In The Willows certainly looks like an interesting musical. The musical adaptation of the classic Kenneth Grahame novel is written and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan with music from award-winning composer Pippa Cleary and ground-breaking hip-hop composer Keiran Merrick. Expect to be surprised.
The choreography is by Rhimes Lecointe, incorporating British Sign Language (BSL) into the choreography and BSL interpreted performances for a unified production for D/deaf and hearing audiences alike.
Dancer Chris Fonseca is deaf in both ears, but dances with the use of a cochlear implant in one ear and the sensation of musical vibrations through his body. After joining the all deaf group Def Motion and teaching / choreographing for Studio 68, Chris is now a solo dancer and recently appeared on BBC One’s The Greatest Dancer. Here’s a Q&A with Chris to tell you more about his career and what to expect from In The Willows:
Tell us about In the Willows and the role you play in the show
In The Willows is a vibrant re-telling of the classic story The Wind In The Willows, brought into the 21st century with fabulous vocals, beats and backflips. I play Otter, who is a very cool and humble guy, as well as an excellent street dancer. Otter and his girlfriend Rattie (the most popular girl at school), help new girl Mole learn the ways of the Riverbank. Otter is a great influence who likes to look after his friends. He’s also deaf and proud to be.
How have you found the rehearsal process?
What an experience it’s been. It’s a steep learning curve for me and my debut in musical theatre, especially having to learn scripts line by line, act, sing and dance with the lovely Willows squad.
You’ve just spent several weeks featuring in BBC One’s The Greatest Dancer. How did you find the experience?
I remember I was nervous when my name was first called before the start of my audition. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me: a moment where I can give my all, to shine my light hard and show what I can do to represent for myself, the deaf dance community and deaf community, whilst on a popular TV platform. The support I’ve received is overwhelming, and beyond amazing. Unfortunately, I’m gutted to say that I didn’t make the callback but I’ll keep going, keep moving forward and continue dancing, because breaking barriers are part of my DNA, by doing what I love.
Can you tell us a little about your process as a deaf dancer?
Every person’s deafness levels are varied, and they have a different way of accessing music. For me, I wear a cochlear implant on my left ear and as soon the music plays, the sound and the beats spread the rhythm slowly around my body, so I can feel the beat and be part of the music.
When I receive the rhythm, it goes to my brain which works out the structure of beats and understand how the music plays before making any movements. To get into character, it requires a lot of patience, reading and studying how the beats work lyrically before choreographing.
I also often use a subpak when choreographing to a song, to help me find the hidden beats and to emphasise how choreography works, both lyrically and with the beats together.
What it is like to work in a show where British Sign Language is incorporated in to the choreography?
The big challenge is being a deaf dancer amongst a hearing company. However, it’s been fantastic to watch how fast the rest of the cast have picked up BSL, and learnt to incorporate it into the dances. It’s also been a challenge highlighting the deaf awareness and showing that British Sign Language is not only for communication, but it can also apply to the arts in a creative way too.
What can audiences expect from In The Willows?
An amazing show with diversity and inclusion, a beautiful design, awesome choreography and a great children’s story – a modern, urban version of The Wind in the Willows.
Get your tickets for In The Willows when it comes to York Theatre Royal from 16th-20th April.
Photograph credited to The Other Richard