“Self Help”, a dance about mental health

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by Alina Mancino and Ira Stryha

A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to see some shows at the Thessaloniki Fringe Festival. Fringe takes place in different cities around the world and hosts performing arts works primarily by emerging artists. The environment is very friendly and exciting. We were particularly intrigued by a dance called “Self Help” created and performed by Charly & Eriel Santagado, the founders and directors of mignolo dance.

Eriel, 26, and Charly, 29, are sisters who grew up in Florida, USA. They both moved to New Jersey for college and now Eriel lives in Brussels to pursue her dance career while Charly is finishing her MFA in dance in Philadelphia. They both started dancing very young and never stopped since.

The piece “Self Help” was performed in an unusual space called Kat’s Place, a cozy living room in an actual apartment. Setting, music, clothes, and lights were simple, which allowed room for the depth of the piece. The audience sat a few steps away from the artists on a sofa and some chairs, completely immersed in the scene.

The piece is constructed on a dialogue between a patient and a therapist, which throughout the performance switch roles. The choreography is very detailed and based on a movement language called Movenglish, which Charly & Eriel are developing.

The audience glimpses multiple therapeutic sessions, and although the whole story is not accessible to the audience, it is easy to relate to parts of it and the spoken dialogue creates a sense of tension and curiosity.

We had the opportunity to interview Eriel and Charly about “Self Help.” Here are some interesting insights:

Why did you start creating this piece?

E: We’ve been working on a movement language called Movenglish and knew we wanted to work with text, specifically in the form of a dialogue, which we had never done before. We’ve both had a lot of experience with mental health and therapy and thought Movenglish would provide a unique lens through which to concretely discuss mental illness.

Is Movenglish a language that already exists or did you come up with it?

C: We’re making it as we go and it’s what my MFA thesis is on. At its most basic level, each word has a specific embodiment that is consistently used whenever that word comes up. I am working on the huge project of creating a full-fledged video dictionary. But the language will always be flexible. As in spoken language, we have agreements on what different words mean. With the body it’s the same. If the agreement changes, the movement changes. And after focusing for a few years on meaning, we have turned to explore the grammatical aspects of Movenglish.

Did you write the script or create the movement first?

E: We started by writing a big portion of the script, but then went back and forth between writing and translating. Some days if we were not in the mood for choreographing, we would work on the text and vice versa, but we never created movement before having the text.

During the performance the therapist becomes the patient and vice versa. What is the meaning of this switch?

E: There are a lot of possible interpretations. One that I often think of is the idea that there’s a therapy session happening in your mind. You’re both a therapist and a patient in yourself. When you’ve been in therapy for a long time, you are hopefully able to internalize what you’ve learned.

C: Another theme that emerges is that therapists are people too. We wanted to show a little bit of what the therapist’s psychological state might be. The more the piece goes on, the more the therapist and patient become less different. Our initially more formal and distant relationship evolves as we dance closer to one another and eventually make physical contact, even if we still have these roles of therapist-patient.

Why did you choose the topic of mental health? Why is it relevant to address this topic through art?

C: Because we’ve really struggled with it. When we started working on the piece, I could barely leave my house due to a major depressive episode. It’s interesting to work now on a text written in that period of my life. Luckily neither of us have ever felt particularly ashamed to talk about our own mental health challenges, and because of our openness, we feel a sense of responsibility toward doing our part to destigmatize talking about mental health. We’re hopeful that by broaching this topic publicly and artistically, others will feel safer to do so as well. If someone came up to me after a show to tell me about their mental health struggles, I would feel honored.

If you could describe this piece with a few words, what would they be?

E: Keep going.
C: “There is no other place I exist, only this cavern, these shadows, this mirror.”

We really enjoyed this piece. When it ended, we couldn’t speak for several minutes and had tears in our eyes. Charly & Eriel created a space of intimacy and connection that was very moving. As people that struggle with anxiety and mental health difficulties, we felt understood and realized that many people go through similar struggles.

The fact that the story is not fully legible made us realize that you never really know what people are going through. Sometimes even the “easiest” actions, like taking the bus or going for a walk, can be a huge obstacle for someone.

We highly recommend watching this piece. It has truly been a gift to experience it.

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