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'Unfinished' ballet portrays themes of mental illness inspired by Iowa City woman's story

Gazette - 11/11/2022

Nov. 11—IOWA CITY — For years, people like Margalea Warner have been recounting their experiences with mental illness to countless people.

The Iowa City resident often gives talks about her keys to success for living with schizophrenia. Each June, on the anniversary of her last release from hospitalization in 1995, the writer and retired secretary announces a new key to add to her collection.

This year's new key is called "Dancing in the Dark," inspired by a sermon she heard.

"What if, instead of running from schizophrenia, we danced with it?" she asked. "(Conveying) how hard and challenging it is balanced with how much hope there is. There's a strange beauty in it."

Through the power of dance, an associate professor of dance at the University of Iowa and his cast hope to do just that. With Unfinished, a new production in the University of Iowa's In Motion Dance Gala on stage this weekend, he hopes audiences will be able to feel what it's like rather than just hearing what it's like.

If you go

What: Unfinished, a ballet segment of the University of Iowa Dance Department's In Motion Dance Gala 2022

Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 Park Rd., Iowa City

When: Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m.

Details: Tickets can be purchased online from Hancher Auditorium or by calling the box office at (319) 335-1160. Tickets start at about $6 for students and $24 for adults.

"I wanted to help (others) understand, but I didn't know how," said professor Eloy Barragan, artistic director of the In Motion Dance Gala 2022. "We fear what we don't understand."

In 15 minutes, dancers will convey keys acquired from many hours of research with people like Warner as they reach for literal keys replicating the ones Warner keeps in her shadowboxes.

The production's theme, prompted in part by journalist Michael Judge's interview of Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, author of "Surviving Schizophrenia," gave Barragan a new understanding of what Judge and his family experienced. Though Barragan knew Judge for many years, the interview hit home.

Judge's older brothers, Steven and John, suffered from the symptoms of schizophrenia. John took his own life at 21.

Ballet can't solve the complex issues of mental illness, Barragan concedes. But by furthering understanding through empathy, he hopes to break the stigma for people living visible and invisibly with mental illness. Through the power of In Motion, he hopes Unfinished will illustrate illnesses that are hard for some to envision.

Set to Franz Schubert's "The Unfinished Symphony," dancers are taking the stage with representations of Warner's 27 keys, where they will interpret in great detail the symptoms and experiences of those living with schizophrenia. Schubert, who died in 1828 at the age of 31, struggled with mental illness, too.

After 17 years in Iowa City, Barragan said he's seen so many young people struggle to cope with mental illness. And like the symphony that was left incomplete when Schubert died, he has seen too many stories of those with mental illness go unfinished.

As the B-minor composition narrates a roller coaster of emotions, no single dancer is left unaffected by mental illness. Taking turns, schizophrenia symptoms affect each dancer individually, minute by minute.

First, audiences see them sweep their hands around their heads in circular motions, symbolizing the voices those with schizophrenia hear. Next, body contortions mimic the feeling of ants crawling over the body — an element borrowed from one man's experience.

Dancers seamlessly transition from elements like the graceful Tai Chi that Warner has mastered to jerky muscle movements that appear involuntary, replicating the experience of Tardive Dyskinesia that's often a side effect of antipsychotic medications.

Wearing calf-length dresses, the women bring individuality to those struggling with mental illness. Each dress style is different, representing the different levels of schizophrenic diagnoses, but each dress is the same off-shade of white, symbolizing their innocence as their bodies force them to undergo unthinkable experiences.

One dancer eviscerates another in a disemboweling motion meant to incorporate Warner's experience in a psychiatric hospital's "quiet room," where she was locked up in the worst moments of her episodes.

"It's like ripping your guts out, and you're tied up in a dark, quiet room," Barragan explained.

Silent, exaggerated arm swings at another point illustrate perhaps the worst feeling of it all: wanting to scream for help but being unable to.

"They listened to my story with empathy and compassion and worked hard to express what they learned from me," Warner said. "You get a real sense of what it's like to have paranoia, and voices."

While she hopes Unfinished will startle audiences into thinking about what others experience, she also hopes it will prompt viewers to be mindful of including those with mental illness in their communities.

"I don't tell people I suffer from schizophrenia. There's suffering in my experience, but I'm living with mental illness," Warner said. "With God and my community as my dance partners, I hope to persevere in a life of freedom."

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