Cancer and the Arts…

Léa Tirabasso is a dance professional - yet underneath her creative exterior lays an experience of a rare form of ovarian cancer; which has inspired her latest work "The ephemeral life of an octopus".

Here she shares her story with #TeamEve and explores the rationale behind the unique dance presentation.

“Being a dancer, I have always had a strange relationship with my body: I was very aware of every sign it would send and I listened carefully. This probably saved my life in 2016 when I so clearly felt something was wrong.

A ‘mass’ had formed on my left ovary, which doctors assumed was a random cyst. My CA125 blood test was positive. It turned out that during the operation it was impossible to remove the mass without removing the ovary too.  This was the first hard experience: my femininity had been mutilated for my health to be corrected. I then spent a month waiting for the lab to tell me what this ‘mass’ has been. When the diagnosis arrived, it hit me: ovarian cancer stage 1. More precisely, a dysgerminoma (which only represents 3% of ovarian cancer’s cases).

I suddenly felt that the body I had trusted, trained and fused with had betrayed me. I couldn’t help feeling a strong sensation of dislocation between my mind and my body. I was an empty, weightless shell, a floating mass, I felt like a monster with scars and an organ down. Looking at the world around me after the diagnosis, I saw a clear separation between the healthy and the unhealthy. I blamed myself for being conscious of my own death; I blamed humanity for being so clear-sighted and thought consciousness was simply a curse.

I started diving into the mechanism of cancer. I had to understand what had happened to my body. I discovered an illness in movement; cancer cells are chaotic, as Dr Adeola Olaitan, (Gynaecological Oncologist at UCLH, and collaborator on this project), described them to me: they “escape the normal regulatory processes and grow in uncontrolled ways”. They are abnormal, and I was driven to make a piece reflecting the experience of having one of these bizarre growths in my body.

Léa Tirabasso creator of "The ephemeral life of an octopus". Photo courtesy of Danilo Moroni

I felt the urge to share my story and to tell everyone; my peers, colleagues, friends, family – about gynaecological cancers. There are five different forms; womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal. They do not only happen to menopausal women, and awareness that these cancers even exist are worryingly low. I found out a lot of women were not aware of gynaecological cancers. I felt the urge to embody life again, to reconnect my dislocated body and mind, to portray our so absurd human condition… using the medium I knew best: dance.

I started diving into thoughts and studies around the notions of disease and health. I discovered the Phenomenology of Illness, and found myself drawn to the ideas at the heart of the incredibly fascinating essay ‘The Human and the Octopus’ by Thomas Stern: “There is the ancient, religious idea that man is the unhappy combination of beast and god: if only we were divine, we would be liberated, immortal spirit; if only we were beast, we could be content in our instinctive ignorance.”

My project: The ephemeral life of an octopus

I spent a week at The Place, London, to develop the very first choreographical ideas of my project, and two weeks at The Wellcome Collection reading and researching. During my weeks at The Wellcome Collection I organised two open discussions: ‘How can Philosophy and Science inform Dance?’ and ‘Disgust, Disease and the Body – The Phenomenology of Illness’. During those three weeks, I have been discussing illness, dance, bodily sensations, notions of pain and stoicism but most of all, I have been discussing gynaecological health. I realised that a lot of women can’t locate the cervix on an anatomical diagram of the female anatomy, and think there are only two types of gynaecological cancers. Light needs to be shed on this mystery, and I believe that art can help.

Going beyond my own experience and story, I’ve transformed this into a more universal question: what is it to have a body?

Our next phase of work in London will be August 2018. The piece will premiere in 2019.