A Miami choreographer is taking her personal tragedy to nursing homes

A Miami native is reflecting on the choreography for her piece “Flowers for Spring,” the moving expression of loss and healing inspired by the death of her grandmothers who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Marissa Alma Nick took “Flowers for Spring” on the road in 2016, but recently led a performance at Douglas Gardens and Regents for people with the disease and for their families.

She was recently chosen as a winner for the Knight Arts Challenge, which is helping her revive the production for intimate audiences in her hometown. Victoria Rogers, the Vice President of Arts at the Knight Foundation, said Nick’s deeply personal piece has the power to touch many people.

“Artists tell our stories, and contemporary art in particular reflects our lives, offering a lens to explore, more deeply, the issues most important to us,” she said. “Flowers for Spring is a chance to connect audiences who have cared for, or know someone who has suffered from Alzheimers and Dementia, through the beauty and power of dance.”

An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s according to national statistics. Every one in three seniors die with the disease or some form of dementia, with Alzheimer’s being the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

“Flowers for Spring” had its debut to a general audience last spring. What is the biggest change you have experienced as the choreographer? What have you learned about yourself?

​As a choreographer I can sometimes take years to work on a piece, mostly because my understanding of a life experience takes me years to work through it and find the truth and “Flowers For Spring” is absolutely one of those pieces.

When I first began working on it, I had just begun to accept the loss of my grandmothers who had passed six months apart from one another and I needed to release the pain of that loss — a pain that made me feel numb inside and slowed down the world around me to where everything felt like a dream. And that’s how the debut of “Flowers For Spring” felt. It moved in slow motion, much like a surreal dream like sequence.

But it’s now been two years since that initial shock and feeling of despondency took over, and I am more capable to talk about what I went through as the caretaker for my grandmothers, witnessing them take their final breath and learning to say goodbye. And so the piece now automatically has a different dynamic and tone. It is a reflection of my strength and appreciation rather than my pain and grieving. 

Principal dancer Sasha Caicedo in rehearsal for “Flowers For Spring”

​W​hat ways has “Flowers for Spring” and the reception​ of​ it has received changed you?

Honestly, the reception from “Flowers For Spring” has reminded me of the deeper meaning and purpose to being an artist. Artists — whatever our craft might be — have this gift for creating portals of reflection into our shared realities, feelings and all things less tangible. I had forgotten what that felt like. I had gotten a bit swept up in the need to create “something good” and being a “successful choreographer”. And “Flowers For Spring” has reignited the desire within me to create from my truth, which is why this show has been so well received. It reflects a very real life experience such as growing old and dying, and something like that might be hard to talk about, but that’s where art and dance come in. The strong reception of “Flowers For Spring” has also reminded me that Miami is a place that loves dance and enjoys supporting the art of it, and I am very grateful for that. It inspires me to keep Miami home base for Alma Dance Theater — our audience and donors are fearless and ready to feel. What more could a choreographer and her dancers want?

What did you initially hope to portray? Did you find that people caught on to that idea? What have people said was their biggest takeaway in “Flowers for Spring?”

​I want to portray the experience of growing old and having dementia or Alzheimer’s and what it feels like to become the caretaker of our elders. I think all of that is very clearly portrayed. However, the challenge has been finding a way to see the beauty in all of it. And the beauty in something like this from what I learned is love. And I think that love is also very clearly portrayed in this show. Honestly, there hasn’t been one time where we have performed this show and no one is crying. But the first time this happened I felt so bad. My intention wasn’t to make people feel sad and cry and then I was told people were crying because they felt love. And for me, that’s the biggest take away: Through all of the pain this piece comes with the strength that carries the dancers and the audience to the end is the love.

“Flowers For Spring” costume design sketch by choreographer Marissa Alma Nick

Has any of the choreography changed? What adjustments were made? Why?

​Definitely. As I said, the choreography reflects where I am now. Two years ago I was numb and isolated from this whole experience of facing aging, dementia and the deep pain of loss and so the first variation of this show had a lot of slow and isolated moments just like how I felt. Now, I am in a different place mentally and physically, so there is a lot more partnering, physical connection and more of a dynamic shift in choreography. It’s all a reflection of how I have come to accept what happened and really see it, and really feel it. ​

This year’s performance at Douglas Gardens and Regents seems deliberately more intimate. Can you explain its importance?

​It really is. So because of the Knight Arts Challenge Award, we are able to take a variation of the full show and perform it specifically for the patients at Douglas Gardens and Regents Homes. Because of the sensitive nature of their conditions the variation being created specifically for these performances speaks to the certain therapies that stimulate pleasant emotions like color, music and movement. Parts of the show that may be jarring or enhance their confusion we are leaving out. We aren’t going there to frighten or even impress them. We are there as a form of therapy. In my experience with my grandmothers music, colors and dance ignited happiness and memories. And that’s what the purpose of us doing this is really for.

In addition to that, through out the year during these performances we will be able to personally connect with family members who go to visit their loved ones on a daily, weekly or monthly basis by which we will be able to offer them free tickets to the full scale production of “Flowers For Spring,”  at any one of the three South-Florida shows.

Principal dancer Sasha Caicedo in rehearsal for “Flowers For Spring.”

Can you explain the importance of duality in “Flowers for Spring?” You have Abuela Maria and Grandma Jean and then you are exploring life and death (and the grief in betwee​n).

​Well duality is always in existence. We are living while we are dying at all times. And so I found this to be more true with my Abuela Maria and my Grandma Jean. They were physically alive and sitting right in front of me but their minds were somewhere else and completely existing in a whole other time and place. This experience is a driving force in the show. There are five dancers who portray one Abuela Maria and six dancers who portray one Grandma Jean because that’s exactly what happened to each of them: It was as if their whole self split into a million pieces at once.

What I also found through this whole experience was the strength that came with dying. It’s not to easy to say goodbye to those we love and it is not easy to let them go but it is a part of life. And so this has become really important to me: How do we accept death into our life? And how do we deny it? ​ ​For me, my Grandma Jean passed away on January 3,2015 and then my Abuela Maria passed away six months after that. I had barely begun to deal with the loss of one when the second phone call came in. And so much of my pain was from my anger at death, my inability to accept it as a part of life and in the process of two years I have all of a sudden started to see the beauty in the cycle of life. So this duality between life and death and strength and surrendering seen in “Flowers For Spring” is vital to the show. It reflects our own duality and the tendency to love life and fear death, which doesn’t seem organic. In searching for something more, through “Flowers For Spring,” I have begun to notice that it’s pretty simple; it’s what my grandmothers taught me: With love you live and die without fear. ​

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