“In 1887, a journalist by the name of Elizabeth Cochren went undercover as a mentally ill patient to report on the truly horrific conditions within psychiatric hospitals,” proclaims a voiceover track. The voice continues in the dark at Gabriel’s Corner, introducing various studies on sanity, including one where researchers planted “sane” patients in mental hospitals to see how long it would take them to be sussed out and discharged. (In an extreme case: 52 days.)
Choreographer and Western Kentucky University Dance Company member Hannah Scott uses this material as a springboard for Mind Mechanics, a series of six dance vignettes that explore the stigmas and the anguish behind mental health diagnoses. Scott says, “My hope is that this body of work will inspire a better understanding of more severe disorders from the perspective of those suffering.”
In my experience, art reflecting on mental illness can go one of two ways: down a path of caricature or one of empathy. Mind Mechanics takes the more challenging and rewarding path of compassion. The work avoids easy categorization — “Oh, this one is about schizophrenia” — instead focusing on patients’ emotions and reactions: frustration, fragility and hopelessness.
The most evocative vignette to me, “Maelstrom,” uses a distorted soundtrack to push a woman in and out of mental lucidity. As the music changes, we see her waltz through a happy memory, only to snap back into confusion and panic moments later. It is hard not to hurt for her. That might be us some day.
Mind Mechanics’ choreography is sharp and clear. It can also be jarring or even grotesque, but it remains accessible. The company is comprised of three powerful dancers: Scott, Bernadette Turnage and Sabrina Sieg. Each performs as a soloist and in ensemble, and it would be difficult to say which approach is more effective. The dancers have distinctive styles and builds, so it feels surprising when their ensemble work reveals tight harmony. The team uses a few props, all of which I could have done without — a mirror, a mask and a piece of red crepe paper create the most expected moments in an otherwise innovative series.
The research that fueled Mind Mechanics’ “experience-based choreography” was funded through WKU’s Faculty Undergraduate Student Engagement (FUSE) grant, and admittedly the piece does feel at times like a senior thesis project. That said, I left wishing I could read more about the research and the stories that inspired the performance’s various elements. Scott “hopes to one day explore the subject further as a dance/movement therapist.” Mind Mechanics is a success as a stepping-stone for Scott and as an evocative gift for Fringe audiences.