Roberta Jean’s Ways of Being communicates hope

Words by Josephine Leask.

As we enter the Lilian Baylis Studio, a woman (Stephanie McMann) is lying crumpled on the darkened, smoke-hazed stage. She restlessly shifts position, trying to find a comfortable place to rest on her front. A haunting refrain of a woman’s voice sings on the accompanying soundtrack, “she’s had a heavy day”. McMann’s body language prompts memories of chronic menstrual pain and the futile searches for comfort and stillness. But there’s something more serious at stake here than physical pain. Choreographer Roberta Jean’s Ways of Being is a performance that comes to terms with her lived experience of Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) and the severe mental health problems it triggers. Rather than wallowing in the pain, uncertainty and depression that are symptomatic of PMDD, Jean responds creatively to its challenges, together with a team of exceptional artists.

Ways of Being centres around a ‘hunt’ for cures and remedies that will help her find a way through periods of pain and severe depression. Investigative somatic-based movement, an atmospheric visual landscape by Hollie Miller, Jude Christian’s poetic narrative incorporated into Jonathan Webb’s soundtrack tells Jean’s remarkable story, of living with this debilitating condition: the failed conventional drugs, the descent into dark places and the discovery of alternative healing methods.

McMann – who’s also performance and rehearsal director – dances a long and anguished solo, slowly unfurling her body from the floor to move in space. Joined by Katye Coe, Maëva Berthelot and Nicole Nevitt, the four women lead us on an investigative journey, physicalising responses to conventional cures to herbal medicines, somatic experience and finally psychedelic drugs. Their sensing and reflective language is shaped by somatic practice, contact improvisation and releasing. Each dancer enters the stage quietly, one at a time, gradually revealing their distinctive movement personalities. At first they are enquiring and internalised as they check in with their bodies and the space around, registering feelings in small actions and moments of stillness. Then they connect with one another, dancing as a community.

From the way they are moving, I think about what somatic experiencing might look like; a form of movement therapy that helps people cope with trauma by inviting them to respond to physical sensations in their bodies. They perform small wafting hand motions as if expelling something from the body, or larger circular arm gestures that suggest a gathering in; constantly moving with and through discomfort.   

Christian’s script, created together with Jean and in consultation with Dr Ben Sessa develops a beautiful, complex text, rich with metaphors that position suffering female bodies in relation to the physical manifestations of landforms, water, fruit and mushrooms. Philosophical musings about space and time describe the repetitive cycles of depression that come and go. I don’t follow it all, but Christian’s warm, chatty delivery grounds some of the more obscure allusions to mushrooms or black holes and dimensions of time into which a traumatised body might disappear. Her words are a commanding presence even as they come and go, that both unsettle and reassure. When Christian describes the preparation and experiences of taking psychedelic drugs such as MDMA and LSD, she sounds like a therapist guiding a patient through the phases of a trip.

When her words stop, the dancers take over, interpreting the effects of psychedelic therapy, choreographically. In surges and waves of activity, they start cautiously, then embody the manic release of energy and the plateau of the psychedelic experience. Nevitt shudders and shakes in convulsions that send her body juddering, spinning and bouncing across the stage. The others are charged up but more self-contained. In their hair-fringed, hippy costumes and ecstatic faces, they could be part of a 60’s summer rave. Dramatic lighting casts them into intense purple spots one minute or fleshy pink hues the next. But Jean is careful to distance her work from the hedonistic territory of recreational drugs, using text and choreography to portray psychedelic therapy’s potential for positive change. Christian’s voice explains how such drugs can help depression by allowing long-term changes in behavioural and sensory systems and by making new connections between neurons in the brain. In a finale that feels restorative, the four women file in one behind the other to run in a relaxed fashion across the stage. The curved line they form conveys an image of togetherness and freedom; the healthy, rhythmic travelling motion suggests a healing journey. While Ways of Being draws no conclusions, it does communicate hope.

Header image by Emli Bendixen.