image: Hanako Maki
May 12 (Mother’s Day): My afternoon begins with my northbound train coming to a jolting halt at Bryn Mawr. Power out, a long silence, then an announcement from the operator to evacuate the train. He does not have the bored tone that you hope for from a CTA worker. I pray for him now.
Minutes later I watch two firetrucks project urgently striding people into the station, and later I have an honest conversation with a new friend once we relocate to a bus stop. “I’ve been there, you know,” he says, “but I’m fortunate to have the supportive mother that I do. She helped me get through.” He’s holding a small bouquet of purple flowers. “Not everyone is so lucky to have the love they need in their lives – or they’re not able to see it. That’s why words are so important.”
Community is important. Communicating within your community is important. Listening to members of marginalized communities that you are not a part of is important. Conversation is important – even listening to a stranger at a bus stop gave me more direction to unpacking the strange emotions of being a train car away from a suicide.
And so, Jordan Kunkel’s curated show on mental health, On Being Well, was a timely and welcomed finish to my day, summoning a sold-out audience into a cozily decorated classroom-turned-theatre-space in Edgewater Presbyterian Church to witness a wide range of personal experiences with mental health communicated through dance.
Since finishing a dance composition course and digesting from my own choreographic process, I’ve been reflecting on a question Chicago-based choreographer Erin Kilmurray posed to our class when she visited one day: When does a concept have to be a dance, instead of a poem or a speech or something? What does movement specifically offer to your communication?
In terms of mental health, I feel that displaying the connection of the mind to the body is an incredibly affective mode of communication, and an affective mode of investigation for dancers trying to understand their mental health. The mind and body have a bizarre physiological connection – I’ve learned from being a dancer that sometimes when I think my schedule too tight for me to function, it is really my psoas muscle that needs relaxing, and that uncaving a tense chest can cause an eruption of tears.
We are wrong in thinking that our minds are isolated tornadoes ripping through a separate dimension of our selves – they are here, in space, connected to every inch of our bodies. To understand that visually in dance is relieving. It amazed me in my own process that the frustration and confusion that feel like mysterious entities lost somewhere in my body could be brought out and structured when I saw my dancers performing my work. I read this product all over On Being Well.
Perhaps most commendable and consistent aspects of this performance on mental wellness was a genuine willingness to share, absent of a need to please or impress, which is such a refreshing and meaningful way to experience this kind of work. These were performances that the dancers and choreographers used to do authentic research on their mental health, and their investment made the space not only safe but generous. This Sunday night truly felt much more like a warm-fuzzy therapy session of art than a concert showcasing technique, and that is exactly what I am here for.
Since I am not a journalist and the careful crafting of each dance kicked my writer’s brain into full gear, here are my more detailed takeaways from each work in the show.
Burnout n. collapse due to overwork or stress – Jordan Kunkel
Beginning the performance, Jordan Kunkel’s work Burnout n. collapse due to overwork or stress opens with three dancers on stage: Kelsee Simons, whom I interpret as the subject, and Phoebe Coakley and India Monae Smith, whom I fill in as Simon’s thoughts. The dancers perform circular and exhausting repetitive movement that feels to me like a visual representation of falling down a rabbit hole of one thought. I appreciate that even in this tight space with audience members in their faces, these dancers are immediately invested in their own internal focuses and connectedness to each other, and the fullness of the desperation is so palpable, which makes the “overwork” and “stress” so clear and the storyline of emotions simple to follow.
While lyrical music can sometimes overpower choreography, Kunkel consciously allows for the powerful lyrics of State of Mind (a beautiful composition by her sister, Lauren Kunkel) to take up space in the dance. The dancers rest around the space and gently tap one hand on the floor or wall, and the stillness allows words to emerge and resonate, also displaying the exhaustion of the performers while thoughts continue to circle, as if they are never fully at rest. I also admire Kunkel’s use of the space: the circular pattern the dancers make revolves around a shoe that Simons took off earlier and does not return to until the end, like the revolutions are distractions from putting it on. And perhaps it was a happy accident, but I loved that Coakley ends up placing her hands on the radiator on the back wall, crawling down it and giving it her weight, rather than leaning on a wall that can suggest steadiness and support; she literally collapses onto a heater to illustrate “burnout.”
Dusphoriā – Margo Korn
Margo Korn’s self-choreographed solo Dusphoriā follows. The discomfort and mental processes that other choreographers like Kunkel have chosen to produce through imagery and relationships, Korn produces with energetic pathways in her own body, sending the audience’s full focus onto movement and use of space. Her body knows and is perfectly expressive of its internal struggles: she pushes and pulls; her body holds and releases; leaps over and rolls under intangible obstacles; takes a rest but not long enough; she captures space and then escapes, or it escapes her. She accesses seamless technique that makes the moving look effortless so that the types of movement themselves show the internal effort, confusion and curiosity, and her choreography has a rolling quality that is engaging to watch and suggests psychological continuum and endurance.
At the limits of Earth, extremity of the universe – Kelsee Simons
In Kelsee Simons’ At the limits of Earth, extremity of the universe, I see the way relational tension taxes mental health. The work starts with an instrumental version of Lorde’s “The Love Club,” and even in the absence of lyrics, I can’t shake the line, “I’m in a clique but I want out” as two dancers in identical costumes imitate each other. I follow an interpretation of the ins and outs of a relationship as they dance together, alternating between common positions, individual movement, and partnering, and eventually separating into solos. The second track used is M.I.A.’s “Go Off,” and one short lyric that speaks loudly in this dance is “when I was in your life, I was hella bomb, but I had to go off just to stay strong.” Strength and confident were key players in both dancer’s execution of the work, and with Simons choreography of lunges, athletic technical movement, and an entrance in heeled boots, added the layer knowing the self well versus being a chameleon. At the beginning of the work, Golonka removes her shoes and then Coakley’s and takes them off of the stage. What could be a kind gesture seems to me like a disabling. When Coakley reenters during Golonka’s solo with power heels restored to her feet and tosses her partner’s shoes toward her, towering over the dancer on the floor, I get strong “get on my level” vibes.
Balancing Lines – Gabriela Ortiz
Gabriela Ortiz comes next with Balancing Lines, another self-choreographed solo in which research on “balancing lines” is very evident. She works with gesture and lyrical music which makes the work easily accessible, and special attention is paid to the directionality of her arms, which move linearly in the space and sometimes look lost or disagreeable, sent across her body in different directions which confuses her trajectory. Near the beginning of the dance, Ortiz swipes her feet out from beneath her in an act of self-sabotage and consequently lands on the ground. For me, the rest of the dance is a rebuilding, a regaining, and a search for more empowering ways to move. She uses driving music and parts from “choreographed” movement once in a while to find the beat in her body. At first the episodes are shorter, as if she’s unsure about this method of letting go, and she gradually becomes more confident and joyful in the discovery, finding a jive in her body.
You Are Not Alone – Dana Christy and India Monae Smith
India Monae Smith and Dana Christy then present their co-creation You Are Not Alone, an intense and energized lyrical duet that seeks to relate their personal experiences and frustrations with other suicidal, depressed, and mentally struggling audience members. Their passion and commitment to this communication was so fully realized and the wildness they allowed into their bodies was refreshing to watch, even as someone who is not as in need of their message as others may be. The freedom and power of the bodies and resistance of their mental selves was brilliantly and proudly displayed. Most of the dance was also performed in unison, another nod to the strength available with community. I particularly stuck with an image of both performers in a headstand, which is at once a suggestion of perceiving the world in the wrong direction, and a calming practice that encourages blood into the head and is physiologically beneficial.
Something’s Gotta Give – Alexandra Ditoro and Sharidan Rickmon
Something’s Gotta Give, choreographed and performed by Alexandra Ditoro and Sharidan Rickmon, explores the building of stress. The dancers begin with pantomimed motions of separate morning routines; they are tired and unenthusiastic, even perhaps with underlying shadows of anxiety for what comes next on their agendas. In the contemporary movement that follows, I retain a sense of each person having their own tasks and troubles, but they also play with weight-sharing and interactions throughout, which tell a story of the necessity of reliability and care. In one prominent movement repeated by Ditoro and later adopted by Rickmon, one palm props up the chin like they are trying to relax or think, and the other arm interrupts it and winds around the structure until the arms tangle and the dancers have to escape out of their own limbs.
The work climaxes with Ditoro breaking into frantic thrashing upper-body movement, resulting in a wild whirl of arms that revisits a tangled image. Rickmon again follows suit, experiencing her own freak-out, which reminds me of the transferability of energy and stress in a tight community. In the panic, the two slowly separate from each other, giving each other space but also expressing an inability to help each other due to their own overwhelmed states. They end with a retrograde of the beginning pantomime, returning to their grinds with stresses not yet fully resolved.
I’m Fine – LOUD BODIES
I was happy to witness LOUD BODIES’ I’m Fine for the second time in this show – Maria Blanco and Yariana Baralt Torres are unfailingly honest in their performance of highly emotional work such as this one, which deals with anxiety. I’m Fine could be interpreted similarly to Something’s Gotta Give as a relationship between two people, but I went about thinking on the work as an internal dialogue and a testament to self-love. Blanco begins the dance downstage left, and interacts with thoughts as if they are external: continuously revisiting a cigarette like a caustic thought that pulls her back in, stomping it out only to recycle into a new obsession with this motion, then grabbing at thoughts like they are flying around her physical head. One unique image from this section is Blanco continuously dropping onto her hands and pushing herself back to standing, reminding us of the capability of the self to catch itself (and the inability of anyone else to do that work for the self). Another image I love from this section: Blanco taking hold of the external thoughts and eating them, only to create another installment of apprehensive movement, as the thoughts are not suppressed but internalized, and quickly resurface.
Meanwhile Baralt Torres sits in a chair upstage right, completely in her own head but seemingly reacting to the emotions of her partner on the other side of the stage, as if she is the external view of the same person. Blanco crawls toward her counterpart, and as Baralt Torres’ faint shaking magnifies and becomes uncontrollable, cautiously hovers her hands close to her friend’s body and then calms the commotion at contact. Thinking of treating oneself as another person is often beneficial to self-care, and as one dancer looks at the other, their faces are full of care and concern; they stop obsessing over the lack of control and watch the shaking happen with patience.
Ode to Self – Jordan Kunkel
In her solo work Ode to Self, Kunkel speaks a poem to herself as she dances, her gaze inward and investigatory. It is not a performance but an allowance to witness a relationship with her mental self and her body, and the way both of these things move as one inseparable expressive unit. The movement she creates is not always gentle – she throws around sharp movements mixed with contrasts – but I can’t describe the dance as anything other than soothing. Her relationship to herself is thankful, forgiving, and loving, like if her body rebelled and fell over instead of doing choreographed steps she would say, “oh this is what you want to do? Let’s do this then.” At one point she pulls her body up into a fifth position that feels like holding the height of a breath, and relaxes out of it, moving into transferring kisses from her hands to her lower body. Dance can be stringent but offers abundant opportunity to teach someone to love themselves, to decompress, to gain understanding of the body: “know thy self,” she tells her body. To me, the dance says, “here I am in my beautiful body doing beautiful things – it is a gift to myself to love it and to move it this way.”
There is some kind of chaos that is only fully able to be expressed with the body. Words can express thoughts, but mental struggle is more than thoughts – it is an internal rolling, quaking, a clenched fist, a tangle of limbs, a fall and a catch, a capture and an escape. Emotions become tangible when viewable in people’s faces and bodies, and dance provides one of few environments where this can be presented free of stigma, so I thank Jordan for making a space for these creations on an array of mental health issues and encourage other makers to explore this area, because we artists know that all societal progress begins with art making.
And for our own minds…. When we feel unable to be organized, we remind ourselves that our minds are as structured and purposeful as parts of a body, as trainable as bodies in dance. And any dancer knows that bodies are not perfectly agreeable – but we are most successful when we are patient with them, when we respond to their needs, and when we are listening to them ourselves and sharing their voices with our communities.
Lydia Jekot is a senior undergraduate at Loyola University Chicago pursuing dual degrees in dance and English. Her own choreographic work entitled “Habeas Corpus,” which addresses clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church, was recently performed at Loyola and is still in progress for a second showing in the fall. She has upcoming performances with Pivot Arts, Going Dutch Festival, and Alluvion Dance Chicago’s Emergence Showcase.