Interview by Sheena Hastings
Former professional ballet dancer Paul Bayes Kitcher uses his experience as both performer and addict to help others in recovery. Sheena Hastings reports.
PAUL Bayes Kitcher believes that however dark your past, you can use that grim experience for good.
A man with many bad memories thanks to a drink and drugs problem that nearly killed him at one point, today former ballet star Bayes Kitcher uses his own addiction and fight for sobriety to help others.
He draws on his years as both addict and as a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, where he worked with major names before the toll of drink and drugs helped to end his career at the age of 30.
Today he's running a workshop in Liverpool with one of several groups around the north-west formed by his Chester-based company Fallen Angels Dance Theatre.
Fallen Angels has a professional dance touring company and a group of addicts in recovery who dance under the banner of Risen. They're untrained individuals who've come to dance through Paul’s work in the community.
They dance alongside Fallen Angels at public performances, bringing something raw and fresh to the party. Fallen Angels and Risen have attracted all ages to their shows at major venues including The Lowry in Salford and the Royal Opera House's Clore Studio in London.
Here in Liverpool's Bluecoat Contemporary Arts Centre, a group of six talk about their week and off-load a few difficult moments - before leaving that baggage with the coats and boots by the door.
Rachel, Ian, Phil, Amanda Neil and Steve's warm-up is Kooks, David Bowie's love song to his newborn son.
Moving on through various exercises, in pairs they begin to choreograph movements that respond to a poster image of sun breaking through heavy cloud onto a bleak landscape. Sometimes the interpretive starting point may be a piece written by a member describing their feelings about life and recovery.
While a couple of members are natural movers - easily becoming lost in fluid expression of ideas and feelings - the others also bring intensity and some startling shape-making that seems to emerge from constant eye contact.
The concentration is palpable, the effort 100 per cent. For nearly two hours they're straining every sinew.
These dancers are unselfconscious, finding ingenious ways to tell a story, responding to each other with minimal need for verbal cues.
It's exciting and moving to watch a short dance sequence develop seemingly out of nowhere, and one of the most striking elements here is mutual trust. The support is not just physical. Bayes Kitcher gives constant encouragement and positive feedback, suggesting ways to enhance their ideas.
Later he says that for some members dancing initially evokes as much fear as starting detox.
"Moving and using your body expressively is a massive hurdle for many people, especially as they’re being watched by others. I’ve seen people rigid with terror at the beginning. This process involves a lot of trust, which members realise pretty quickly is there in the group. Something magical happens each week.
“We exist to help anyone who’s in recovery, and use movement as a tool to inspire. The body absorbs certain experiences and pain, but can also be used to bring those feelings out, expressed through dance.
“People who haven’t been trained in dance often have beautiful ways of moving, and it’s very interesting looking at the shapes they create. Ballet means the body is held and lengthened and beautiful, but the movement of people in our workshops is more honest.
"We make the whole thing as pleasurable as possible, and the positivity that comes out of these sessions feeds into other areas of life.
"It wasn’t until I finally realised how weak I was myself that I began to slowly recover my strength. When I see people coming to a workshop who can’t open their mouth and describe how they feel about anything, I completely understand it.
“For the first few months I was in rehab and afterwards, I could barely speak. My head was shot to pieces.”
As a youngster Bayes Kitcher, now 48, was in a band with his dad and brother, performing at venues near home in East Yorkshire.
He was a born performer, winning talent competitions and attracting blows from school bullies because he went to classes at the local dance school.
At 11 he won a place at the Royal Ballet School in Surrey, a gruelling experience he describes as “like the Army”. He shared a dormitory with Philip Mosley, the Barnsley boy who inspired the film Billy Elliot.
At 16, Bayes Kitcher was told he wouldn't cut it as a professional dancer, but this only served to make him more determined. He continued training at Rambert, and moved to Scottish Ballet before joining Birmingham Royal Ballet as a First Artist then Soloist.
Along the way he worked with some of the great choreographers, including Oleg Vinagradov, David Bintley, Michael Corder and Sir Kenneth Macmillan, who created roles for him.
At 30, burnt out and addicted to vodka and drugs, he closed the curtain on his professional career.
"The spark had gone for me," he says. "But it was only after leaving ballet that I realised how much my addiction had been prevented from taking over my life completely by the discipline of having to train every day.
"I had been working hard and partying hard for 12 years as a professional. I was a black sheep, but just about managed to keep the plates spinning. The companies I worked with never knew that after dancing these fantastic roles I'd be in the pub all night getting smashed."
In the year before he resigned, Bayes Kitcher found the monotony of touring got to him and the drink was taking over.
Hew wanted to act, but instead wound up within months in a spiral of smoking crack cocaine along with a bottle of vodka, collapsing - then doing it all again when he woke up.
"I'd turned into a junkie, weighed eight-and-a-half stone and had lost everything. The electricity had been cut off and still I was at it, and had begun to suffer episodes of paranoid psychosis." At this point his mother got him into rehab.
A few months later he relapsed, injecting heroin and crack. "I was broken, and used to pray I'd die." What finally ended the cycle was a damascene moment in which a recovering alcoholic explained that he was an individual with a physical allergy to drink and drugs yet at the same time there was a psychological obsession with them.
"It finally made sense and I also realised how I'd abused drugs and alcohol to smother fears. As I worked my way through the steps to recovery, I felt my racing brain calming down. I felt free."
Paul Bayes Kitcher found a thirst to help others, and having done rehab again himself, he worked with addicts in a rehabilitation centre. Along the way he married and now has two children.
His relationship with the dance world recovered, too. He took teaching qualifications and was invited back to teach and choreograph at the Royal Ballet School - whose regime is very different today.
In 2011 he conceived and started Fallen Angels, which is funded by Arts Council England, Big Lottery, local authorities and various trusts and foundations. FA also runs workshops in prisons and community centres. One addict has gone on to study dance at university.
Witnessing the session in Liverpool, it's clear that Bayes Kitcher is as inspired by the group as they are by him. Afterwards they drink tea together in the cafe, talk about their plans for the week and how dancing has affected their lives.
Phil and Amanda, both in their 40s and from Manchester, have abused drink or drugs for much of their quarter of a century together. They stopped taking amphetamines when children came along and after seeing a few friends die.
"As a teenager I knocked about with older people and was easily led," says Amanda. "I was using weed for 30 years and for about three years took amphetamines."
She and Phil started recovery 10 years ago and Amanda is now learning holistic therapy.
They've been coming to Paul's workshops and performing with Risen for six months, and Amanda says the experience of giving a first public performance in Birkenhead was "nerveracking but fantastic".
Phil is a showman, and has always enjoyed hitting the floor, trying different moves. Amanda was more reticent about dance, but soon found her mojo.
"It's given me more confidence," she says. "I'd always been told I was thick and useless, and you end up believing it.
"But since doing this I don't feel that. We come up with our own moves and work together to make a piece, and it's brilliant to know you've made something that gets through to people around you. I feel if I can do this I can do other things, and don't need drink or drugs to feel good.
"Some people dance to describe the pain they've been through. I think that when I dance it's about forgetting all the bad times."
Phil had a difficult childhood and started taking drugs after a sexual assault when he was 15. He's attempted recovery before, and this time has been sober for two years. He thinks dance has been vital to his sobriety.
"It has made me feel I can really do it this time. When you're dancing you can be somewhere else in your head and you're making something beautiful with other people who know what you've been through. The feeling I get here is better than all of the drugs."
Ian, who's 34 and from London, began drinking strong lager with mates as a 14-year-old at boarding school, and by 17 was into crystal meth and amphetamines.
"By 30 I had wrecked my life," he says. "For years it was a secret addiction, but then it took over and I lost my job and a great media career." Previous attempts at recovery failed, but after his last spell in rehab it was suggested that he made a fresh start somewhere else in the country.
"I came north because there's a well-developed recovery scene here and I'd heard good things," says Ian. "I've had counselling and also committed to celibacy because of my risky sexual behaviour.
"I've been coming to these workshops for a few months, and nothing else in my life makes me feel as good as this. I don't think about anything else when I'm doing it. I feel joyful, free of pain and struggles.
"It's also good to know that Paul has been through the same stuff - and we all have that pain and struggle in common but we're moving on."
Anyone in the group can have a bad day, says Bayes Kitcher. “You need sensitivity to work with addicts. I’ve been doing it for a long time now, and if you see someone is struggling, if something we do brings difficult feelings to the surface, you give them all the support you can.
"We’ve all felt like that. At the end of the session, though, everyone feels a natural high.”
Altering public perception of addicts features high amongst his motivations, he says.
“We're about breaking down stigma, showing the world that addicts can recover and move on to make different lives for themselves.
"This is a lot deeper than just 'a bit of dance'. We are taking both dance and the recovery movement into communities that haven’t necessarily seen or understood them before. Wherever we go, audiences are moved to tears. They really get it."