Art as a Survival Tool Series: I

Creativity and Mental Illness
Embracing a Life ‘Touched with Fire’

This blog is the first in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

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VanGogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

VanGogh and his ear. Marilyn Monroe and her everything. Mozart. Robin Williams. Nina Simone.

The history of performing arts includes a long list of wildly talented artists whose lives, affected by mental illness, cantered along an erratic, inspiring road to a tragic end. The romantic notion of the “tortured artist,” a genius driven by madness or insanity, gripped the public imagination of artists, creating, by the late 20th century, a tangled, unproven belief that mental disorders play a root cause in high creativity.

While headlines reported that a recent study found a genetic link between creativity and mental illness, the headlines misrepresented the data, which only found that creative people—such as performing artists and entrepreneurs—are more likely to be predisposed to mental illness by genetic variants. In sum, it’s a weak link although helpful in advancing the overlap between creative brain functions (ingenuity, for example, or intense curiosity coupled with a desire to express it to other people) and their relationship to mental disorders, which are typically characterized by an inability to control brain processes like impulsivity. According to the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, a correlation exists between creative people and people diagnosed with mental illness. However, the study does not confirm a direct genetic link between creative genius and mental illness.

Perhaps, for now, it’s helpful to think of creativity and mental illness as roommates as opposed to conjoined twins.

The relationship between creativity and mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, remains a fascinating one, and bipolar comedian Joshua Walters discusses his “mental skillness” resulting from the “hypomanic edge” of his condition that drives him to do something everyone else thinks is impossible. Walters credits writer John Gardner with coining the term “hypomanic edge” to explain how to identify the gifts of an unordinary, unorthodox mind. In her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison links attributes of great artists like Virginia Woolf with bipolar disorder, citing a person living with the creative drive as touched with fire, an internal burning to express which may consume the person who lives with it.

The need, then, becomes reframing the notion of the tortured artist to a non-judgmental acknowledgement of the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Great artists do not need to be struggling with sanity in order to be great, but for many who do—and will—living with the disease depends upon their ability to creatively express themselves. We cannot overstate the importance of the performing arts in providing a vital function for millions of people world-wide and for allowing creativity—and madness—to have a productive outlet.

In the spring of 2015, pop singer Demi Lovato took bold moves to advocate for de-stigmatizing mental illness when she launched a media junket to tell her story of struggling with bipolar disorder and finding recovery. Her initiative, Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, encourages people to talk about mental illness, advocating for a supporting outlook on mental health issues and empowering people to make a difference.

"Heart Attack" singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

“Heart Attack” singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

Neuroscientist Adrienne Sussman, in her article for the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, notes that artists’ ability to see in alternative perspectives and present them in unexpected ways benefits audiences as well : “By altering images in particular ways,” she writes, “art can have a more powerful impact on the visual and limbic brain areas than reality—causing an emotional resonance, a sense of meaning and beauty that the real world rarely produces.”

After all, states neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason, whose work centers around studies of creativity, “people with mental illness enrich our lives. There’s so much stigma attached, but if you think about it, we wouldn’t have had VanGogh without the mental illness.”

The association, Andreason notes, between artistic people and mood disorders and mental illness, requires attention. “It’s wrong not to support people with mental illness,” she states, primarily because humans whose minds live in the common ground between creativity and mental illness do make great contributions to advance society.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Performing art and participating in art allows humans to navigate the fires within—in our hearts, our souls, and our minds.

New NGB Artistic Director and Dance Department Chair Philip Neal Brings Legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine

In June, Philip Neal officially joined the Patel Conservatory as the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet and chair of the dance department, the position formerly held by Peter Stark.

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Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for West Side Story.

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell in rehearsal.

George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were to American dance what Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were to baseball. Heavy-hitters, game-changers, larger-than-life personalities, Balanchine and Robbins hold some of the world records of great dance: Apollo, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Jewels, Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, West Side Story … their list of works goes on and on.

Dancers who emerged from New York City Ballet, where Balanchine and Robbins heralded the dawn of American ballet as an international artistic achievement, included Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Arthur Mitchell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques D’Amboise and Edward Villella.

A few generations later appeared a young, focused 12-year-old at NYCB’s training school, School of American Ballet (SAB), named Philip Neal.

During a master class at School of Richmond Ballet, Edward Villella hand-picked Philip for SAB. Philip, who trained at Richmond Ballet until he was 16, cut his teeth in SAB summer classes with the legendary teacher Stanley Williams. Often, Philip found himself in class surrounded by NYCB principals including Baryshnikov.

“My first day at the school, I knew,” Philip said in a recent interview with Caught in the Act. “I wanted New York. I wanted New York City Ballet. I realize a lot of 12-year-olds don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but I did.”

Philip continued to train at SAB during the summer, attending another school during the year, with his eyes always on a spot with New York City Ballet. At 19, he joined the company, immediately thrown into principal roles because his height matched the rather tall ballerinas suited to Balanchine’s style.

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Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal in Albert Evan’s “In a Landscape.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

His first rehearsal was with Jerome Robbins. “We were working on a piece of his called Ives, Songs. He put me in a demi-solo role, but I couldn’t do lifts. I was really skinny then. Jerry was hard on me in that rehearsal, so I went to Pumping Iron, a gym in El Barrio on the very Upper East side of New York and started working out. He was hard on me, but he pushed me to be better. I was 19, so in no time I was beefed up, lifting the girls, and like, ‘Jerry, look! I’ve been working out!’ and Jerry got a kick out of that.”

Philip arrived at SAB in the very last years of Balanchine’s life. Philip and his cohort group were the last generation of dancers to grace the halls while Balanchine still worked. When “Mr. B” emerged from a rehearsal room, Philip recalls, dancers silenced, the space filling up in reverential awe. “But, by the time I started with NYCB in 1987, he was gone. Even as a 12 year old, when I got to SAB, I could feel it in the walls, the creative power. The work he created was all around, living inside the place. I got to know Balanchine through the people, and we were the first ones to receive the choreography as it was being passed down.”

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Philip Neal in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Paul Kolnik for New York City Ballet.

Philip performed for two decades with NYCB, touring the world and training constantly in Balanchine’s and Robbins’ styles. “Jerry called me in on almost all of his rehearsals, so I was able to study, to train in his work. He was direct, he was always like “no, it is this way” whereas Balanchine was more of a figure-it-out-for-yourself choreographer, more open to his work adapting to different dancers. Balanchine has a little wiggle room, but Jerry? No.”

The yin-and-yang dynamic between Robbins and Balanchine is well-known in the dance world and often cited in historical accounts of the wildly prolific and popular era of NYCB during the duo’s heyday as the company’s artistic powers. In fact, it’s legendary. So, it is no small honor for Philip Neal, who began his career with NYCB in a Robbins rehearsal, to have performed in the choreographer’s beloved Dances at a Gathering at Robbins’ funeral. “The last thing Jerry worked on was a piece for [NYCB principle ballerina] Kyra Nichols and me, before he died. I know how lucky I am. I know how blessed my career in dance has been, how charmed. Of course there were struggles, and challenges and all that stuff you hear about, but I was so in love with ballet that I had blinders on for any drama that was going on around me. I lived for the dance. I felt more comfortable performing than doing anything else.”

When Philip left NYCB, both the Robbins and Balanchine Trusts engaged him as trust holder of the great choreographers’ works, what is known as a repetiteur, or, someone who has been approved by the choreographers’ trusts to set their works on other companies. Philip joined the direct lineage of these master dancemakers, and, now, he brings this legacy to the dancers studying at the Patel Conservatory. While it remains to be seen whether or not either trust will approve NGB in the lengthy process to get Robbins and Balanchine work staged, the gift of their technique and inspiration has found its way into the exceptional Patel Conservatory dance program.

Philip Neal with student - photo by Mike Munhill

Philip Neal working with a student. Photo by Mike Munhill.

“I think it’s important for people to know I’m not turning this into SAB,” Philip said. “I’m kind of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it guy, and so much is in place here already. So much is really good. Bringing the Balanchine and Jerome Robbins influence into the program here will help us be better at what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re a preparatory school. When dancers leave here, they should feel comfortable picking the company they want to go into because they’ve been technically prepared. Peter did an extraordinary job building this program, so my transition has been simple. The Popular Dance program is also fantastic. I want to bring more of the dance world here, giving the students as much information as possible. This is a very exciting time as we evolve.”

Truly. We welcome the legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine to Tampa, to the Straz Center, and we are honored to have the living history of these legendary choreographers shape our dance students at the Patel Conservatory.

Philip, Neal, NGB students

Next Generation Ballet dancers with Peter Stark and Philip Neal.

These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

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Official theatrical poster for Trash Dance.

Several weeks ago, we came across the remarkable 2012 documentary Trash Dance that follows Austin choreographer Allison Orr as she collaborates with the sanitation workers of Austin, TX, whom she has cast as the stars of her latest community dance project. Not all of them are enthusiastic about it.

Orr, whose other projects include firefighters, an Austin police officer, Elvis impersonators, blind people and skaters, came to the attention of filmmaker Andrew Garrison, who was looking to make a dance film as a personal challenge. He happened to catch up with Allison as she began “The Trash Project.” Garrison’s film tells their story. We dare you not to tear up during the performance at the end. It is that glorious for the sanitation workers who participated.

The film, which so humanely looks at the basic point of sharing dance as a thing which sprinkles magic in everyday life, succeeds not only as a great story well told but also as a dance film—a difficult feat since capturing the nuance of emotion and dancer-to-audience connection causes many a well-intentioned dance documentary to fall flat. So inspired were we by this film that we made our own Straz Center Synchronized Cubicle Dance Company music video of our hard-working, behind-the-scenes employees (see below), and we had to talk with Andrew and Allison about the making of the film.

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Film Director Andrew Garrison.

“The project combined several key ideas I have been working on for most of my life—the transporting and fulfilling power of art as practice and as community and communication, and stories from and about people often misrepresented in the media or under-represented,” Garrison told Caught in the Act.

“When I started shooting [film of] Allison and the employees, what I found was a group of very strong people working hard to make their lives and the lives of their families better. They all had very full lives already—they did not need Dance to rescue them. They came as experts and equals with something to share with Allison, and she treated them that way. So, I loved seeing all that and having the opportunity to portray it,” he said.

Orr’s artistic philosophy centers around the simple ideas that art connects and art belongs to everyone. Her most recent project, The Trees of Govalle, featured the City of Austin’s Urban Forestry Division and the trees of Govalle Park, situated in one of East Austin’s oldest neighborhoods.

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Trash Dance choreographer Allison Orr. Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy of Forklift Danceworks.

Orr, who earned an anthropology degree before pursuing a degree in choreography, spent her teen years and early adulthood volunteering in public health and social work, specifically for Amigos de las Americas, traveling to Latin America. “I worked as a community organizer there and learned so much. It opened my eyes to the world. I wanted to work in community, and I wasn’t a pedigreed dancer. I knew I was never going to be a successful performer, a stage dancer. The thought of making dance alone in a studio terrifies me,” she laughs.

Orr’s first work of choreography featured the campus employees of her liberal, progressive all-women’s college—the groundskeepers, maintenance and facility workers—doing their movements in a free lunch time performance spanning three days. “That was transformative for me,” she says. “In one performance, we sat in the cafeteria and watched one of our campus employees, a man whose work was almost invisible to us, work on the windows surrounding the cafeteria as we sat inside listening to a translation of him describing his job, what he did for us on a daily basis. People were in tears, and I actually didn’t choreograph his movements. He just did his thing as we paid attention.”

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Choreographer Allison Orr rehearsing. Courtesy of Andrew Garrison.

That moment helped define Orr’s aesthetic of anthropological choreography, finding the virtuosity of movement from people who are trained experts in their everyday and work rhythms; paying attention to them doing their thing as a work of dance art changes the conversation, elevates our ability to appreciate the people in our neighborhoods. It tells a different story.

“I ask people, ‘what do you do that you love?’, ‘show me the movement of your job,’ and I try to understand their expertise. The choreography emerges from that, from my research after embedding with them in their lives.” For one year, Orr rode routes with the sanitation workers of Austin, interviewed them, and studied their movements to create The Trash Project.

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Performance with cans. Courtesy of Andrew Garrison.

“This is the way I can make the best art. I can’t get a trained dancer to do their movement. I have to get a sanitation worker to do that movement. They go to work every day practicing the technique of their skill. I’m asking them to show their virtuosity in their movement skill,” she says. “It has to do with wanting to be authentic. I couldn’t make this art any other way. There is extraordinary virtuosity in the movement of these skilled workers.”

One of the sweetest aspects of the film is watching the relationships between Orr and the workers soften into friendships until the viewer also feels a sense of knowing, as much as possible in a film, the people behind the uniforms. Does she keep up with them once the project is over?

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Crane operator Don Anderson rehearsing. Courtesy of Andrew Garrison.

“Hanging out is the best part of my job,” she says. “Don [the crane operator] is a good friend. He’s a celebrity now. Any chance I get to see them, I do. We have an alumni Facebook page, and my big dream is that one day I can have a giant party and invite everyone who’s been in a project so they can all meet each other. I want to hang out with them. Many of us do come to care for each other.”

Of her success with these community dance projects, Orr takes a long view. “I get to go into these communities under the cover of being an artist. It’s much easier than just showing up and saying ‘hey, I want to hang out.’ We work together, we create art, and then the relationships develop. My life is enriched by these projects, and my life is so much fuller because of these relationships. I hope we continue, as a company, to figure out how to keep building the community after the project is over.”

We hope you enjoy Trash Dance as much as we did. Check it out on Netflix or buy a copy from Andrew’s Trash Dance website.

For more on Allison Orr, visit Forklift Danceworks.

For more on Andrew Garrison, visit the Trash Dance website.

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Performers and choreographer Allison Orr take a bow. Courtesy of Andrew Garrison.

Here is our Straz Center Synchronized Cubicle Dance Company music video starring the large cast of Straz Center non-traditional dancers. Thank you, Andrew, Allison and Trash Dance, for inspiring us.