Sink or Swim: Our underwater dance film tackling mental health stigma

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Posted on 22/05/2018 by Charlotte Edmonds |

I trained as a dancer at The Royal Ballet School, so I’ve always used dance to express my emotions and concerns. I use it as a vehicle to portray a vivid topic in my mind, or tackle challenging subject matters through the language of dance - it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s a language that everyone can speak.

Having started training so young, and starting a career at such a young age - there is a lot of pressure to succeed. I never wanted to let anyone down, especially myself. As an athlete and a performer, you become very critical of yourself, always striving to be the best you can be. When I was training, I went through some phases where I felt I had hit rock bottom - it certainly affected my self-esteem and confidence. I found myself suffering in silence and never felt encouraged to speak out about my mental health. This is why I am passionate about this cause - there should be no shame in admitting you don’t feel you can keep your head above the water.

It’s this water imagery I was struck by when I saw a painting by Ian Cumberland, a self-portrait of a man lying in a bath fully clothed. It felt really natural to me to explore my reaction to this image through dance, and create a dance film.

Often people talk about their experiences of depression as being linked with water - feeling like they’re drowning.

Before approaching filmmaker, Louis-Jack Horton-Stephens to collaborate on a film, I had a clear vision that this dance piece needed to be performed underwater, drawing from Ian’s self-portrait and being submerged in water and fully clothed. Have you ever worn clothes underwater? You feel very heavy and struggle to move. Every movement takes an extra bit of force and you are battling against gravity to avoid sinking further away from the service of the water making it harder to take a large breath of air, and breathe, before your body feels drained. I wanted to channel this effect into the choreography, this heavy weighted feeling.

We met with Mind to discuss how they could support us, and we were able to speak with Lucy who introduced new perspectives on top of our own experience, which helped us flesh out ideas for the narrative by drawing on her own experience with depression. We spoke with Lucy very early on in the process to ensure our message was accurate and sensitive. It's often very difficult, or even impossible, for people who are experiencing mental health issues to vocalise or describe how they're feeling. We wanted to use dance as a way to show people how it feels to suffer with depression. Hopefully, it also reminds people who are living with depression that they are not alone in their struggle.

After speaking with Mind we began to learn that there’s this recurring imagery of water that surrounds depression. We found over-and-over again that people describe their experiences of depression with metaphors related to water and submersion: the sense that you're drowning, unable to speak, alienated, with the weight of water baring down upon you.

With that in mind, we begun to think about taking the choreography away from an actual bathtub and instead trying to capture what is going on inside the head of someone with depression. We arrived at setting the whole film in a dream-like underwater space. I was fascinated by the way that a person's movement is affected by being underwater. The way that you're at the same time both constricted, slowed down and also free and weightless.

Growing up, it felt like we weren’t supposed to talk about it. 

As a response to the painting, we created our short film, entitled Sink or Swim. It is a poetic exploration of depression, at its most critical moment, through underwater ballet, starring Principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, Francesca Hayward.

I hope the film will resonate with everyone but most importantly with secondary school students, university students and young professionals, as this is a vulnerable age with pressures of university, internships, jobs, living arrangements - they have a lot to balance on their shoulders. It is important to encourage this age group to be confident with who they are and I hope our film encourages people to talk about how they’re feeling, if they are struggling. Growing up, it felt like we weren’t supposed to talk about it. 

I hope that people feel moved by the film and are encouraged to be more aware of their friends, colleagues and family and make mental health a comfortable conversation to have.

Charlotte Edmonds and Louis-Jack Horton-Stephens have collaborated to create Sink or Swim, which is available on YouTube now. You can see behind-the-scenes rehearsal shots on Charlotte's social media channels

For more advice and support around depression, visit our information pages.

You can get in touch with our media team using the contact details on our website.

Categories: Media and TV

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Charlotte Edmonds

Charlotte is a choreographer, using the potential of dance to express her emotions.

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