Vancouver dancer and choreographer Sarah Hin Ching U 余衍晴 has good reason to incorporate lines into her newest work, Silent Howl. The straight, zig-zagged, dotted, and curved projections that appear on-stage are a reflection of how she’s coped with neurodiversity and anxiety.
“It comes from practising refocus therapy,” U explains to Pancouver by phone.
She learned this in response to feeling overstimulated. With the help of a health professional, she now closes her eyes and imagines a box when sounds become too intense for her.
“I try to contain my emotions and thoughts inside that box,” U continues. “And then my emotions and thoughts will appear as a single dot. But when it gets too much, the dots start to multiply.”
On April 29, the Dance Centre will present U’s Silent Howl at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on International Dance Day. It’s a 25-minute solo with animation designed by Alexandra Caprara. Jackson Adrian is the sound composer.
U says that she’s been working on the piece over the past year. This was happening just as she was gaining greater insights into her seizure disorder, which is triggered by loud music.
Dancer sees beauty in neurodiversity
For many years, she believed that mental illness caused these episodes. However, U has since learned that there is a physiological component.
“Part of the work of Silent Howl is that I want people to know that it’s also beautiful to be neurodivergent,” U says. “Because days when I can harness that sensory energy and when I can focus, it’s like I feel everything so deeply and passionately. And that experience is so rich and it’s so inspiring that sometimes I felt like it’s not a disability.”
On other occasions, it’s been extremely challenging. She says that in the throes of a very stressful episode, she’s unable to speak.
“I’m still conscious in a certain way in that I know what is happening,” U says. “I can kind of feel my neurons going crazy.”
At these times when people ask how they can help, she’s unable to respond.
“I’m kind of trapped in this container of my body,” she continues. “I’m trying to convey a message but my physical body is not allowing me.”
U acknowledges that dance is a very stimulating activity. And there are days when she won’t do this because she’s either exhausted or her inner system can’t deal with it. According to her, Silent Howl is a way to convey what it’s like for someone who is different.
The Burnaby Arts Council posted Sarah Hin Ching U’s stop-motion video of Kuafu’s Race with the Sun.
U copes with help from a neurologist
U was introduced to dance as a child in the Chinese city of Macau, which is near Hong Kong. She remembers feeling the music and rhythm in her body. She also relished the sensations of her heart pumping, the adrenaline rush, and sweat pouring across her face.
“I did Latin and ballroom dance first—that was my first love,” U says. “I did that for seven years and then when I came to Canada, I couldn’t find a dance partner.”
As a result, she gravitated toward contemporary and ballet dancing, studying these subjects at Simon Fraser University. Now, she’s most interested in street dance.
When U was growing up in Macau, she says that there was no mental health department in the hospital. And that led to serious difficulties. As a teenager, her anxiety and depression led to a prolonged absence from school. This influenced her to move to the Vancouver area at the age of 15.
That, in turn, enabled her to investigate why her body would shut down in response to certain stressors.
“I finally found a neurologist [who] is supporting this journey of helping me find treatment,” U says.
The Dance Centre will present a celebration of International Dance Day from noon to 5 p.m. on April 29 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. Sarah Hin Ching U’s Silent Howl will be performed in studio at 3:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit the Dance Centre website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.