SELMA REZGUI reviews multimedia performance Chyna at VAULT festival 2020.

Anyone who is or has ever been a teenage girl will recognise Chyna’s preoccupations. The eponymous protagonist/performer in this multimedia hybrid of dance and storytelling energetically tells the audience about her friends, the boys she likes and boys who play with their hair too much, her holidays in Jamaica, her crappy school uniform. Oh, and she’s Deaf. The performance is designed to be accessible to d/Deaf and hearing audiences alike without the need for translation.

The show is performed by Chyna Brianna Harrison-Bell, who is just 15 but owns the stage and manages to make the space completely hers. The production plays with projection and live performance, combining the two so that a pre-recorded Chyna often takes over from live Chyna, explaining various aspects of her life and routine while live Chyna occasionally jumps in to emphasise a point, improvise, and take cues from director Laurence Dollander who sits in the front row, showing placards to Bell which prompt her to perform certain concepts or scenarios. Dollander and Bell are clearly close collaborators and friends, and the show developed from Dollander’s experience teaching music at Oak Lodge, a school for d/Deaf students in Balham.

Bell deftly describes the members of her football team and friendship group. Mia, Sarah, David, and Powerboy each have particular movements associated with them, and the skill and speed with which Bell switches between them and differentiates them is really impressive. Chyna is their goalie, which she likes, but sometimes she worries about her cochlear implant being knocked. She also tells us about her baby sister, how she only stops crying when Chyna takes her and how she can hear. Chyna mimics the slightly bumbling signs her 2-year-old sister has now started making, giving an insight into the dynamics of being a Deaf person with hearing siblings, or in a hearing environment like the football team. None of this labours the point, though, it just is. And Chyna has chosen to share it with us.

For me, the show’s strongest moments are the quieter ones. The performance is soundtracked by original music by Lawrence Dollander, which thumps and whirrs behind Chyna’s movement. Occasionally though, it abates and draws attention to itself in doing so, and all that remains are the signs and shapes with which Chyna communicates with us. This show is a warm-hearted triumph. Running at just 40 minutes, it is short and sharp and immersive, showcasing what it’s like to be one Deaf girl dancing her way through her world.

Chyna ran at VAULTS festival from the 3rd to the 5th March 2020

Featured image source: