NET/TEN Shareback: ANIKAYA - Visual Vernacular

Spring 2017 Travel Grant

February 21, 2018

  • #Cross-Language
  • #International Collaborations
  • #Communication Tools

Spring 2017 Travel Grant Recipient

Wendy Jehlen of ANIKAYA (Somerville, MA) traveled to Japan to develop a collaboration with Butoh artist and former National Theater of the Deaf actor Dakei (Tokyo, Japan). They collaborated on a new work, Delicateness in Times of Brutality, and worked toward developing a new, movement-based approach to silent theater.


This Shareback is a description of one element of my collaboration with Dakei, a Deaf Butoh artist and performer and former member of the Japanese National Theater of the Deaf.  This is the kind of work my Deaf colleagues and I are doing around the world, and is applicable cross-culturally.  The absolute most important aspect of this work is equal collaboration and/or leadership of Deaf artists.

--Wendy Jehlen, ANIKAYA

Visual Vernacular

In creating cross-cultural performance in the world Deaf community, a starting place is the Visual Vernacular, a kind of gestural storytelling that can be understood across cultural and linguistic differences, and which lends itself to visual gestural storytelling and poetry-making.

Dakei is in the process of creating a series of workshops for Deaf-Hearing cultural exchange with support from the Art Meets Care Association. I was able to participate in one of these workshops.  In this Shareback, we would like to share the approach of this workshop. 

Our longer-term project is one of direct collaboration, with a visual vernacular as a given in the collaborative relationship.  You can see the latest work-in-progress we performed in Tokyo here:


Dakei directs, performs and creates art installations. In 2000, he earned his Ph.D. degree from The National Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music (Geidai) specializing in material studies.   He started acting in 1996 for the National Theater of Deaf of Japan.  In 1997 he was invited by Butoh dance director Kinya “ZULU” Tsuruyama to perform with his company, YAN-SHU.  He joined the company and appeared in all of YAN-SHU’s works and with this group he traveled to perform and assist workshops around the world. In 2000, he formed his own company, SHIZUKU, which debuted in Teatro Pradillo in Madrid, Spain. Since then he has been touring Europe, Asia and Latin American countries where he performs and teaches workshops. Dakei teaches Butoh in the Japan College of Social Work for a seminor specializing in teaching in sign language.

ANIKAYA/Wendy Jehlen:
ANIKAYA’s mission is to break down the perceived boundaries between people, cultures and art forms. Our work has so far extended to the US, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, India, Italy, Japan, Mali and Turkey. ANIKAYA weaves together music, dance and storytelling to create works that pull from the full range of the body’s communicative capabilities. We incorporate traditional forms, internalizing them and then allowing them to reemerge as part of a new movement vocabulary. The result is work that is resonant of deep-rooted traditions, without being bound to any particular genre, place or practice. 

The workshop:
This workshop occurs almost entirely without interpretation, so that all communication is visual, both for the Deaf participants and for Hearing participants, regardless of their knowledge of sign language. All are expected to participate visually and gesturally.

The workshop begins with re-naming in small groups . In Deaf culture around the world, each person has a “name sign” which is usually related to a physical characteristic.  In the workshop, even those who already had name signs were given new ones by their groups.  The names were decided by consensus in the small groups.

Sharing of names:
Once everyone has an agreed upon name, we make a circle and share our names in a simple name game.

Learning where to focus the eyes:
The next game we played was explained entirely in gesture – no Japanese Sign Language, no spoken language.  

In a tight, shoulder-to-should circle, we all stood with our right hands facing up. One person stood in the middle and signaled to a person in the circle to flip their hand.  The only rule was to watch the person to one’s right and flip one’s right hand after the person to one’s right flipped theirs.  Slowly the person in the center adds more elements, but always with the one rule that you are reacting only to the movement of the person on your right.

Observation: This was surprisingly difficult for some participants. They would want to look around to see what was happening in the rest of the circle and would miss their cue to flip their hand, so the chain would be broken.

Why? In Hearing culture, we often don’t know where to look, where to focus our eyes in order to receive relevant information. This game teaches Hearing participants to pay attention to and react to relevant visual information.

Exchanging/passing of names:

This game had two parts and is very much like many other theater games, but with a Deaf twist.

  1. In a circle, one person connects with someone elsewhere in the circle with their eyes. Each “says” their own name. They repeat the names they have received back to confirm. Then they each find someone else to exchange with and exchange the name they have just received.  The process continues until everyone is giving and receiving, usually not their own name. Occasionally, one’s own name comes back around.  
  2. Milling – the same exercise, but this time while milling around the room.
    Observation: By this point the participants had learned to pay attention much more successfully with their eyes.

Circle story:
This game also had two stages – concrete and abstract. Both take place in a circle.

  1. Concrete – using gesture only, one person starts a story, which is then passed around the circle, each person adding to the story.
  2. Abstract – again using only gesture, but taking away narrative content, so that the gesture is more abstract.

Possible next stage: the abstract exercise while milling around the space.

Processing on paper:

Participants spend about 15 minutes writing and drawing their responses to the workshop, what they have learned and experienced.

This is followed by verbal sharing, with an interpreter.