In 1996, at the age of 26, choreographer Kathleen Rea was diagnosed with lupus. That diagnosis turned out to be incorrect, but the experience proved to be a blessing in disguise because it forced her to confront another serious condition: her bulimia.
Later that year, she created the dance piece Frames of Control for fFIDA, which was a searing exposé of her 10 year battle with body image. When she dances an eight minute excerpt from Frames at her show VIVID 2006, which opens at Winchester Theatre on July 12, she will be celebrating almost a decade of recovery from her eating disorder.
"I am 5 foot 6 and my natural weight is around 115 pounds," she says. "To be considered a perfect ballerina, I was supposed to get down to 105 pounds. Returning to normal eating patterns was the easier part of recovery. It took intense therapy to get over the psychological belief that you look fat."
Toronto-born Rea became a day student at the National Ballet School when she was 10. When she graduated in 1989, she gained a lot of weight. "You leave a completely structured environment," says Rea, "and suddenly you're responsible for your own life. It's a difficult adjustment."
Rea spent four seasons with Ballet Jorgen, a company forgiving on weight issues, before being spotted by Reid Anderson, then artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. She joined the National in 1992, and so began her worst eating-disorder years.
After her lupus scare, Rea left the National Ballet and spent another year with the Ballet Jorgen. She went on a whirlwind audition trip to Europe, visiting 30 companies in 60 days on a Eurorail pass. Rea joined Tiroler Tanztheater in 1997, a highly regarded contemporary dance company in Innsbruck, Austria, but after only two seasons, disaster struck. Rea was diagnosed with acute arthritis in both knees. She returned to Canada for operations, knowing that her performing career was virtually over.
For the next five years, Rea trained as an expressive arts therapist, receiving her master's degree in 2004 through ISIS-Canada and the European Graduate School in Valais, Switzerland.
Currently, Rea, 36, teaches modern dance at George Brown College, has a private expressive arts therapy practice, and does arts projects with youth at risk through Central Toronto Youth Services and the Griffin Centre. She is also a regular on the high-school lecture circuit detailing the serious consequences of eating disorders. Rea continues to choreograph one to two pieces a year, mostly on commission.
VIVID is an ongoing production that Rea mounts to show her own work, a unique combination of strong ballet technique, modern dance and contact improv.
She also provides a performance opportunity for another choreographer, in this case, fellow NBS grad Travis Birch who has just returned to Toronto from a European career.
Rea's new piece IRE for six female dancers is about the intertwining of intimacy and aggression in the lives of women. Rea describes Birch's trio Sift as an exploration of the relationships between men and women in a man-based world.
Says Rea: "I'm lucky to be alive. I eat when I'm hungry and get lots of exercise. I haven't weighed myself in 10 years."
Vivid 2006. July 12 to 15, 8:30 p.m. $14 to $20. Winchester Street Theatre, 416-366-7723.