Kayla Hamilton Challenges Visual Aspect Of Dance At Jacob’s Pillow

Kayla Hamilton

 “We are taught that seeing is truth—if we see it, then it’s true,” says Kayla Hamilton, a visually impaired choreographer who identifies as disabled. “I’m questioning, is that true? What are other ways of seeing in the world? How can access be artistry?” 

 Not all of Hamilton’s work takes place in the dark, of course, but the use of audio description (AD) and American Sign Language (ASL) are integral to her process and product. That’s evident in her new piece, “Nearly Sighted/unearthing the dark,” which the Bronx-based artist brings to Jacob’s Pillow on Friday for one performance only.  

 Developed in part during her residency at the Pillow this past January, the piece plays with perspectives, assumptions, “what’s seen and unseen, and the humor and the danger in perceptions,” the choreographer said. “I’m asking the audience to reimagine what they think they’re seeing on stage.”  

 Born and raised in Texarkana, Texas, Hamilton has been dancing since she was a child. Her mother pushed her to stick with tap, jazz and ballet classes to ensure Kayla’s severe amblyopia (commonly known as “lazy eye”) didn’t prevent her from being active. She went on to earn a bachelor’s in dance at Texas Woman’s University and then made her way to New York City, where she performed with companies including Skeleton Architecture, Sydnie L. Mosley Dances and Gesel Mason Performance Projects. Under the name K. Hamilton Projects, she began making her own work, primarily exploring issues of race and gender. 

 Meanwhile, her eyesight had become progressively worse, and glaucoma had left her blind in one eye. But it wasn’t until she attended a talk by the Black choreographer Alice Sheppard, who dances in a wheelchair, that Hamilton realized she had been leaving her disability out of her work. 

 “As soon as I heard Alice speak, I was like, I’ve been ignoring this identity,” she recalled. “Being a fat, Black dancer in concert dance had already taken the precedent.” 

 With “Dark Room Duet,” a collaboration with blind artist Krishna Washburn and her first iteration of “Nearly Sighted,” Hamilton expanded her focus to encompass the places where Blackness and disability intersect, while striving to increase access to dance for both those making it and those receiving it. 

 “When we make a work, whether we realize it or not, we are making a choice of whether to include the 25 percent of the audience that may be disabled,” she said. “I’m thinking about my audience first in the creation process, and what are all the ways I can bring multiple people into the practice with me. I want everyone to feel welcome and to receive my creation. A work can never be fully accessible, but I can try.” 

 Verbal description of movement is a pivotal element of Hamilton’s work, and often its starting point rather than being tacked on at the end. She brings attention not only to the words themselves but also to who is speaking them.  

 “Traditional audio description is done from the outside (of a work), usually by a white, male voice, and it usually leaves out race and body type—things people largely deem as uncomfortable or unacceptable to describe,” she explained.  

 When she makes a piece, the describing emerges from within it. She might start a work by creating movement in collaboration with one describer, and then bring in more describers as the work unfolds, sometimes describing movement herself, sometimes asking describers to become movers as well. The act of describing becomes a community practice. 

 While Hamilton’s training is in modern and West African dance, she draws vocabulary from the movements she makes in her daily life: putting in eyedrops, fidgeting in her chair in a doctor’s waiting room or walking with her cane, which she’s lately been experimenting with as a duet partner. 

“Nearly Sighted/unearthing the dark”