stress that they don’t want to make out that the show is anything other than what it is: an inventive and highly professional piece of performance.
A Ciegas con Luz is shown Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays at 9pm at the Teatro Ciego, Zelaya 3006 (esquina Jean Jaures al 700). Tickets cost $100 including dinner and drinks. Much of the performance is based around food and music, so it is accessible to English speakers. However, you will get a bit more out of it if you understand Spanish.
Tango a Ciegas: Dancing in the Dark
Tango classes at Teatro Ciego take place on Wednesdays and are open both to monthly subscribers, and curious visitors who just want to try out one class. In many ways the idea is quite self-explanatory; you go into the same darkened room in which A Ciegas con Luz is performed and you learn to dance tango.It might seem that the tango is quite difficult enough without the added problem of not being able to see your own feet. One of the two instructors, Pablo Ugolini, who has been dancing for 16 years and giving lessons for seven, tells me that he has learned to use very different methods when he is teaching in the dark. Whereas during normal classes he can show students visually what they have to do, here he has to rely entirely on speech and touch.
One of the best things about the class is how well Pablo and his colleague Guiliana Fernández relate to their students. Both have incredibly reassuring voices and exude a sort of calming influence, which is exactly what you need when you are lost in the middle of a dark dance floor. What’s more, they are both very skilful dancers, and somehow are able to show you exactly what to do with a very gentle push or a touch. Both teachers give instructions in Spanish, so being confident with your language is definitely a plus if you are interested in this class. However, they told me that they have had non-Spanish speaking students and have been able to muddle along all the same, so if you are really keen but only speak English you can still go for it.
The class uses a number of techniques to make it easier for students to adapt to the darkness. Music is kept quite low, so that you can hear the sound of your and your partner’s feet, allowing you to get a better sense of where you are moving. The dance floor is bordered by chairs, which you can feel your way around, allowing you to adapt over time to the space you are in. Music is only played from one side of the room to help you get your bearings, and it tends to be instrumental so that you don’t confuse the singer’s voice with the instructor’s. Altogether the class is run in a very thoughtful way, so that challenges, which you would think were completely impossible, turn out to be quite manageable.
Most importantly the class teaches you how to relate to another person by touch. It’s incredible how differently you go about learning to dance when you can’t see you partner’s body. For me, I found it much easier to follow the lead, simply because I couldn’t be distracted by looking at my own feet. In the end I felt like I was dancing better than I ever had done in a normal milonga and began to understand why I have seen so many tango dancers performing with their eyes closed.
All in all, if you want to try something different with tango, or simply have a new experience exploring your sense of touch, this is the class for you.
Tango a Ciegas takes place at the Teatro Ciego on Wednesdays at 7.30pm. Lessons cost $20 for a single class or $70 for a month.
Of the blind experiences available in Buenos Aires, this is certainly the most bizarre.
When you go to Club Silencio you arrive at an ordinary-looking house on the outskirts of Palermo. Waiting on the pavement outside, with cars driving past and couples wandering by, you could be about to go to any regular party. You stand there, unsure of what to do next. Suddenly, as if by magic, the door swings silently open to reveal a long, dark passageway. A figure stands at the far end framed in red light. A man dressed in black, his face covered by a silver mask, appears and beckons you inside. You hesitate for a moment, not wanting to be the first one to go in. Finally you follow him down the corridor and are greeted at the far end by a woman who hands you a blindfold. You cover your eyes. And then…
Obviously it would be wrong to tell you what happens next. The main thrill of going to Club Silencio is the fact that everything is a surprise. Like the Teatro Ciego, Club Silencio really plays with the idea that when you cannot see you are entirely in someone else’s hands and you have to allow yourself to be led. The show is meant to take you on a journey through a range of emotions and to appreciate it you simply have to lay back and accept what happens.
But if allowing yourself to be blindfolded and led into a stranger’s house is everything that your mother ever warned you against, be reassured: nothing shady happens here. The whole experience is essentially an experimental type of concert, with the difference that during the first half you can’t see what’s going on.
The show was created by Shoni Shed, a 33-year-old musician from Buenos Aires, who also studied cinema and wanted to find a way to fuse different forms of art. Shoni tells me that the main source of inspiration behind the show was his favourite director, David Lynch. (In fact, the name ‘Club Silencio’ is taken from a famous scene in Mulholland Drive). Like Lynch’s film, Shoni’s show plays with ideas of perception, and especially with the sense of crossing over between reality and dreaming. However, if you have seen a lot of David Lynch, and feel like his movies are not something you would want to dream about, don’t worry that this experience if going to be equally disturbing. Shoni says that while Lynch can be very dark, his show “is all about light” and the aim of the experience is that the audience come out “with a smile on their faces.”
The major difference between this and Teatro Ciego is that being blindfolded does not feel anything like as intense as being in the dark, simply because you know that you can instantly get out of it by uncovering your eyes. Moreover, the atmospheres during the two performances are very different. In some ways, Club Silencio pushes its audience a little further; sounds are much louder and there are more elements that are intended to shock you. What’s more, the fact that it takes place in Shoni’s house, the type of music played and the recurring theme of nature all give it a slightly hippy-ish, homemade air. Which type of performance you prefer is entirely a question of taste, but I have to say that the audience for both shows came out very satisfied.
If you’re searching for new cultural experiences, any of these events are really worth a visit. Not only are they fun in themselves, they also have the exciting sense that you’re experiencing something entirely new. Luz Yacianci, the star of A Ciegas con Luz, described it perfectly: “In this world, it feels like everything’s already been done, but teatro ciego is unexplored territory.” So go yourself, before everyone else gets there first.
Club Silencio is currently being performed on Fridays at 11pm. Tickets cost $25 and include a free drink. A great deal of the experience is based around music, but understanding Spanish is a definite plus. To reserve tickets, contact Shoni via his website: http://clubsilencioba.blogspot.com/