Is It Time to Reevaluate Onstage Portrayals of Mental Illness?

May 10, 2020

Giselle has lost it. Her beloved Albrecht has deceived her and is betrothed to another woman. Upon the discovery of this betrayal the “fragile” Giselle descends into a grief-driven psychosis in perhaps the most famous moment in classical ballet: the mad scene. She collapses, tears at her hair and recounts her dance with Albrecht in a haunting physical reenactment as she hallucinates. Eventually she dies from a broken heart.

Dance is going through an important moment of self-reflection right now. Whether it is rethinking dancers using blackface in La Bayadère or modifying the Chinese variation in The Nutcracker, we are (finally) questioning if our stalwart commitment to the classics is tone deaf, and even offensive, in the modern world. And while the ever-complicated conversations around race continue in popular culture, an equally important conversation is happening around mental health. Do we need to change the way we depict mental illness in dance?

The portrayals of distress can feel clichéd—Lady Capulet writhing on the floor, or, in Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre, the animalistic woman in the attic or the corps of men in Jane’s path to illustrate her mental demons. But as someone who has a lived experience of major depression, anxiety and grief, these representations do not offend me. When Giselle begins to recount the steps from her pas with Albrecht, her feet dragging on the floor, her focus somewhere else, is she not doing what we all do when we are brokenhearted? We remember the beautiful moments, the love we felt, and we question if it was ever real. Is Giselle really hallucinating, or are we being granted a glimpse into her mind? I don’t think it matters.

I cannot criticize the way a choreographer portrays mental illness because there is no singular, “true” experience of depression or schizophrenia, for instance. How it feels to be depressed has common criteria for diagnosis, but one person’s depression may leave them lethargic, while mine often sent me into manic fits of partying.

If we become too precious about these depictions in dance, it will work against a meaningful movement to destigmatize mental health issues. If art is to speak to the lived experience, it must include representations of mental illness because, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults in the U.S. alone will experience mental illness in a given year.

When I began to ponder this topic, I asked several dancer friends for their gut reactions. Every woman I talked to immediately questioned: Where are the depictions of male mental illness? Why must women always be shown as “weak” and “emotional”? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men are less likely to seek mental health treatment than women and are more likely to die by suicide. The dance field could help dismantle the stigma simply by representing it more.

But I was left feeling uneasy about the frequency of supposed “weak” women onstage. Because there is nothing weak about experiencing grief or suffering from mental illness.

Most of the “madness” that I see in dance is connected to grief. Clinicians even used to be directed to rule out grief before diagnosing major depression. That is how normal extreme manifestations of mourning are—it is expected that you may exhibit traits common with mental illness. One can argue that Giselle’s choreography isn’t actually an unrealistic depiction of loss—even science has shown an increased risk of heart attack when a person is grieving.

What I find most problematic about expressions of mental illness onstage is how we expect dancers to be vulnerable, but still espouse that they need to be “tough enough” mentally without providing them resources to address their own personal challenges. During the creative process, particularly in contemporary and modern practices, dancers are commonly asked to explore their most emotionally wrought life experiences to inspire movement, but often there isn’t so much as a phone number for a mental health professional provided. A moving portrayal of Giselle‘s mad scene is one of the pinnacle achievements of a classical ballerina. But we seem to refuse to see that ballerina with the same empathy and humanity as the fictional character she plays onstage.