When I was five years old, I fell in love with Margery Williams’ classic story The Velveteen Rabbit. That year I asked for my very own velveteen rabbit for Christmas. At the time, stores only sold stuffed rabbits around Easter time. My mom searched high and low and finally found a stuffed rabbit for way more than she could afford in a Yorkville toy shop. I loved that rabbit into being real and it kept me company through the trials and tribulations of growing up.
One could say that this production of The Velveteen Rabbit ballet has been in the making since I was five years old. But it officially began in 1999 when Bengt Jörgen asked me to create a ballet for his company Canada’s Ballet Jörgen. The Velveteen Rabbit was the first story that came to mind. I pulled my old stuffed bunny out of its keepsake drawer and asked the Ballet Jörgen prop builder to build a life sized version. I then worked for months choreographing the ballet and was able to see the stuffed rabbit come to life on stage.
Last year, Bengt asked me to remount The Velveteen Rabbit. It has been an extraordinary gift to come back and reshape a work fifteen years after I first created it. I bring to the new production a wealth of experience and knowledge that my younger self did not have. I am now a mother of two boys and the eldest is almost five, which is the same age as the character of the boy in the ballet. When I explained to Daniel, who plays the little boy, how he should throw his housecoat in the air and gleefully run away, I smiled because I had just experienced a similar scene that morning as I was getting my son ready for school.
The new production has more of a theatrical feel. I have been telling stories through dance over the past 15 years, and I have learned a thing or two. All the characters now have clearly defined back stories and plot dilemmas they are trying to resolve. I worked to create a relationship triad between the Nanny, the Velveteen toy and the young boy that speaks to the power of love as a transformational force. The Nanny gives the Velveteen Rabbit to the boy so he has something to hug when he is lonely. It is the Nanny’s love for the boy as realized through the Velveteen Rabbit that helps the boy’s heart grow bigger. He learns compassion for others and that the world is not all about him. The more the boy’s heart grows the more he is able to love the Velveteen Rabbit. His love starts to make the toy real. The more real the toy becomes in the boy’s eyes, the more the boy’s heart grows helping to make his toy even more real. The transformation that occurs in the boy and the Velveteen Rabbit is something they have to do together. Together they learn that becoming real can hurt because is involves having a heart big enough to take in both the joys and sorrows of life. It is the growth in the boy’s ability to care for and love another that ultimately conjures up the toy fairy who turns the Velveteen Rabbit into a real bunny.
Yes, I know that is a whole lot of depth for a ballet created for children! But I believe that kids have more emotional depth than we often give them credit for. They might not be able to name the concepts portrayed, but it is my hope that the story of becoming “real” in one’s heart will live in their hearts. They may actually understand the story better than us adults because the magic of toys becoming real is something they know to be true.
Canada’s Ballet Jörgen presents
The Velveteen Rabbit
A story ballet for all ages choreographed by Kathleen Rea
In Toronto for two days only
October 4, 2014 – 4pm
October 5, 2014 – 2pm
Betty Oliphant Theatre, 404 Jarvis St., Toronto, Ontario, M4Y 2G6
Tickets: $16 to $32
To purchase tickets please visit https://ww2.ticketpro.ca/jorgen2014.php?aff=krn&languageid=-1
or call toll free at 1-888-655-9090
Working in Toronto during the last year, Kathleen Rea, an expressive arts therapist, author, contact dancer and choreographer, and Brad Johnston, an embodied life coach and contact dancer have been developing an approach to working with people in relationships using principles of contact improvisation.
We developed our approach through a process of dancing together and talking about our dances. Coming from a coaching and therapy perspective, we both notice that simple movement dynamics involved in lead and follow and giving and taking weight were metaphors for what was happening in our growing friendship. We both became curious about how contact improvisation could illuminate relationship dynamics and facilitate learning for couples.
Through a workshop called “Relationship in Movement” people in relationships – ranging from life partners to newly formed romantic relationships – are led through contact improvisation exercises. Participants are often asked to take on clear roles such as leader and follower and then asked to switch roles. The simplicity of intention and clarity of roles invites people’s relationship story to quickly come to the forefront. In one workshop, a woman married for twenty years commented on how hard it was for her to follow her husband and how easy it felt to lead him. Her husband started laughing and said that’s because you’re always in charge. As they continued, they had the chance to practice and gain comfort with the lead/follow roles that were less familiar to them.
The couples are invited to dance without talking and with minimal eye contact so the greatest amount of body sensing can occur. The feelings brought up through the movement are then shared verbally through non-violent communication methods that encourage listening and reflecting back what was heard. Conversing about their dance experiences gives people a safe way to discuss what might otherwise be very loaded issues of power and control. For example, rather than having their usual argument about finances, a couple can instead dance together. The power dynamic at the heart of their conflict will likely show up on the dance floor and can be explored through movement and verbal discussion about how the dance affected them without ever having to mention the heated topic of their shared bank account. Instead of rehashing their usual argument, they are working with the relationship dynamics that underlie the argument.
During our co-facilitation of the “Relationship in Movement” workshops, we make sure to demonstrate each exercise. We aim to be present so that our improvisation demonstration is alive with our “real life” relationship issues. This transparency lets participants witness us working on our friendship and co-facilitator relationship in real time on the dance floor.
In our society, touch is often sexualized and all about performance (i.e. pleasing your mate successfully). Through the workshop, participants experience touch and dance simply for the sense of enjoying moving and feeling their partner. Many romantic couples tend not to move together in ways that are intimate but non-sexual and not related to performance. Through the workshop, the role of touch within their relationship can expand. They can then find satisfying ways of being with each other physically that might have been previously unavailable to them.
One of the exercises in the workshop involves one person lying on the floor while their partner practices draping themselves over. We then teach the person lying down how to redirect weight back to their partner and how they could do this at any point in the draping process. We tell them that this technique lets them communicate through movement: no, not now or yes, now is good. As they progress and switch roles, it is beautiful to witness their trust and playfulness in practicing clear physical communication.
Even though this exercise is playful, participants have many “ah-ha!” moments. One participant was surprised to hear that her boyfriend felt more at ease when she gave him clear physical cues as to when and how much weight she wanted him to bear upon her. He explained that when she was clear, he did not have to second guess the amount of weight he was giving her. She then expressed how using clear physical cues made her uncomfortable because she worried about hurting his feelings. When these types of realizations happen through a dance exercise, either of us might step in to offer the question: “How might this experience you just had in your dance feel familiar to something you experience in your everyday life?” When presented with this question, the man said, “Having to second guess what you want when we are dancing kind of feels similar to how you never gave me a clear answer about whether you wanted to go for brunch this morning.”
We believe that practicing new relationship dynamics in a dance has a carryover effect. For a person who has a challenge saying “no”, practicing clear physical signals in a dance and being encouraged to do so by a partner can increase his or her ability to say “no” in everyday life.
We also believe that repetition is an important factor in establishing a new pattern. Participants are encouraged to name the elements of contact improvisation that stretch them emotionally. For someone who has a deep fear of abandonment, this could be the ending of a dance when the couple is called upon to separate and find their own space. Participants are asked to practice these moments with their partner in self-designed contact improvisation exercises that provide a chance for them to repeat and gain familiarity with the triggers that they have identified.
In “Relationship in Movement” workshops we have held thus far, we have worked mostly with people in romantic relationships. As a next step we want to explore how these methods can facilitate learning in different types of relationships. For instance we plan to run a family series for parents and their adult children.
This article was written by Brad Johnston and Kathleen Rea. Please note, details of the personal stories told in this article have been adjusted to protect the confidentially of the workshop participants.
For news on Relationship in Movement Workshop Retreat coming up August 23 and 24, 2014 (Unicamp Retreat Centre, Honeywood, Ontario) see
I read an early-years parenting book and in the first chapter the authors said that the way to relieve parenting stress and become the parent you always wished you could be is to arrange your life so that you never have to be anywhere at a given time. The author was joking but the joke was made with the understanding that parenting becomes challenging when you have to get your pre-schooler somewhere by, say 3pm with: his or her teeth brushed, clothes and shoes on, and with a well thought-out day bag (packed, of course, by a sane and calm parent). Trying to accomplish this with a spirited pre-schooler is almost enough to make a grown man or woman weep. The reminding, the cajoling, the chasing, the wresting him into his clothes, the related parenting injuries (usually a head-butt to the lip) have at times completely depleted all my energy and ability to think or do anything except weep.
I was at a dinner party recently, describing my challenges getting my 3-year-old son Wyatt ready to go, and my friend Gary said, “Failures in parenting are due to failure of imagination on the part of the parent”. He explained that when he is able to make up an imaginative game to help get things done, everything goes so much better for both him and his three-year-old son.
I was momentarily stunned by his statement. These were my own words being spoken back to me! I knew exactly what he was talking about, but in the heat of my pre-schooler struggles, I had completely lost sight of this!
Allow me to explain: I am an expressive arts therapist. My clients dance, paint, play music, sing, write poetry, and act out scenes with the intention of overcoming psychological suffering. In my recently published book The Healing Dance: The Life and practice of an expressive arts therapist I wrote:
…psychological illness is a failure of our imagination, in that we become incapable of imagining a way out of our suffering. People come to see me, an expressive arts therapist, to train and strengthen their imagination. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, but through creative ingenuity we can find resourceful ways through…
When my clients describe life stories or issues they are facing, no matter how intense or tragic, my response is always the same “okay let’s play with it”. A client who suffers from anxiety can create a painting that shows what his anxiety feels like, and then have an imaginary dialogue with the painting. I, as the therapist, am the play companion who helps “exercise” the client’s imagination. And in the same way, I, as a parent, can be the play companion who helps exercise my child’s imagination.
I had succumbed to the stress of getting our pre-schooler ready to go because I had failed to use my imagination. I had failed to make a game out of it. We had failed to play. It was time for this expressive arts therapist to take the medicine that I provide for others.
On the car ride home from the dinner party, with a sleeping child in the back car seat, my husband and I committed ourselves to using our imagination to find ways to make our everyday parenting struggles into play. We knew it would take extra initiative on our part. When facing a whiny toddler it’s easy to get stuck in frustration and resignation or to slide down the escalating anger spiral. It takes a leap of the imagination to see past your child’s resistance to the creative potential that lives within their “nooooooo”.
Wyatt’s pants now run away from him shouting “you can’t catch me”. He then catches them by putting his legs in them. His tooth brush has habit of hiding behind things and teasingly popping its head out. A whiny standstill at the front door changes into a car race or a flying dragon game down the front steps.
Things take just as much time to get done as before, but we all have fun doing them and by the time we get Wyatt into his car seat, I am no longer in tears. I find that I often need to push myself to initiate a game. But once I get involved in the fun of it, my stress level decreases and I leave the experience with more energy.
As parents we can model the use of imagination to shine light on the path ahead. This is one of the most important lessons that we can teach our little ones. A lesson they can use when they face the inevitable challenges life will throw them both as children and adults.