I recently had the opportunity to attend the preview showing of ThySelf, the latest piece by Victoria-based indie dance company Broken Rhythms. In this new work, the company’s artistic director and choreographer Dyana Sonik-Henderson explores themes of anxiety, identity, self-sabotage, and self-discovery. After the performance, Sonik-Henderson and the six ThySelf dancers (Carlene Brick, Jessica Round, Heidi Fox Lange, Christina Plaschka, Caleigh Hunter, and Sara Peddle) held a talkback session where they graciously accepted feedback and answered audience questions.
When watching the piece and hearing the choreographer and performers speak about the process, it is clear that this work was emotional, challenging, cathartic, and, at times, therapeutic for everyone involved. From an audience perspective, the performance spoke for itself but the added context was enriching and informative. Without question, this hour-long dance show is an absolute must-see, with the presence of a clear artistic point of view and a strong sense of narrative and message.
According to Sonik-Henderson, “[Similar] to my show SEVEN, ThySelf was born out of a place of self-reflection and a questioning of my own feeling of inadequacy and anxiety. The creation stage has been in the works for about two years, but if feeling anxious can be considered research then this show has been in the works for a very long time.” It is this sense of vulnerability and authenticity as an artist that allows Sonik-Henderson to speak so loudly and clearly through her choreography and her dancers. It became evident that while the work is deeply personal to Sonik-Henderson, she also allowed room for dancers’ own experiences to work their way into the piece. Her dancers demonstrate a strong grasp of the subject matter, as exemplified by Carlene Brick’s interpretation of the show’s themes.
“ThySelf is a show based on the individuality of human experiences,” Brick says. “It explores the emotions, thoughts, struggles, and empowerment that we all experience from time to time, while recognizing the individuality of those experiences.”
Fellow dancer Heidi Fox Lange elaborates, saying “We inspect the more hidden, icky internal conversations, shedding light on those parts and eventually accepting or embracing them.” Both Brick and Lange emphasize the importance of conveying emotion through movement, and how that idea is a through line in the show.
“… ThySelf was born out of a place of self-reflection and a questioning of my own feeling of inadequacy and anxiety. The creation stage has been in the works for about two years, but if feeling anxious can be considered research then this show has been in the works for a very long time.”
“I have a solo early in the show that can be a tough one for me,” Brick explains. “It’s not tough in the sense that I have trouble connecting; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. From our very first rehearsal I connected very strongly right away, which has made the performance element come quite authentically, but there are times where it hits me harder than others and it can be tough to turn that trigger off to move on with the show.”
Despite any internal struggles or challenges with the subject matter, all six of the dancers demonstrate remarkable control and intention when connecting their movement to their inner dialogue and emotions. When asked about this element of the work, Lange says “Because emotions are carried in our bodies, dancing is like taking the fast lane to the root of those emotions.” Lange goes on to give an enlightening description of Sonik-Henderson’s choreographic process when discussing her striking solo that appears toward the beginning of the piece, which centres on a repeated phrase of movement.
“Further into the process, Dyana had me explore more variety within the repeated phrase, breaking it up halfway through, pausing from exhaustion then building myself back up to attack the movement again but with more determination. Up until yesterday, for the break part, I would stop and breathe [and] pant, raise my arms sort of out of desperation, then bend low to gear up for more sets. And now I’ve been asked to instead repeat a suppressing-type gesture that Carlene makes in her solo that happens right before this piece. And already, I feel so much more connected emotionally.”
Lange’s explanation calls attention to the organic and experimental nature of Sonik-Henderson’s creative process. She asks her dancers to try different things, and as a result is able to make confident editing decisions. Furthermore, as Caleigh Hunter remarks, she is extremely open to her dancers’ ideas.
“ThySelf is a show based on the individuality of human experiences… It explores the emotions, thoughts, struggles, and empowerment that we all experience from time to time, while recognizing the individuality of those experiences.”
“Broken Rhythms is the most collaborative company I have had the pleasure of being a part of.” Hunter elaborates on her appreciation of Sonik-Henderson’s approach, explaining “Once we were about one month out from the show we all sat together as a group and just listened to the music in stillness. From there we pulled out common threads, themes, emotions, and narrative. Once we completed that, we then dove deeper into the meaning behind each movement and what we are feeling or drawing from in those moments.”
Brick reveals another example of the importance of collaboration in ThySelf, when speaking about one of the piece’s dynamic and exciting ending: “The show ends with the dancers all improvising in different areas of the stage. We’re all dancing to the same piece of music at the same time, but our movements are completely different from each other, and different each time we perform the piece. We were instructed to let our movements happen organically and to be authentic to where we are in that moment at the end of that particular show.”
Collaboration clearly played an integral part in the development of this work, not only between the choreographer/artistic director and the dancers, but also with other creative personnel. For this production, the company enlisted the knowledge and expertise of dramaturge Lindsie Nicholas.
“The role of the dramaturge was essential in the universality of this work and gave me an outlet to discuss themes and tough subjects in a safe space,” Sonik-Henderson says. “I also want to begin to expand the arts community in Victoria by developing artistic roles that can help the discussion of the arts move further.”
Nicholas’ keen sense of discernment for performance energy, conveyance of emotion, and storytelling was evident in her comments during the talkback portion of the preview showing, and she certainly had a positive impact in the work of all six dancers.
Sonik-Henderson also collaborated with lighting designer Emma Dickerson. Dickerson was working with a limited lighting plot during the preview showing, but nonetheless was able to provide an enticing glimpse of the lighting aesthetic that she will be using at the Metro Theatre, generally creating a strong sense of drama and atmosphere. One highlight came during an early solo in the work where two lights were actually carried on by fellow dancers, allowing dancers, lighting design, and props to function together to create a memorable and surprising moment.
One of Sonik-Henderson’s greatest strengths as a creator is taking moments or images that are unusual, iconic, or shocking, and weaving them into her choreographic landscape so that they work seamlessly in conjunction with everything else that’s going on in the piece.. The section of the piece that best exemplifies this strength comes toward the end when there is a very organic, flowing, experimental duet between Carlene Brick and Jessica Round happening on stage right, while Sara Peddle works with an extremely inventive and unconventional prop on stage left. While Sonik-Henderson certainly creates visual tension between the two hemispheres of the stage, she does so in a way that is meaningful, clear, and balanced.
In discussing this latest Broken Rhythms show, Sonik-Henderson says “We are training longer and harder than ever before, and I do have more trust in my creative voice. It has allowed me to continue to find my own unique movements with the help of my dancers past and present.” Sonik-Henderson’s strong vision and direction is present throughout the piece, but so is her ability to let her dancers explore their ideas and individuality. This company has worked together cohesively to explore dark, complex, and layered subject matter. The result of their exploration is a show that is atmospheric, haunting, and powerful.
Broken Rhythms has two more performances of Thyself, showing at 2pm and 7:30pm on Saturday March 17, 2018 at the Metro Studio Theatre in downtown Victoria. Tickets are $25 each when purchased in advanced on Ticket Rocket, and $30 at the door.