Dancer Tristan Poelzer (top) is tormented by shadowy figures representing mental illness in the Nanaimo District Secondary School original dance production It Haunts Me. The show comes to Malaspina Theatre on Jan. 17. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)

NDSS dance production examines mental health issues facing students

Nanaimo District Secondary School dancers present ‘It Haunts Me’ at Malaspina Theatre

Following a successful showing at a pair of out-of-town festivals this fall, the Nanaimo District Secondary School dance program is presenting its latest original production to a local audience for the first time.

On Jan. 17 the NDSS Dance Extravaganza comes to VIU’s Malaspina Theatre. The first half of the program will feature a variety of performances from the school’s dance class, while the second act is a presentation of It Haunts Me, a production that examines life with mental health struggles. The production includes 28 performers and two technicians from Grade 8 to 11.

Dance teacher Kelly Barnum developed the show with former student and choreography partner of two years Sarah Kielly.

“It tells the story of a young woman,” Barnum said of It Haunts Me. “We have three different dancers who play her as a child, tween and then an older teen and into her adulthood and her issues are represented by these black figures that haunt her world.”

She said it was a topic she was interested in exploring because mental heath is a prominent issue in high school. She also wanted to create a show that was different from last year’s historical piece, Terezin, which told the true story a Jewish schoolteacher living through the Holocaust.

“It was a harder piece to write because we weren’t telling someone’s story and we didn’t have an outline,” Barnum said. “So Sarah and I had a lot of conversations on how are we going to make this story make sense? And in the end I feel like we did it and audiences got something out of it, which always feels really good.”

Grade 11 students Rudy Komen and Deneah Malcolm play two of the black figures. Komen said mental health should be discussed more openly.

“A lot of my teachers don’t really like to talk about these types of things and many teens, like some of us in this cast, we all can suffer, anybody, in silence…” she said. “I was actually really surprised when we first were pitched the idea because it’s quite a bold move and I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”

“I love telling it through dance,” added Malcolm. “Because it’s a lot easier to do that than through words.”

It Haunts Me went on to win numerous awards at the North Island Regional Drama Festival and Vancouver Island One Act Festival in Courtenay and Qualicum in November for achievements in writing, directing, choreography, performance, costumes and lighting.

Barnum said “it felt amazing” to get such a response.

“We had lots of people that were impacted by the story, either they’re suffering from mental health issues or they have family members. I think it touches everyone,” she said. “Everyone knows someone or is impacted by someone with mental health issues and so there was a profound reaction from a lot of people in both audiences.”

Komen said she hopes to bring that message to a wider audience at the upcoming Malaspina Theatre performance of It Haunts Me.

“I think that this is a good way to show the older generations like our parents and their parents, and even other kids in our generation, what mental illness is and how it can affect people,” she said.

WHAT’S ON … Nanaimo District Secondary School Dance Extravaganza 2020 takes place at Malaspina Theatre, VIU Bldg. 310, on Friday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students, available from the NDSS main office or at the door.

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