The story of the Willard Suitcases is undeniably fascinating. In 1995 construction workers discovered hundreds of suitcases filled with personal belongings in the attic of an abandoned building. How intriguing. However, this building just happened to be the old Willard Psychiatric Centre in New York which ran as an asylum from 1869 up until 1995 – and these suitcases contained the many possessions of those patients who lived and died at this hospital.
Suitcases is a new piece of dance theatre that brings these lost patients back to life in a deeply moving narrative which combines the work of two great art forms: photography and dance.
In 2011, Jon Crispin, a Massachusetts-based photographer, began working with these suitcases and historical artefacts in order to share the emotions he felt when he first discovered these items. His goal was to help others “see more than just mental illness” and remember these very real people. Instantly moved by these images, choreographer Michael Heatley knew that he had found the inspiration for his next project.
Produced by Hit The Ground Running Dance Theatre Company, Suitcases is the collaborative result of these two artists. And what a spectacle it is.
The piece begins with a crucial yet gripping documentary and follows Crispin in a series of interviews photographing the cases. Heatley’s dance piece would undoubtedly work as a standalone event, but the history of this story only enriches the overall experience.
As the dance section begins, a nurse appears to be physically positioning individuals against their natural state of being, perhaps forcing them to appear as something they’re not. If there is any music at this point, I either don’t notice it or it is very quiet; but this only makes the scene more uncomfortable and eerie to witness.
Within the choreography, there are clever key motifs such as repetitive spinning to highlight feeling out of control, or physical heaviness to reflect a mental state of being. In addition to this, the suitcases are beautifully treated like dance partners and an extension of the individual’s movement, whether that’s through physical attachment or emotional connection. It’s transfixing and hypnotic.
Notably, there is also a great mix of dance styles going on – as personalities vary, so do the dancing techniques. For example, one character moves in a subtle breakdance style, whilst a well-to do lover of music performs a ballet.
Suitcases is a dramatic and powerful insight into the characters of Willard. Elevated to the next level by its cinematography, this piece opens up a lost world and makes a troubled story a thing of beauty. People will always be people and as Suitcases indicates: nobody wants to be “misunderstood, feared or forgotten.”
Suitcases streamed online on 26th June 2021. For more information, see Dance City’s website.