Hermosa Beach choreographer tackles mental illness with dance
Hazel Clark was on a walk listening to one of her favorite artists, Laura Marling, when inspiration struck.
“I was listening to her song, ‘My Manic,’ and it just hit me,” said Clark. “I just saw a mental institution and a set with a man struggling with schizophrenia and a woman in the institution in love with him.”
Clark, the Artistic Director/Choreographer of Kairos Dance Company and Puttin’ On Productions Theatre Company, a local ensemble of professional and university dancers in the South Bay, recently won the Rocky Mountain Choreographer’s Festival in Utah. Because of her win, she was asked to present a full-length work at Peery’s Egyptian Theatre in Ogden, Utah.
“I saw those images and thought, ‘Oh my God how am I going to make this an entire length work?’” said Clark, who then began researching mental illness and realized it was a more prevalent issue than she originally thought. “In the ‘60s they used to lock them in mental institutions but now they don’t. Look at the amount of homeless people we have. Now we don’t lock them away anymore, but we kind of throw them out… Everyday we see them, but we just ignore them. They really have serious issues that aren’t being taken care of.”
At the time of the dance’s inception, she was deep into a season of AMC’s Mad Men and was profoundly inspired by the television show’s ‘60s-themed wardrobe.
“At that time is when institutionalization was happening,” said Clark. “People were coming in and finding the horrors that were happening in mental institutions and I thought it would be awesome to do it during that time period to give the audience a chance to see what it was like back then.”
Clark decided to focus on treatments like electroshock therapy, lobotomies and hydro therapy.
“People have asked me if I’ve suffered from some personal mental breakdowns. I think everybody has been touched by illnesses in their lives like depression or addiction,” Clark said. “Yes, I’ve had people in my life who have suffered, but honestly I was just talking a walk and listening to a piece of art that really struck me and I wanted to turn it into my art.”
She added that some of the scenes are dark, but many are hopeful.
“If you come to the show you should expect to learn more about what’s happening in our society today with mental illness,” said Clark. “You should also expect to have a deeply moving experience. We touch on so many things – one piece is called ‘Group Therapy’ and it’s five women sitting in their chairs, and on top of their clothes they have these sashes of whatever illness they have…and during the dance they realize they’re so much more than that, and they pull them off and under that it says, ‘and a mother’ and ‘a poet.’ It really celebrates all aspects of who you are and kind of shows you its okay to admit that you have whatever it is you have, but it doesn’t define you as a person.”
Dancer Jessica Harper said that although it was an emotional piece to work on, it was worth it.
“Everyone can relate to feeling alone or depressed,” said Harper. “Not a lot of people want to look at issues with people that have mental illness. They think, ‘oh you’re bipolar, you’re all messed up.’ The reality is that [there are] so many people out there who struggle with this.”
A spokesperson from NAMI LA [the National Alliance for Mental Illness] will introduce the show and talk about the statistics of mental illness in society today.
“It’s a dark piece, but there are comical aspects of it and light parts,” said Harper. “There is a lot of light and beauty in it. We’re all human, we all have issues. It doesn’t matter if you’re diagnosed with anything or not, everybody can relate.”