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Art: Dance

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, the book Seasons of Grief: Creative Interventions to Support Bereaved People, edited by Claudia Coenen came out.  It included a chapter I wrote titled Out of Grief Comes Art.  In that chapter I profile seven different artists.  The questions I asked each artist were all the same: What’s your grief story? Why do you make your art? How do you make it? and What are your recommendations for others who are bereaved?

Katharine’s story had a profound impact on me and I wanted to highlight it here on the Grief Dialogues website.  Below is Katharine’s full story as they reflect on their sister and their sister’s addiction and mental health disorders, and the art that came from that sorrow. 

REMEMBERING

I grew up in musicals, musical theater, and that is where I learned about interpretive art. From the time I was seven and a half years old, I’ve been in musicals. I lived in St. Louis. St. Louis is very, very vibrant, with lots of opportunity for different dance styles and different community theaters and professional theaters that hire the local kids. For example, the St. Louis Municipal Opera would hire groups of teens or kids for the different shows.

Once they did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and hired 75 kids to be part of the professional production. What an incredible experience that was!

Theatre is my background and that’s where dance and movement became solid pillars of how I tell stories. Add to dance and movement the importance to me of “making it” in New York and performing in regional shows and also on tour. In 2014, I was selected through the Stage Directors and Choreographers Association to be an observer on Bullets over Broadway with Susan Stroman. I felt like I had finally made it. This was what I’d been working towards.

I do love performing, but I’m much more interested in curating and creating and being a part of the how, why, and the what of what’s happening. I was directing and choreographing so many other people’s work up until a certain point when I realized that their work did not have any real purpose beyond entertainment and I wanted my art to mean something more, bigger than my own interests. Working on Broadway was very eye opening for me. I was “in the room where it happens” but I was often the only other non-male at the creative table besides Stroman. It definitely revealed a lot of disparities. There was no Black or Brown representation or anyone else besides Caucasian people there.

For me this was devastating to my creative spirit. I realized that Broadway was not my pathway. It wasn’t accessible. It wasn’t inclusive. It wasn’t representative of how I wanted to create. This was not who my stories are for. I wanted to create work for marginalized folks who need and deserve a platform to be centered and celebrated. In order to do that, I founded my company, KPC – Keeping People Connected. We use dance as our universal language.

Changing minds by opening hearts through movement is really what we are all about. And we really do use every device of, of theater.

I began to create a new dance musical, I Could Never Love Anyone…

It’s part of a quote from Little Women: “I could never love anyone as much as I love my sisters”

And yes, I have two younger sisters, and we always say this phrase to each other all the time.

When we were very little, my middle SIS started to reveal co-occurring disorders. It’s been a lifelong challenge, challenges that come from her personal experiences and the challenges that come from substance use disorder, eating disorders and botched diagnosis of bipolar or borderline personality, and certainly depression.

When my sister graduated from college, our dad suggested that she stay with me, move to NYC, but I was rarely home, out on tour, and she was left to her own devices. As with so many mental disorders, it is necessary to build a foundation of support and connection. Otherwise the Mental Obsession of substance use disorder through alcoholism creeps in and takes hold. It was at this time her disorders really came to the surface and we began to understand what we were dealing with.

You can’t throw a stick without hitting somebody who is either personally dealing with substance use disorder or has a close family member or friend or a spouse who does.

She’s my sister. I would take every hit, every relapse, and viscerally experience them with her over the course of more than a decade.

It wasn’t something we talked about in my family growing up. It wasn’t something talked about in school. There was drug abuse and resistance education, but that’s not going to work on its own.

I had to do my own research over the years, educating myself through different pathways and resources to navigate these disorders.

Towards the end of 2013, my youngest sister and I sat down with our middle sister and we begged her to stop drinking and hurting herself.

I now understand, many years later, that it had nothing to do with how she feels about us or how we feel about her. She could’t just stop. She’s not doing anything purposefully. It’s not a willpower thing. It’s not a choice thing. It is a mental and physical disorder that she will carry with her, her entire existence.

But from 2013 to 2016, I started creating narrative based movement pieces because we decided to do something the rest of our family either couldn’t do or wouldn’t do. We would not enable her whatsoever. There was no communication. No phone calls or seeing each other in person. It was honestly like a death. My biggest take on grief is that it comes in so many forms.

Over the course of two to three years, my dance musical emerged: I Could Never Love Anyone…

Initially we shared with theaters and festivals, but it wasn’t everything that I wanted because at the end of the day, what I wanted was art that speaks to more people going through these lived experiences.

People would come up to talk with me after the performances: “Oh my gosh. You know, I had my brother, a father, and I’m dealing with that.”

It’s hard to get our work touring through the school systems, but it does make a massive impact on the young people. Much more of an impact that some police officers just standing up and talking at them.

We continue to push and create what we now call our “Pathway to Wellness through Movement”.

We have a movement workshop where I lead everyone through emotionally guided movement exercises. You don’t have to be a dancer or performer of any kind. We talk through different emotions like childhood joy, love, anger. And we ask people to think about someone they hadn’t seen in a really long time. How would they react if that person came through the door? What sounds would you make and what might your body do?

We talk about a childhood memory where they feel safe and taken care of. And then definitely we do talk about and move through grief. The very first piece of I Could Never Love Anyone… is aptly called There Will Be Tears.

Movement is an accessible entry point to reach the trauma, to reach the emotions and grief. Talk therapy is definitely a proven methodology of rehabilitation. I also think that incorporating some element of movement helps to release that trauma that lives in your bones and in your muscles, your body.

Putting this piece together changed how I felt about my sister and her situation. It definitely brought clarity. I understood what challenges she was facing daily and how it wasn’t about me. I did not need to take personal responsibility when she was in a relapse. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t affect me emotionally. But I no longer felt like I could have done something, which is a response many people have regarding their loved ones. I realized that I was going to be there for her no matter what. I’d be supportive, but I needed to set my own boundaries to keep myself healthy as well.

This creative work of grief is one of the major influencing factors with every piece I’ve created since. I  give voice to, or spotlight, some sort of a social injustice, in every piece KPC creates.

 

Why do you make your art?

I no longer think that grief only comes when someone actually passes physically from this earth. It’s much more complicated than that. It’s much more intricate than that. I created different pieces that spoke to the trauma that I was trying to work through. It started out as a personal journey for me to try to get out my feelings, feelings I didn’t know how to express in any other way, except through movement. And then that movement became a musical; it became a storytelling moment.

How do you make your art?

It’s different for each piece depending on the topic and how close it is to me. I Could Never Love Anyone… started because of a particular song, There Will Be Tears, continually playing on my device.

On shuffle it would keep coming up. And I was like, oh my gosh, clearly this piece wants to be created, so we need to do it. I’m much more interested in how to use movement as a way to elicit emotion or express emotion, as opposed to the thought that I want to move a certain way. The music has to make me feel something. It’s important to me that the movement stems from the emotional purpose behind it. What are we trying to say, what’s the story and how are we trying to say it? What is the emotion we’re trying to express?

What does it mean to you?

Our stories are universal. It started as a desire to understand what my sister was experiencing and what I was feeling and how that could reconcile through movement if nowhere else. It is so important to me to create work that is accessible and inclusive.

RECOMMENDATIONS

I encourage people to find an instructor or an educator, take a class whether it’s a yoga class or a dance fitness class or a dance dance class, or just a stretch or breathing class.

I also suggest that people become more mindful when using movement as a pathway to healing. But not always.

If you are in the thick of it and you just need to be physically exhausted to expel the emotions, the tension, movement is definitely something to take your mind off the present situation. There are definitely circumstances where it’s too much, and you really do need to do something to take your mind off the situation.

Focus on your breath. That’s all you need to do is — just breathe right now. You don’t need to do anything else. You don’t need to be always mindful and always aware. Give yourself some great affirmations. Give yourself some space. There’s no rule book. There’s no hard and fast prescription for the different forms of grief that each of us experience.

Katharine Pettit

Avatar photoKatharine Pettit is a Queer (they/she) intersectional artist creating mental healthcare and wellness resources through movement.

In 2016 Katharine founded KPC and gathered Performing Artists who were also activists to be a part of the creative collective.

KPC - Keeping People Connected is a multidisciplinary collective of Performing Artists who tell stories examining social injustices and stigmatized subject matter through dance, music, and conversation.

Believing in Movement as our Pathway to Wellness, KPC creates groundbreaking dance musicals that center and celebrate disenfranchised people, offering opportunities to process and cope with challenging lived experiences.

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