Ever since I was a child, I’ve danced.
It’s been like the air to my lungs; a deep part of the fabric of my existence.
There was never such thing as an empty space – each abandoned building, rental, corner store; a space simply made for movement, imagination, and creativity.
My vision for dance came at a very young age.
Truth be told, dance led me to the light in my darkest of days. When I was 16 I danced the role of the White Faun in my high school production of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. My character was central to the story and introduction of this magical Narnian world; I led the four children to the lamppost… and to their realisation of wonder.
This sense of wonder has remained in me since that day; that dance has the possibility to open up magical realms and make room for the telling of stories and eternal truths.
Dance has been the avenue for me to find my voice; my primary choice for communicating my story. So please join with me as I attempt to share in the written word, what dance has offered to me, and what I hope it can offer to you too.
In 2015 I endured a mental health crisis that resulted in my involuntary hospitalisation for two months and ongoing recovery thereafter. I still wonder what caused this episode – a mix of stressors that saw my entire world view come crashing down. I had graduated high school the year before and hoped with every part of my being that I would be able to study Contemporary Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). This was my only desire for my life after year twelve. However, upon receiving a letter declining my application, things started to fall apart. Very quickly I swung to my opposite extreme and enrolled in a Bachelor of Commerce/Laws – following in the footsteps of my Accountant father.
Since undertaking Narrative Therapy with Nicole, I have since realised that my mental health crisis was perhaps less to do with my letter of decline from the VCA and more to do with my denial of and abandonment of my own life narrative.
My studies in Commerce/Law were gruelling. I had panic attacks in most classes and felt like I had to uphold my parents’ expectations of me in pursuing what they called ‘a viable career path’. I remember trying to bargain with them to let me withdraw from my course and study dance; creating a 30 slide PowerPoint presentation that I showed both my parents and grandparents (featuring theological citations also to back up my claim). As the eldest child of two very successful parents, in my entire upbringing, I had faced an uphill battle to pursue a career in dance – with very little support shown for the creative arts. My existence as a dancer felt like a protest. Nevertheless, the resilience I developed in my childhood through my continuing to show up and dedicate time to my training I now credit to my resilience and grit in many other areas of my life – especially my mental health recovery. Dance taught me so much. My ballet teacher once said that if I were to apply the same work ethic that I did to dance, in any other setting, I would be unstoppable. This still rings true today.
So back to the story… I was hospitalised in April 2015, on an involuntary basis, for two months. Merely 18 years old, young, blonde, impressionable, and in the middle of a manic episode, I was admitted into an adult’s public psychiatric unit in Dandenong. My parents had to come every 4 hours and request that I was specialled by a 24/7 nurse to ensure my safety. I was not safe. At one point I was locked in solitary confinement for hours, as a means to keep me safe from violence on the ward. I was moved to a children’s unit within a week thanks to my parent’s advocacy and remained in a high dependency unit for a month. During this time, I was told I couldn’t dance. My only glimpse of the outside world was of a barbed wire fence, a chipped painted flower mural, and a tar spongy floor. No grass. Only a glimpse of the blue/grey/cloudy sky if I looked up.
That’s what I had to keep on doing. To this day, that’s what I must keep on doing to find my hope.
My experience of the mental health system was one the darkest and traumatic times for me. It helped to stabilise me, sure. But no healing could come from that place. To this day I am adamant that I will never return to that place.
A year passed, and I re-enrolled in a part-time dance course at Deakin University. My parents didn’t flinch once. ‘We just want you to be happy’, they said. I grieve that it took them so long to work this out.
It was in and through my engagement in dance that my deepest healing began to unfold. I found my recovery through the rhythm; realising that the dance was within me all along. In 2017 I picked up studies in psychology because I wanted to learn more about my own mental health, and how I could help and advocate for others so that they might not have to face what I went through in the public mental health system.
And in 2018 I began some of my deepest workings yet; through the project Sincerely Survivor. This work is an extension of my own personal recovery from mental health and the Victorian mental health system; acting as an invitation for people with mental health lived experience to find healing through the arts, peer support, and storytelling. Over the next couple of years, I would run a number of artist residencies in abandoned psychiatric spaces in regional Victoria. This work was a protest. This work is a protest. A way for me to reclaim my experiences of the system; re-authoring my story – as Narrative so beautifully puts it. We advocate for mental health through the Arts; creating art to enable our empathy. In Sincerely Survivor’s debut work, which opened at Melbourne Fringe Festival this week and runs until the end of November, dancers take the role of pilgrims, exploring these asylums of old. We are inspired by submissions to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System and seek to amplify the voices and stories of people who have lived experience of mental health.
You can watch the TRAILER here.
This year, along with the debut performance season of Sincerely Survivor, I launched the vision of Grace Dance Company. Our vision launch was made on World Mental Health Day via the Seed Incubator Program and represents an attunement of all of my passions and skills coming together. Grace Dance Company’s mission is to care for dancers and communities through artistic practice and cultural storytelling. We prioritise mental health inclusion and seek to advocate for sustainable and diverse dance practice. The vision and launch of Grace Dance Company seeks to respond to the unique needs of the dance industry and our broader communities in our collective COVID and mental health recovery.
I would love to invite you to join us on this journey of care, mental health advocacy, and story-telling as we embark on a new voyage into unchartered waters. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Grace Dance Company’s Seed Fundraiser via the Australian Cultural Fund, and I would love to extend a warm welcome for you to join me at our online production season for Sincerely Survivor. May you feel the strength of my embrace through our debut season this month (November 2020) at Melbourne Fringe Festival. Bookings can be made directly through Melbourne Fringe.
All in all, I feel my Narrative journey has been like a winding road; with many ups and downs and much growth in between. Interestingly enough, my protest has almost always been shared through my art – and I think it will forever be this way. To exist as an artist in Australia is protest. As I tell my story and make way for others to share theirs too – through the work of Grace Dance Company – the partnership and support of the Narrative philosophy runs deep. I am eternally grateful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hannah Friebel is an aspiring Psychologist with a BA in Dance/Psychology and Graduate Certificate of Divinity with a focus on Pastoral Care. She is the director of the newly founded Grace Dance Company – caring for dancers and communities through artistic practice and cultural storytelling, with strong mental health inclusion priorities. She has personal lived experience of mental health and the mental health system and seeks to advocate for mental health in the Arts industry and more broadly in society. She seeks to promote the sustainability and diversity of dance and creative practice. She has a multidisciplinary creative practice that is informed by therapeutic and mental health inclusive principles, seeking to amplify minimised voices in all that she does. More information can be found at www.gracedance.co and www.hannahgabriellefriebel.com