Cathartic Art Shares its Mission and Art in a blend of Dance and Documentary

Cathartic Art is a collective of artists gathering together to uphold practices of compassion and transformation through dance, spoken word,  and performance art. Founded by Jill Collins and Kirsten Ajax, the self-titled film directed by Hollis-Sherman Pepe is both a media performance and an advocacy piece for the mental health. 

The opening solo choreographed and performed by Kensiwe Mathebula was a powerful performance evoking the imagery of writing our personal stories down both on paper and through movement. She dances outdoors in front of a brick wall on which she writes “Kalamazoo” through her movement. Methebula is a dynamic and passionate performer who is bold and strong in her movement, rolling, falling, balancing, and extending through the naturally lit space. 

Olga Kramarova performed a solo drawing from Armenian cultural dance set in front of the Western Diocese of the Armenia Church of North America. The hauntingly beautiful choreography of Vanoush Khanamirian paid tribute to the Armenian Genocide. A physical unleashing of trauma and grief was beautifully captured in black and white set to music by Ara Gevorgian. 

The film includes interludes of spoken work word? voiced over images of the dancers in lighted studio space. These quieter moments used the movement of the camera to capture more intimate and personal introductions to the dancers’ bodies. Spoken word was also used in the piece entitled Water written and acted by Kirsten Ajax and set outdoors in a pool. Water played with color and texture as well as the imagery of baptism and rebirth. Ajax’s red hair against the pale blue of the water was beautifully captured as she beseeched, “sweetest demons that I have, be kind to me.” 

The climax of the film came with a contemporary Middle Eastern fusion veil dance performed by Jill Collins and co-choreographed with Louchia Tchoukhi. The spirited and life-affirming movement included spinning, arching, swaying, shimmying, and more that seemed to cast off the fears and insecurities of the performer. It was a surprise then when the dancer ended cradling herself on the floor. It seemed the catharsis in this case was somehow incomplete.   

The film resolved as a trio of dancers who had appeared periodically throughout the film ended with a smile. The small group of dancers embodied both a sense of community and individualism in their movement as they wore flesh colored dance wear that revealed them as pure unadorned beings. They finished reflected in mirrors with a sense of peace, self acceptance, and perhaps even joy.

The 30-minute film was interspersed with brief interviews about the arts and their healing potential.  Featuring a number of arts educators as well as psychology professors, the speakers shared their own personal experiences with healing arts practices as well as commentary on the current social climate that lends itself to psychological distress and lack of wellness for many. Kensiwe Mathebula, Donavan Lerman, Olga Kramarova, and Abure Hill each contributed their expertise on how the arts can heal us in profound and sometimes inexplicable ways both through personal insights gained through the practice of the artform and the social support gained through a shared art experiences. 

Video projects such as this are one  way the dance and performing arts have been able to continue doing their work under the given circumstances. I’m sure many reading this have been at least invited to a virtual performance if not been a part of one! As dancers and educators, our coffers are not accustomed to the costs of media production, yet we do our best. This film was done quite well, with clear choices in the editing and crafting of the piece over the thirty  minutes. It was part performance and part advocacy for the work and as such, it makes me hesitant to critique the “dancing” or “choreography” because the goal of the work was not as much aesthetic as mission driven. Thus, this film that argues the value of process over product is beautiful in modeling exactly this value. Having watched this film in the same week as I witnessed Beyonce’s Black is King visual album, I find myself reflecting on the value of art that is consumed versus the value of art that is self-produced. Art for healing may be captured on film or documented and shared on video, but, in a world of likes and hearts, perceived value can quickly change the artist’s experience. 

For those interested in the arts as a means of self-revelation and process-based discovery, this film is a great introduction to the collective and will be a great resource to draw from as we continue to navigate these particularly strange COVID restricted times. 

May the world dance. Dance often. Dance freely and wholeheartedly.

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