The Simpson Board
A tool for developing precision in choreography
The Board was developed in response to the needs of profoundly disabled students who wish to communicate simple or complex ideas about movement. In particular, it was designed for students without speech and who have little voluntary control over the muscles of their own bodies.
The Board also has wide-ranging applications in mainstream dance education. Anyone using the board has to address that most thorny of issues: how to express and describe movement accurately through language or symbols. The board brings into focus one of the primary skills for anyone interested in choreography - clarity and precision when communicating about movement, and as such it is an invaluable tool for anyone teaching choreography or notation.
The board and booklet are the result of experimentation and dialogue so please contact us with your ideas and suggestions
To order a Simpson Board:
Lisa herself has taken on the project and now runs workshops on the use of the board
The Simpson Board - history and development
If you are unable to speak and unable to control or direct the movement of your own muscles, how do you communicate even the most simple ideas about movement, let alone those of a complex nature; those used on a daily basis in the world of dance? This is the problem faced by many profoundly disabled students and their teachers on a daily basis. Often within the demanding environment of inclusive dance classes or workshops, there is insufficient time to establish more than the most rudimentary communication with those students most in need, a situation which leaves many, no more than silent, albeit willing, partners in dance activity.
Apart from those with visual impairment, eye movement/coordination is, frequently, one aspect of movement over which most people have control. For those with profound physical disabilities this eloquent use of the eyes often becomes the principle channel of communication. The Simpson Board has been designed to use and perhaps even extend this ability: eye-direction or focus is used to select words and symbols laid out on an A3 laminated sheet. The information on the Board is 'dance-specific', consisting of body- and movement- concepts and illustrations. The simplicity of design means that the board is affordable, is not reliant on expensive or complicated technology, and is easily carried, or stored in the back of a wheelchair. It is a tool that can be used to develop precision as well as to foster creativity and unlike cumbersome, expensive, and as yet painfully slow, voice simulators, does not trap the user behind unwieldy machinery.
The research that lead to the Simpson Board took place during a five-day residency at Hereward College in 1995 while I was directing the education program for CandoCo Dance Company. The aim at that time was to explore how profoundly disabled students could be more fully involved in thinking about, understanding and creating dances, (performance, choreography and appreciation), rather than simply 'taking part'. The project included students from Hereward's Expressive Arts course who were joined by undergraduates from Coventry University for the Performing Arts (CUPA) plus two professional dancers based in Wales .
During the week, various methods of communication were tried and tested, a process which led to the development of the prototype Simpson Board, named after one of the students, Lisa Simpson, whose drive, creativity and hunger to express movement ideas drew us all towards a previously unimagined dialogue about dance.
During our introductions on the first day of the residency the Hereward and CUPA students we were almost immediately confronted with the problem we had set out to address. As the students took turns to say a little about themselves, those with cerebral palsy using speech simulators or spell boards were able to communicate only a fraction of what the non disabled students had been able to convey verbally.
The difference in how each student used time, and the feelings this gave rise to, led on to a discussion about the usual structure of dance residencies which are driven by the pressure to produce a finished product. It was with a shared sense of curiosity and relief that we agreed to place our emphasis on generating a new means of working together, rather than accelerating towards a performance.
Preparatory work had started prior to the dance residency at Hereward. The students with profound physical disabilities and without speech had been using their eyes to select and, with assistance from study support, place found objects on different surfaces. The resulting works generated some strikingly beautiful images.
These images served as the starting point for our exploration into movement. Working with Margaret Taylor, Head of Expressive Arts, slides were made of the student's work which were later projected onto a wall of the dance studio.
All of the students (disabled and non disabled) selected the slides they wanted to work with and while some began to improvise and set movement, Lisa, one of the Hereward students got to grips with a diagrammatic representation of one of her own slides as a floor plan, superimposed on a simple grid.
Around the diagram were added a number of option boxes, offering choices such as 'Touch', 'Don't Touch' and 'Improvise'. Lisa, using her spelling board then began adding her own words to the list. As the week progressed these option boxes and extra diagrams were extended and then grouped into words that dealt with space, time and action. These groups were later expanded and rationalized and were made distinct on later versions of the board through the use of colour.
Lisa watched the movement phrases that the other students were producing from the slide images and began to select and order them in time and space. Using her floor plan as a guide, she placed some of her dancers at the edge of the studio, in the wings, whilst carefully positioning others in the space. By indicating the lines of her original image, Lisa was able to indicate the pathways along which the dancers were to travel in the studio. She started some of the students dancing duets together, whilst others she separated, introducing them from opposite sides of the stage. She then began to concentrate on sequencing these events in time. This process was full of invention and surprise, for example, after having selected when she wanted her third duet to begin, we were unable to correctly identify the timing of the entrance of her fourth, Lisa simply refused to accept what we offered until the penny dropped and we realized there were other choices that we had not offered. Only then was Lisa able to lead us to her idea of beginning the third and fourth duets simultaneously.
Moments such as these made us realize that in spite of our intense desire to help and make things happen that we needed to establish a balance between guidance and control. It was Lisa who made us understand that we should always offer a series of more than two choices with the intention of eliminating, as far as possible, simple binary, 'this or that' choices, which could so easily constitute a choreographic straight-jacket of leading questions.
It is hard to express the excitement that we all felt as Lisa took to choreography like a fish to clear, bright water. Her own delight in what she was doing was matched by the growing realization that, as dancers, we were uniquely placed to serve as translators for this young woman's vision.
Lisa, involved in a personal, day-by-day, minute-by-minute struggle to determine the direction and control of her own limbs, demonstrated speed, sophistication and an almost tangible appetite for the art of making dances; for the freedom to select, organize and craft the movement of bodies in space.
As the chart became more comprehensive Lisa was able to take more control so that by the last day there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Lisa was making her own work.
As the residency ended it became clear that a more ordered chart would give Lisa the opportunity to determine the movement of individual dancers with greater precision and it was at this point that we approached Jonathan Thrift then at the Roehampton Institute London whose particular area of expertise was dance analysis and notation.
Jonathan teamed up with another disabled student, Bill Robbins. Bill had a very similar degree of Cerebral Palsy as Lisa and had performed extensively with Wolfgang Stange's company Amici. Together with the assistance of a number of enthusiastic students from Roehampton they began to fine-tune the board. Lisa and the dancer/ teacher Louise Katerega had already formed a teaching partnership in the Midlands and were soon followed by Jonathan and Bill in the South. The board as it now exists owes a great deal to these two teams, who have pioneered its use and helped refine and improve it. The results of their work has already made an impression in a number of schools, colleges and universities in the UK.
The Simpson Board allows access not just to dance but to the experience and the expression of that most basic of human rights: "freedom of movement". We have come to realize that no one is better equipped to realize the ideas of those who cannot move, and have no voice, than contemporary dancers: a community of artists dedicated to the language of movement whose most urgent - and some might say rarely satisfied - need is to find a choreographer who has something important to say. It is no small irony that a project designed to give voice to those who cannot speak has also provided a means of teaching choreographic skills to those who can speak but often fail to communicate with clarity or precision. The Board has proven to be an extremely useful tool for those teaching choreography, encouraging students to think and express themselves more precisely and elegantly when talking about or making dance.
Recent Developments 2018
This year Lisa spoke to me about the difficulties that some of the students she worked with experienced when using the board; that many of them were not literate and so couldn't make use of the 'spell facility' - making much of the board inaccessible.
Lisa and I got together in Lancaster with Helen Gould and her team to see if we could address this issue.
It was a delight to be back in the studio with Lisa after so long, and we began to work through ideas and images that would be readily understandable and functional. I was then able to draw up a rough plan for a new board. This has now been taken on by illustrator Peter Therelfall who is drawing up the final board which will be available from Lisa Simpson Inclusive Dance
First draft (AB) Detail from Peter Therelfall