This past Thursday, fourth-year Anthropology major and Theater and Performance Studies minor Ariella Kasmer-Jacobs debuted her TAPS B.A. project, CHRONICles: An Illness Narrative. This 35-minute performance aimed to capture and portray the essence of autoimmune diseases. Intrigued, I trekked up to the fifth floor of Logan. As the lights dimmed, anticipation built, and I sat up straighter. A spotlight broke through the darkness and out came first-year Christina Cano, doe-eyed and disoriented.
The audience was only granted a second to take in her tattered tights and perplexed manner before something struck a chord within her. She began to twist and turn, violently lurch and writhe, all while a sweet yet heart-rending melody played in the background.
Other dancers soon joined Cano. Some twitched, some trembled, others snapped, and others still, heaved. The audience themselves began to shift in their seats, trying to fit every dancer in their field of vision. Just as we thought we could see everyone, there was another blur of movement in the corner and we had to readjust again.
Just as I began to settle and acclimate to the whirlwind of a performance, I was yanked from my false sense of comfort as the lights went out and innocent laughter filled my ears. I was pulled back from my P-set-riddled college days, and thrust into middle school playground memories: Hopscotch, hand games, and a simple question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to which the answer was, “A ballerina!” It was a welcome setting after the fraught opening scene. However, with a title that prominently highlights the word “CHRONIC,” I knew this wouldn’t last for long.
And it didn’t.
In the following scene, ballet practice resulted in aggravated and defeated dancers. Small muscle spasms and painful leg clutching gave hints of what was to come. Soon, it was off with the lights again. But this time, a hurried change of scenery brought us into the doctor’s office. Something was wrong.
This was the major turning point: Kasmer-Jacobs began to work in her epistemological questions about health, revealing the emotional toll of illness. In a musical-inspired piece, fourth-year Emily Benjamin belted out the frustrating ambiguity of the diagnostic process. Meanwhile, Cano found herself pushing away her closest friends, listening to someone—or something—she probably shouldn’t have. Alanna De Pinto, a second-year, embodied taxing illnesses, and became the antagonistic voice in our head that pokes and prods and incites.
Diagnosis prompted a violent and desperate response from Cano, who fought valiantly against her illness, only to find herself out of breath and sprawled out on the ground after many attempts at self-defense jabs.
Up next, a scene straight out of a horror movie. This piece was heavily influenced by some of the readings Kasmer-Jacobs came upon during her research for the project. Personal accounts from those diagnosed with autoimmune disease recounted often feeling inhuman, like a werewolf even. Sinister music played in the background, and bass notes built up the suspense as the performers tread heavily through the forest. As friends often do in horror movies, Delane Bourget, Sarah Saltiel, and Cano agreed to stick together, fearful of what lay lurking in the shadows.
Until, of course, Cano herself became one of the beasties. De Pinto and Cano spun and alternated their faces to the audience, creating an entrancing visualization of the transformative power of illness.
The following segment lay in stark contrast, perhaps to balance the weight of the former. In The Adventures of Prima Ballerina: The Return of Prednisone, illness was comically portrayed as the hero’s journey. Cano found herself battling Prednisone and succeeding (the first time around, at least). Upon several rewinds and repetitions of the scene with small, sentient cutbacks each time, Cano’s ability to fight back was greatly reduced, causing the audience to laugh less and understand the severity more.
Throughout the remainder of the performance, Cano tried hard to continue dancing as she had before the diagnosis, but the constant barrage of so-called words of encouragement—“You’re lucky, people go easy on you!,” “Everyone is going through something. Everyone has problems,” “Mind over matter,” “Walk it off,” “It’s all in your head,” —along with constant manhandling from the illness made life exasperating. With nowhere else to turn, Cano found herself hand-in-hand with De Pinto by the end.
One last dimming of the lights marked the beginning of the end. The motion-filled opening was re-enacted, but movements were more gradual and weighed down. Cano still clutched at her insides, and tried with all her might to keep dancing. When the audience was brought back to a different beginning, the performance concluded. A distinct applause filled the room—one stirred by the evocative and vivid nature of the devised piece.
When asked about what inspired such a raw and expressive piece, Kasmer-Jacobs opened up about how she was diagnosed with Lupus after her senior year of high school, and how it exposed her to the world of medicine. And yet, she did not want the piece to focus on her personal story; she wanted to wrestle with the notion of illness as a metaphor and explore the broader issues involved.
“The question I wanted to focus on in the piece,” Kasmer-Jacobs said, “was, ‘How does illness impact an individual’s relationship to herself?’ I don’t think we answered it, but I think we started a conversation.”