‘I think it’s a new artform’: Chris Fonseca, the man bringing Deaf dance to the mainstream

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

“The first thing people see me as is a Black person,” says choreographer and dancer Chris Fonseca, 33, meditating on the multiple aspects of his identity. Only, Chris isn’t speaking to me, at least not in a language I understand; Fonseca has been Deaf since the age of two, and for an hour he communicates to me, via a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter, in an eloquent blur of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language.

He’s currently talking me through his new show, High Times and Dirty Monsters, an inventive collaboration between actors, beatboxers and dancers that celebrates the good, and not-so-good, times of being young and disabled in 2023. It’s a bit of a rave, a house party incorporating videography, sign language and creative captioning to tell the stories of four young people, their successes or “high times” and the challenges of their “dirty monsters”, including accessing housing and university. “I’d say to my younger self: you need to go and watch this play,” he says. “There’s so little awareness of neurodivergence and disability and Deafness, but this play gives [young people] that platform – it’s recognising their voices but it’s also a chance to share their knowledge as well. They know what these situations are like. They live these experiences.”

Last year, Fonseca brought his lived experiences to the West End stage, in the form of Follow the Signs, an ambitious telling of his own life story. Through BSL, rap, spoken English, movement and creative captioning, it follows him from his tough school years, through his discovery of music and dance as a teenager, to the successes of his adult life: “I think it’s a new artform, fully accessible to both Deaf people and hearing people – both communities following along at exactly the same time.”

Fonseca with Harry Jardine.
Fonseca with Harry Jardine. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Keith Saha, artistic director of 20 Stories High, who are producing High Times and Dirty Monsters, says: “when we decided that we wanted to make a piece of hip-hop theatre that integrated sign language with movement, it needed to be Chris. He’s all about having those conversations with young people – how are we going to represent your experiences? Participation is at the core of his practice so that was really important, as well as his talent as a choreographer.” While there isn’t much of a precedent for Deaf-accessible hip-hop gig-theatre, Fonseca is clear that this has always been his vision – the only way he could convey his life story to a mainstream audience. “A lot of my experiences [as a Black, Deaf man] of audism, racism, are hidden away – brushed under the carpet. I needed to bring music and dance to say: ‘These are the experiences that I have had.’” Key was incorporating hip-hop to his work: “Some of us hear certain elements, some of us feel elements. That’s how the journey it started with me; I feel it and then I read the lyrics to really engage on that deeper level.”

Fonseca was born and grew up in south-east London, as the only Deaf person in an all-hearing family.

Despite being bullied, he did well at school, achieving the grades required to study graphic design at the University of Wolverhampton. After graduation, he began taking dance more seriously, trying to create a portfolio that would allow him to secure funding for his own projects. He was “spinning plates”, juggling part-time work at Starbucks with creative opportunities, including performing in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, when he got his break, and dancing and choreographing a big-budget ad for Smirnoff. “It really opened up a path,” he says, not least a spot on BBC gameshow The Greatest Dancer.

Present in our interview is Fonseca’s collaborator, Harry Jardine, a fellow choreographer, dancer and rapper who he met in 2019, when the pair were performing together in a touring production of The Wind in the Willows. Through his friendship with Fonseca, Jardine learned to sign; they wrote the show Follow the Signs together over lockdown and he is on stage throughout, fulfilling the role of Fonseca’s voice.

“I wish I could say it was hard and I really struggled,” Jardine says of his initial attempts to pick up BSL. “Talking about sign language as this unattainable thing isn’t helpful,” he adds. “So many times, I’d be like: ‘Chris, what’s the sign for drink?’ he says, while motioning to pour a bottle towards his lips. “And he’d go: ‘That!’”

Bridging the gap between the Deaf and the hearing communities is central to Fonseca and Jardine’s next collaboration: A Night in Sign at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London. The event is billed as a BSL-led cabaret of music, dance, comedy, poetry and spoken word that’s not only accessible to both audiences simultaneously but also showcases and demonstrates the “plethora of talent that we have in the Deaf community”, says Fonseca. “The only thing that separates us is that we can’t hear – that’s it. We can dream, we can imagine just like the hearing community. It’s the hearing community that has made us feel unable to fit into the rest of society.”

Given the marginalisation he experiences as a result of both aspects of his identity, it’s only natural to ask if Deafness or Blackness forms a more significant part of his identity. “That’s part of the conversation we want to have,” he says. “The Black Deaf community is very small, it’s a micro-community among Deaf people and that’s why I want to raise awareness of all the different nuances … There was a time when I was ashamed to embrace my Deaf identity. I would tell Deaf people not to use sign language [because] I wanted to fit into the hearing community. I didn’t want people to see me as Deaf.”

Throughout the interview, Fonseca is unafraid to compare his experiences of being persecuted, ostracised and excluded for being Deaf to his parallel experiences as a Black man. “There’s so little awareness of sign language out there and that’s where the fear stems from. If people are afraid to say the word Black, they’ll say BAME, or they might say PoC. Just use Black – it’s fine, we’re cool with it. It’s the same with saying ‘hearing-impaired’,” he says. “That’s an awful term. It implies that there’s something wrong.”

As much as Deaf creatives continue to experience a lack of access, Fonseca is adamant that tokenism is not the answer. “When BLM happened, the Black deaf community wasn’t part of the conversation. There’s a lack of common sense and a lot of performative allyship, so they’re like: ‘Oh, sign language is beautiful, let’s just incorporate that, great.’ But they never actually think about what’s needed to make the show accessible … I’m an authentic deaf person – [in my work] Deafness is not an afterthought. It’s a priority.” Key to changing the mood music around Deafness is sensitive and well-informed representations of the community in popular culture. The films Sound of Metal and CODA, which went on to win the best picture Oscar last year, reflect an increasing number of Deaf stories. “Whether it’s Rose’s [Ayling-Ellis] Strictly win or a film or TV series, it’s really crucial to have that representation there,” says Fonseca. “It just breaks those barriers and opens doors for the rest of us.”

But given Fonseca’s strong line on tokenism, I wonder if he can forgive the casting in CODA of lead actor Emilia Jones, who wasn’t herself the child of a Deaf adult? “It’s an interesting casting choice but, you know, she’s a brilliant actor. The question is: did they really want to show the authenticity of a coda’s experience? Or were they just making a Deaf movie for the clout? I can see both sides.”

Currently, Fonseca is working with a dramaturg to bring Follow the Signs back bigger and better in 2024. There are also nascent plans to develop a Follow the Signs film, “a proper 90s-style dance movie”, says Jardine.

“I’m thrilled the show has a future life,” says Fonseca. “It’s been so important for me to share my story with an audience but I’m proud of my struggles and hopefully my story will empower other people – not just Deaf people – to overcome barriers and become more confident.” One of the barriers Fonseca has overcome is working as a choreographer on mainstream shows that tell stories unrelated to deafness or disability. “I don’t want to always be the Deaf choreographer on the Deaf project. I’m just Chris, that’s it.”

Both Fonseca and Jardine are clear however, that while they’re conscious of Follow the Signs’ importance, it’s a joyful celebration of Fonseca’s life – a chance to see identity explored through music and dance. “It’s not a Ted Talk or a lecture. It’s very much a theatrical experience,” says Jardine. “At the end of the show Chris asks the audience, ‘How many of you here are hearing and out of those hearing people, how many of you have never met a Deaf person before? Well, come and meet me in the bar!’”

“Chris always talks about keeping the journey going. Don’t let this be the end.”

High Times and Dirty Monsters is touring from 9 October to 25 November; tour starts Liverpool. A Night in Sign is at The Globe: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, on 16 October.