Principal dancer István Simon is a man with a mission. He founded Praetorian Non-Profit Art and Health Consulting and the project Taming Our Trauma “with the aim to enable a safe and creative choreographic space, whilst rehabilitating the art of the artists, dealing with traumas experienced during the pandemic and lockdown, as well as traumas encountered throughout the professional or personal life”. It came about because of experiences that touched his life directly and he aims to help others. The mission is stated: “To develop new working and communication structures to respond to the most urgent topics of the dance profession today. Such as the need for anti-abusive practices, inclusive and tolerant environments, and solution-oriented processes.”
Over the summer he formed a “safe choreographic space” with four dancers who worked together with the choreographer Andreas Heise to start exploring some of the issues that Praetorian Non-Profit was created to explore. I talked to Heise – whose choreography was summed up in a New York Times review as “sharp, clean, elegant” – about how he became involved in the project.
István and I met in 2015 and realized quickly that there was a mutual interest in each other's work. Since then we have worked creatively on several projects and created our own work culture. I think that was why Borglárka Simon-Hatala [an expert in dance medicine] and István Simon asked me to take part in the project in the first place.
Can you explain what the project is?
Taming Our Trauma was a scientific research and model project to explore new communication patterns in a creative space through the use of choreography and through sensitivity for the individual trauma history of those involved in the project. In other words, we aimed to use artistic means for the participants to improve their mental health. In a larger context, we want to improve the social health in dance institutions and gain new tools for sensitive, productive, supportive, and safe interaction with the individual in our organizations.
And what made you want to participate?
Being able to make a difference in the dance community by exploring and developing new structures for the way we communicate and work together in a creative environment, is one of many topics that I am interested in. In addition, I was very interested in learning more about trauma related to dance education and the dance profession, and how one can utilize the art of choreography to cope with, come to terms with, or even attempt to heal certain traumatic experiences.
So, apart from the dancers, who participated in the project?
We had a team of four mental health experts to provide us with a safety net in the event of a crisis. We had regular group and individual sessions on trauma with clinical psychologist Lilla Gerlinger, on trauma related to the dance profession with counsellor and psychotherapist Terry Hyde, and relaxation and mediation with psychologist Seema Prakash. In addition, we had physiotherapy sessions with our scientific leader Borglárka Simon-Hatala. István acted as our project manager and took care of the overall organization, including all administrative, logistical, media and press-related matters. This safety net has given us confidence and has enabled us to share very personal and sensitive stories about our professional and personal history. Furthermore, the entire process was accompanied and documented by videographer Pippa Samaya.
Have you personally had negative experiences in the dance workplace?
In my early career, I worked in a very old-fashioned organizational structure where the individual was not considered as a holistic being with emotions and feelings. There was absolutely no knowledge of leadership in relation to social interactions, sensitive personalities, or psychological aspects of humans. This type of work culture shaped me as a very young professional and had a very negative impact on my performance. Guided by fear and insecurity, I couldn't really develop or understand myself artistically.
But that changed when you joined the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo?
Fortunately, yes. I worked there for fifteen years and had a very fulfilling career with two wonderful leaders.
So what work have you been doing with the small group of dancers?
In the beginning, it was very important for me to get to know them and their personal stories. To do this, I used tools such as guided improvisation based on character traits chosen from Shakespearean literature. In this way, the dancers were able to choose the characters based on the traits that they were most attracted to and that had something to do with themselves as humans. The actual names of the characters were not mentioned in order to avoid biased decisions. It provided a certain structure for improvisation and formed the core of the choreographic work. In addition, I used exercises from baroque dance to investigate how the dancers deal with a very unfamiliar movement language and how they deal with possible stresses that may arise for them.
Some of these exercises also became the starting point for our creative work. The most important aspect for us was to always maintain continuous communication and exchange about our daily state. We did this through joint mediation, constant conversations about the state of mind and body, several games to relax, laugh and have fun, and through evaluations at the end of each day. This very transparent communication has enabled us to build trust and security to be able to access deep emotions and feelings in order to translate them artistically. The most important aspect of our approach was that humans have top priority over the artistic product.
Did this provoke anything that surprised you?
Yes, the biggest surprise was that even if the artistic product was not the primary goal of the project, we created a full-length piece of almost an hour. It happened almost as a side effect of all the theory lessons and conversations. It has proven that even in a limited amount of time you can connect, talk, and play and still have a quality product without physically killing yourself eight hours a day. I would even say that this is exactly why an authentic work of art was created.
What do you think that the dancers will bring away from this experience?
I like to believe that this process has raised awareness of how we want to work together in dance institutions in the future. I felt that we could empower the dancers with communication, creative, and psychological tools that can enhance their future endeavours, both professionally and personally.
And what have you gained from the project?
Taming Our Trauma has definitely strengthened my artistic values, my vision of leadership and the work culture that I want to create as a future leader.
In fact, you're completing your MA in Arts and Cultural Management. Do you think that this experience will help you as a manager too?
What was already rudimentary, was deepened by this process. The team provided me with skills and tools to improve socio-structural weaknesses in the dance sector. Our time together in the project has confirmed that it is not suffering and pain that are a necessity in order to create valuable art, but a mentally, physically and socially healthy person is at the centre of creative and artistically qualitative work. The more we understand this as directors, creators, and performers, the higher the chances are of making the dance profession as enjoyable and fulfilling as it should be.
Photos by Pippa Samaya
Find out more…
Trauma-informed approach for dance organizations – Beginning of a model project – Taming Our Trauma
YouTube – https://youtu.be/LPba2vEaNF0
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/p/CSYbdLzlkCG/
Facebook – https://fb.watch/7EmYicl5Nn/
Mind-Centering, Empowerment, and Motivation by Thomas Rohe – Taming Our Trauma – Praetorian Projects
YouTube – https://youtu.be/g7l2Wh-xLzs
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/tv/CTDGGHPDV8x/
Facebook – https://fb.watch/7EmVN8oJyV/
Having a CHOICE – Trauma-informed approach in Theater – Praetorian Projects
YouTube – https://youtu.be/cuBfRdpm0RU
Facebook – https://fb.watch/7O_iebL7wP/
Gardening Resilience – Rehabilitating the Art of the Artists
YouTube – https://youtu.be/waygWPYvVcM
Trauma Peace – Fair-treat choreography – Integrity, truth, authenticity & safety
YouTube – https://youtu.be/OTP9n4vU9_c
Highly CREATIVE, INCLUSIVE, and ANTI ABUSIVE choreographic space Praetorian's online OPEN HOUR
YouTube – https://youtu.be/Cub2ULKHCgE
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.