Dance Preview: Choreographer Kathleen Rea’s Men’s Circle – Dance Meets Psychotherapy

Kathleen Rea
Photo Simon Tanenbaum

Introduction to Kathleen Rea

Men’s Circle (Nov. 3-5) is Rea’s exploration of the vulnerability of men. She is the creator, writer, director and choreographer.

As a parallel career to her dance projects, Rea has maintained a private psychotherapy practice for 15 years. The wellspring of Men’s Circle was inspired by her own clients. Her life progression has been a journey from a troubled ballerina with an eating disorder, to a well-adjusted mother of two.

Rea studied at Canada’s National Ballet School, and was a professional dancer in Canada and Europe until she was 30. She performed with Ballet Jorgen, the National Ballet of Canada, and Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, Austria. According to Rea, her body was too voluptuous for ballet standards, so her solution was bulimia. From the age of 15 to 25, her life was dominated by the eating disorder. Only during her last five years as a dancer did she have her health back.

Frames of Control (1996) choreographed by Kathleen Rea
Photo by David Hou

Her interest in psychotherapy was an outgrowth from her battle with bulimia, and she practices a specific type of arts-based treatment. Her acclaimed work Frames of Control (1996) signalled her victory over both the eating disorder and her poor body image. The clever ending featured a naked Rea jumping through a door frame to freedom. The ballet years also took their toll in other ways. Rea stopped dancing when her knees ran out of cartilage. Happily, she discovered contact improvisation, which allows her to keep moving, as it were. As a choreographer, she regards herself as a storyteller.

The Interview

We should really start with how and why you became a psychotherapist since there is a direct connection to your new piece Men’s Circle.

When I sought out treatment for my eating disorder, I looked for arts-based therapy because I’m an artist. Most therapies for eating disorders involve a reward system through food, but my treatment involved working out problems through the arts – healing through the arts, and I fell in love with it. I studied at The Create Institute which offers a three year Masters program in expressive arts therapy training. It’s affiliated with the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. I spent the winters in Toronto and the summers at the school. My Master’s thesis ultimately grew into my book, The Healing Dance: The Liife and Practice of an Expressive Arts Therapist, which was published in 2013.

Can you give me an example of arts-based therapy?

Having the client draw pictures as a way of expressing a problem. Telling stories opens up new perspectives.

You call yourself a storytelling choreographer. Can you explain?

 I first fell in love with ballet through the amazing stories it told through movement. In contemporary dance, stories are not popular, but all my dance pieces have a narrative line. The stories in Men’s Circle are told through text, song and dance. Tristan Whiston is my dramaturge, and we’ve worked on nine projects together. He helps me with the script, and sits with me in rehearsals making sure that the stories are getting told. He works on acting moments with the dancers.

How did you discover contact improv?

Bill Coleman
Photo by Olya Glotka

I had done some contact in Innsbruck so I was familiar with it. When I came back to Canada in 2000, I missed the feeling of family that you get from dancing in a company. I founded the Wednesday Contact Jam at Dovercourt House so I could be surrounded by a community of dancers. About 30 to 40 people show up each Wednesday, and I bring in a different musician each time to provide the live music that we move to. Dancing with people makes me so happy. I also teach contact at George Brown College.

What is it that you love about contact?

For me, it’s about following momentum, in your own body or with a partner. In contact you’re a momentum surfer.

Besides your clients being an inspiration, Men’s Circle also has a connection to your oldest son.

Wyatt, who’s seven, was diagnosed with high functioning autism. In marking his symptoms, I saw that I checked all the boxes when I was younger. I was extremely sound sensitive and socially awkward. It explains many things about my life. When there is an autistic meltdown, I know that we have to be removed from the sensory overload. I know what situations we have to avoid. Autism does not mean that something has to be fixed. Autism does not mean that you have to figure out what’s wrong. Autism means you accept what you have to do. One of the characters in Men’s Circle is inspired both by my son and by my own experience.

Photo by Olya Glotka

Men’s Circle is all about vulnerability. You certainly have taken a very sympathetic approach to the male experience.

There’s not a lot of room in our culture for talking about men’s vulnerability issues. The Movember movement, which wants to raise awareness about men’s mental health, calls the suppression of male emotions and feelings “the silent epidemic”. Suicide is the number one cause of death in men between the ages of 19 and 35. As well, men make up 75% of all suicides in Canada. The discussions about rape culture and accusations of sexual assault and harassment where women are victims dominate the news, but there is a “nurturance” gap in terms of men – by that I mean the physical and emotional nurturing of men. If we taught boys compassion and empathy, if we let boys cry, there would be less women victims. We have to create a world for boys that is not so narrow. We need to have a bigger conversation about men and vulnerability. Men’s Circle is about letting men tell their stories – giving them a voice.

Since your piece is storytelling, there must be characters.

There are seven characters, each with his own vulnerability. All of them belong to the same therapy group. Actually, the idea of a therapy group came later because I needed a connective tissue to link the stories together. The narrative follows the characters as they go through their individual journeys which all involve a learning curve. I gave them regular guy names so the audience could relate to them.

Rehearsal photo by Olya Glotka

Can you describe each man?

Joe holds back on his emotions, hiding behind bravado humour. He learns to weep. Kevin is high functioning autistic, a music savant who still lives with his parents. He loses his virginity and learns how to make friends. Matt is the most unstable and his emotions overflow. He becomes suicidal, but then he does find some grounding. Ran is the youngest. He’s at the group because it is court-mandated. He was caught selling drugs, and feels he’s “too cool for school”. Hercules grew up in a rough neighbourhood where he saw a lot of death. He wants a career as a ballet dancer, and is a perfectionist because he believes that, for a black man to get ahead, he has to be better than everyone else. He has faced systemic racism. Frank is the ghost of a client who killed himself, and he follows the therapist around. He can’t leave until the therapist forgives himself. And finally, Michael is the therapist, and he needs healing too. Frank was in a previous group. He had called the therapist for help, but Michael was too late to stop Frank’s suicide. When Michael is finally able to forgive himself, he can help the men in his present group. Incidentally, Harold Tausch who plays the therapist started a men’s support group 25 years ago, and it’s still going strong. (For the performances, the role of the therapist was played by Paul Lewis, due to Mr. Tausch’s illness.)

How do these stories play out in choreography?

The other dancers are support people for each story. For example, Matt comes from an unstable family, and this is shown through the other dancers lying on the floor, and Matt walking on the unstable surface of their bodies. Or, Joe reveals he failed grade two, so they all celebrate with a failed grade two party.

Contact improv is done in the moment. How is this handled in Men’s Circle?

Rehearsal photo by Olya Glotka

The show will be different at each performance because 25% is completely improvised. It’s structured improv so there are rules. For example, the dancers are given an emotional task and a specific shape that is different each night, and that they have to work out. There is also the breath canon. A dancer can only breathe when they touch a different part of a person’s body each time, or touch a different person. They perform in their underwear and they look both beautiful and vulnerable. The most impactful kind of theatre is when someone on stage doesn’t know what to do because its spur of the moment. It’s enhanced vulnerability.

You’ve got some really well-known dancers like Allan Kaeja and Bill Coleman. How did they happen to be in the piece?

All of them come to the contact jam. That’s how I know them. I just asked them to work with me, and they all said yes.

Men’s Circle, presented by REAson d’être dance productions, Betty Oliphant Theatre, Nov. 3-5. Tickets: