Exploring grief and loss through dance

6 Feb 2023

As we start work on Requiem, Jennifer Coleman-Peers, CEO, reflects on the recent bereavement training offered to all staff.

Last week I found myself laughing out loud, modelling balloon in hand, as I failed to make a poodle. It was not what I had expected from a whole company training session on loss and bereavement, but it turned out to be a very effective exercise in understanding the importance of thoughtful communication.

Cruse are the UK’s leading bereavement charity. Their vision is that we live in a world where everyone grieving is supported, respected and understood. Alongside their helpline and online chat, Cruse provide expert training, consultancy and support to the private and public sector, with over 60 years’ experience working with organisations and bereaved people.

We invited Cruse to work with our team to help us all understand the different ways that grief and loss can impact people and how we can provide appropriate support whilst also taking care of ourselves. We considered different models of grief, use of language and the importance of standing side by side with people in empathy, rather than looking down on them with sympathy.

It would have been an invaluable session at any time, but particularly so as the team begins the creation process for Requiem, our latest collaboration with Opera North. A requiem is a mass for the dead. Mozart’s Requiem was commissioned anonymously by Count von Walsegg in 1791 to honour his late wife, Anna. Mozart became consumed by the work, believing he had been cursed to write a requiem for himself, because he was about to die. In fact, Mozart did die before the work was completed.

As Dane Hurst choreographs our Requiem, he will be drawing on themes of grief and loss, both from the historical context of Mozart’s work but also the present-day collective trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a human being it is impossible to travel through life without experiencing the loss of someone or something that you love, so everyone involved in this project will potentially be triggered by this work.

As part of our strategic review we received feedback that team members, and dancers in particular, had struggled in the past with the emotional impact of some of the more challenging work that the company has delivered. We do not want to shy away from tackling difficult or controversial topics, but we do have a duty of care to those we work with. That is why we have committed to providing appropriate training and support at the start of each new project to ensure that everyone is able to fully participate in a safe and supportive environment, without feeling like they have to compromise themselves in order to deliver.

I left the day with Cruse with a better understanding of how grief impacts people differently at different times, and with a greater awareness of how my own losses will influence my engagement with the work. Feedback from the team has also been positive, with a sense that we are building a safe space for everyone. We will continue to actively support the team over the coming weeks and will look for ways to broaden and deepen that support in the future.

I did eventually succeed in creating a balloon poodle when the trainer slowed down their instructions and helped me when I got stuck. It is sitting on my desk as a cute reminder of the importance of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and taking things at their pace. I’m not sure I have a future career in children’s entertainment, but I do think we will all act with more sensitivity and compassion as a result

Our co-production of Requiem with Opera North will take place from 26 May – 4 June 2023. Book your tickets here.


Requiem main image – dance photo by Robyn Walker

Featured image: Blessed are they that Mourn for they Shall be Comforted (1984) | Choreography: Donald Edwards | Photographer: Terry Cryer