Bridging the gap: being the change you wish to see in the industry

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Words by Claire Pearson and Hannah Friebel

Hannah Friebel once had a ballet teacher tell her, “Hannah, if you applied the same work ethic you did to ballet, to anything else, you would be unstoppable.”

In interviewing Hannah, it’s easy to see why her teacher said this. Hannah’s intelligence, passion, and determination is clear. She is not only a professionally trained and experienced dancer, she’s transformed her life by applying her strong work ethic to other areas too.

It was after Hannah’s own experience of mental health problems and the mental health and hospital system in 2015 that things really changed for Hannah. Since then, Hannah has integrated advocacy for mental health and wellbeing into her practice, completing her Bachelor of Arts and Psychology in 2019. It was during her own recovery period that Hannah reflected on mental health literacy and awareness in the performing arts, particularly in the dance industry. She also considered what she had seen others go through in the industry, many of whom had struggled with mental health problems without getting the support they needed, often for fear it would impact their next opportunity.

Entertainment Assist and Victoria University’s report: Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry: Final Report 
(van den Eynde, Fisher & Sonn, 2016) put numbers to what Hannah had been seeing and experiencing. This report showed higher prevalence of common mental health problems across the entertainment industry, including the dance industry, than what is seen in the general population.

Hannah believes in the value and necessity of mental health education, and was struck that discussions of mental health was not a normal part of dance education.

As a highly physical art form, Hannah shares that the use of the body and the, “complications that come with that” in dance are not always fully realised by those outside of the industry.

“You are using your body and emotions and being so vulnerable and putting yourself on the line on stage day after day after day – that has an impact.”

In June 2020, Ausdance released the findings from research that was conducted earlier in the year to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the dance community. As of June 2020, 1693 dance workers were impacted, 44 professional projects lost and a total of approximately $2 million dollars of income. When you combine the existing mental health challenges of working in the dance industry with the impact of something as disruptive and devastating as COVID-19, it’s clear that positive, cultural, systemic change is needed to ensure our dance community can thrive.

Hannah has absolute clarity on this challenge. She says that as long as the priorities of dance companies is on what the audiences see, rather than what is happening behind the stage, “we’re never going to be able to give duty of care to the dancers who are creating works. I’m of the opinion that the way we care for our artists in society actually measures the health of our society.”

The capability, interest and engagement with creating mentally healthy workplaces varies greatly across the performing arts industry. Some companies are at the forefront of best practice, while others proceed without considering the needs of the team members involved, and many companies falling somewhere between the two extremes.

As the conversation around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace intensifies, and a shift in legislation may be on the horizon, the need for designing creative work and workplaces with mental health and wellbeing front of mind is critical.

“[Currently], there is very little independent regulation around these things and very little way to hold people accountable to mental health best practice, and what I call psychological safe dance practice:”

Hannah is actively contributing to moving this conversation forward in a positive meaningful way. Through the creation Grace Dance Company, she aims to help bridge the gap between dancers and mental health practitioners, and ensure conversations about mental health are at the centre of creative practice.

Sincerely Survivor. Image supplied.

The inaugural production of Grace Dance Company was Sincerely Survivor, which explores mental health advocacy through the arts. After experiencing the impact her own mental health crisis had on limiting her dance practice, Hannah shares that, “through Sincerely Survivor, I’ve found a way to reclaim my dance practice in the context of mental health.”

Originally meaning to be a ‘normal’ live dance piece, COVID-19 hit and Hannah and co-creators had to adapt quickly. Fortunately, the team had more than 50 hours of footage from five different residencies, and were able to utilise this treasure trove to create a digitally accessible 50-minute work.

Sincerly Survivor was then delivered online as part of the 2020 Melbourne Fringe Festival, as well as Adelaide Fringe Festival, and is soon to premiere internationally. The piece has been described as a, “powerful, raw and personal production,” (Adelaide Fringe Feed, Critic Reviews, MindShare).

Hannah explains the aim of creating Grace Dance Company is so she can provide a safe space where people with lived experience of mental health problems can find healing through the arts, peer support and storytelling.

“A way to tap into that unspoken element of mental ill health…and really provide a bridge between the broader mental health community and the dance community.”

Sincerely Survivor involved several residencies in its creation, with dancers performing in real abandoned psychiatric hospitals and asylums, many of which have an unfortunate history in their care for patients. Hannah shares that as part of Sincerely Survivor, “We wanted to go into these spaces and honour these stories.”

Sincerely Survivor involves challenging and sometimes confronting themes, engagement with unusual physical spaces, and exploration of high risk material. Hannah was determined to make the work as safe as possible for the cast and crew throughout the entirety of the creative process. Examples of this included:

“You can’t actually put everything into words. Not everything can be a tick box…This is a way they [the audience] can look towards someone with lived experience and actually understand it through the lens of empathy and artistry. It is art enabling empathy, and really learning to hold space for the stuff that happens outside of words, and happens outside of numbers, and happens outside of anything we can express verbally. This is an offering. I wanted to do my part to tell my story in the hope that others might find the strength to share theirs and find their voice as well.”

With regards to positive change in the dance sector, Hannah believes there are some key steps to create a thriving dance community, which, even before COVID-19 were well overdue. Hannah sees great opportunities for positive change across mental health, wellbeing, inclusiveness, and diversity, and that education is a great place to start.

“We need to educate our educators. Educate our directors. Educate our dancers.”

Hannah depicts what developing a safer and more inclusive dance industry could look like – one in which ensures stories of lived experience are heard, and focuses on:

Critically too, Hannah notes that another cultural shift must occur with how we perceive our creative identity. Self-worth in the dance industry in particular may benefit from a renewed sense of what a relationship with dancing means in terms of identity and purpose.

Just like Hannah’s dance teacher told her all those years ago- that she could be unstoppable if she applied herself to any area of life she chose, Hannah wants other dancers to know they must believe in themselves and that their knowledge, skills and experiences are transferrable.

“You don’t have to only dance. Dance is not your only interest. We need a future of diversity and sometimes that looks like cross disciplinary practice. Dance cannot be your own only identity. We must safeguard against that. It’s about how we identify, and we have a relationship with dance.”

Hannah once felt unsure as to whether she could continue in the dance industry. But now that her dance practice continues through Grace Dance Company, she has a firm belief about the industry going forward.

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no future if it is not inclusive, and if it is not diverse and if it is not sustainable. And this is my commitment for reform. This is the future I want to be a part of.”

For more information on Hannah and her work, visit hannahgabriellefriebel.com | gracedance.co | sincerelysurvivor.org

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