Dance transforming lives, lives transforming danceRita Kohn
Dance Kaleido-scope's partnership with the Indiana Juvenile Corrections Facility resulted in a public performance at Ben Davis High School as part of the 2005 Spirit & Place Festival. For this critic, it was the most important dance work of the year in Indianapolis, as it carried the possibility of making a life-long impact on the lives of a number of people. The process of the project, which can be transported to other juvenile facilities, might also help turn lives around on a broader basis. From a local, artistic point of view, "Turning Points" took dance to another level for DK dancers. What started as an idea proffered by Larry Hurt, Ben Davis Art Department chair, was wholeheartedly embraced by DK as an outreach project - but was approached cautiously by the Corrections Facility. No one had done anything like this before and it was fraught with the risk of failure and further damage to the young women at the facility. How "Turning Points" became a success is the story of a clutch of individuals who wouldn't give up on each other. Lynne Webster, DK's director of education, chuckles about how right it now seems, but at the outset, she admits it took perseverance. "Government people don't think of dance as a part of their high school education for young offenders. They do have writing assignments, so we decided that the young women would write about what brought them there and DK dancers would put movement to the stories, poems, rap songs. I can't tell you how much these girls wanted to tell their stories once we demonstrated what dancers can do to show feelings. We opened for them another way of thinking." Five female DK dancers met one-on-one with the facility students after having read their pieces. Liberty Harris and Mariel Greenlee spoke by phone following the performance and reflected on what impact the project was having on them. The dancers agreed "there was so much there" and most of it was "unpretty." They found themselves going counter to what dancers strive for. They quit being concerned about virtuosity or perfection and concentrated, instead, on getting the message of the writer across. "It stopped being about us as dancers and became totally about us as the spokespersons for these young women." "I know we actually did make a difference in these girls' lives," Harris said. "I think it was good we never gave up, we never let them down. Someone actually stayed with them. I have a feeling they couldn't trust people. I hope they now know people can be trusted." "I never had those problems," stated Greenlee, adding, "whatever was ailing me as a teen-ager, I could dance it out. Now I wish I could grab [Jessica, the student whose story she choreographed and danced. But who could not be released for the public program] and put her in my body and have her feel the sense of sharing. It's not only the dancer feeling how she [Jessica] feels, but the audience feeling with the dancer." Webster reinforces the point. "Who is changed here? There were 15-year-olds in the audience. One commented during the talk-back session, 'Those girls made bad choices.' But another dialogue began taking shape when a parent countered, 'How lucky you are. This may be about what you have and they don't have.' The initial harshness was examined." Audience, dancers and offenders alike were finding another way of thinking, seeing, connecting. Only two of the five facility students could be present at the public performance, and only Macy, age 16, could be visible to the audience. Macy performed as the narrator, reading everyone's words. She says of herself that she changed from someone who was very quiet to a person capable of standing before an audience as the spokesperson for others. For Tamara, age 16, the experience was powerful. A victim of domestic violence, she was released to the half-way facility in Lawrenceburg prior to the performance. Her father brought her to Ben Davis High School, reportedly having to borrow money for gas. But he is convinced Tamara's writings are therapeutic for her and he wants her to continue. Speaking for herself in a process of healing, Tamara said that because she and Macy "had become friends inside," she wanted to support Macy, and surprise her by being there. "It's not very often that you get to show ugly and gritty aspects of life," Harris said. "It's a very important thing for all of us to reflect on, to do as artists." Melanie Schreiber, Jessica Johnson and Jillian Godwin were the other DK dancers in the project. Kaylie, age 15, and Shanna, age 18, were the other Correctional Facility students.