Interview with Sarah Carlson and Vernon J. Mobley (The Body Keeps the Score: Dancing with Trauma and Recovery)

Interview By: Janel Spiegel


Hi Sarah, please tell us how The Body Keeps the Score: Dancing with Trauma and Recovery manifested for you?

Sarah- Vernon and I have been working together for a while. We met at DeSales University where he my class accompanist, and I realized he was quite talented so, we ended up getting together, and working on an artistic level. We worked together on a show called, What Lies Within: Dancing with Race and Identity. On the heels of that production, I was introduced to The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I read the book, and I was intrigued by the notion of trauma residing in the body, and a lot of the coping mechanisms that van der Kolk describes in the book. When I read the book, I found it interesting that I felt a connection even though I don’t consider myself to have undergone any huge trauma in my life. I felt like I could relate to a lot of the coping mechanisms that were being described. I realized that trauma exists on a spectrum, and we all land on that spectrum in some form, or fashion. We are all in our own ways dealing with, or coping with trauma, and healing from trauma. Trauma is not an easy thing to get over, and another interesting thing I learned from the book is that it talks about how the body gets lodged within our neural pathways. We need to think about how that is operating in our manner, and how we think about healing. What better format than dance to try and explore this idea of trauma getting stuck in the body, and working with the coping mechanisms. I enlisted Vernon to be my partner, and Vernon had a similar approach, and he didn’t think of himself as someone who went through a lot of trauma but then he dealt with a lot of trauma that changed him, and altered his perception, and relationship to the topic.

I have had some horrific traumatic experiences, and back in the day therapy was not always okay to talk about. This is a beautiful project to see because it’s music and dance. Two of the most beautiful and meaningful life events. So, thank you both for doing this, for creating this. You created something beautiful out of something so many people see as just awful, and scary. But you created beauty, you turned trauma into something that can hit you in the soul. So, thank you for giving us hope.

Sarah- That’s great to hear. It’s a topic that’s often brushed under the carpet. Why should people come out, and see a dance about trauma? It is intense at times but we always follow the show with a talk-back. We want to talk to the audience, and find out how they felt. It’s always something that is powerful. We have been fortunate to show this project several times.

What was it like for you working with Vernon and the dancers, the musicians? How was that experience?

Sarah- The dancers are asked to contribute some of their own material. We have the whole group on stage, and then we also feature individuals who share their own stories. I think that helps bring it to life for them. It makes it authentic. Vernon created some sections that he had preexisting music that I choreographed to. He came up with new music. Then there were moments when Vernon was in the studio with the dancers. Vernon has done a great job, and we talked about the need to capture the sound of the body.

Is there anything that you took away from this project that you haven’t thought about before?

(Vernon J. Mobley joined us.)

Sarah- It never ceases to amaze me how deep the work is, and the people’s reactions. It’s an example of how art goes beyond aesthetic. Life is filled with good and bad. Light and dark.

TVL- How did you get involved with this project, and what was it like working with Sarah?

Vernon- I met Sarah at DeSales University. I was one of the accompanists for the modern dance. Sarah was an instructor in the dance department. I had been encouraged by several of the professors I worked with that I should consider composing music for dance shows, and after a lot of encouragement, I took on a few small projects, and then an opportunity came up to work with Sarah. We worked on a piece called, What Lies Within: Dancing with Race and Identity. It was a wonderful experience. It allowed me to express myself differently than when I’m sitting behind a piano or drum kit. It was an opportunity for me to work on this project. We kind of have something together, it’s a good match creativity. I am awe of the dancers.

Vernon, I want to ask you the same question I asked Sarah because you’re the composer. Did you take anything away from this project or did you learn anything that you haven’t thought about before?

Vernon- Absolutely. When the project began, my understanding of trauma was different. The only trauma I had suffered in my life was the passing of my father, which was heartbreaking to me. In the middle of the writing process, I was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and so that changed my perspective on many things. Anxiety, depression, how to cope with this. When I went back to the process, I was a different person. I learned how true the statements were. My body kept audible score of everything that happened to me. I had a different appreciation of everybody’s bodies, and how complex each one of us are. I wanted to seek some of healing, and not just allow the trauma to reside. I was able to start my healing journey by composing the score.

My last question for both of you is what do you both want people to know about this project, and what future projects are you both working on?

Vernon- I will say that I think everyone should come and see the show. Think about where you are on your healing journey.

Sarah- Vernon and I worked on another project called Embrace. It will be shown at a festival on April 13th. That’s another Vern and Sarah collaboration.

TVL- Thank you both so much for the time. Thank you. You are both so talented.

Sarah- Thank you.

Vernon- Thank you.

ArtsQuest Steelstacks presents

“The Body Keeps the Score: Dancing with Trauma and Recovery”

Choreography by Sarah Carlson

Original Music by Vernon Mobley

Thursday Feb 8th at 7:30pm

Allentown, Pa. (Jan 3, 2024) — ArtsQuest Steelstacks presents “The Body Keeps the Score: Dancing with Trauma and Recovery”, a choreographer/composer collaboration at the Bethlehem Ice House on Thursday, February 8 at 7:30pm in the Musikfest Cafe. Sarah Carlson, the Artistic Director of DanceLink, teams up with composer Vernon J. Mobley to explore the universal spectrum of trauma in a program inspired by Bessel van der Kolk’s well-known text of the same name. Tickets are $26-29 Buy tickets HERE.

“The Body Keeps the Score” will use movement, music and text to unpack the idea that trauma must be addressed on an individual body level first before greater communal (or “big body”) change can follow. “The impact of trauma affects the lives of so many of us,” states Carlson. “It interrupts our ability to be present, to function and most tragically, to connect authentically with others. Most of us aren’t even aware of how this traumatic residue is affecting our lives.” The creative process invited cast members to draw from personal experience to fuel movement invention.

In his text, Van Der Kolk explains that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can fragment a holistic sense of self connected to the here and now. Everyday sensory input can trigger flashbacks or emotional outbursts that disturb normal functioning and healthy relationships. As such, disassociation can be born out of simple survival techniques. Reclaiming an awareness of the breath and physical sensations can be powerful forms of healing. These dynamics will be explored onstage.

Carlson and Mobley previously worked together on “What Lies Within”, a project about racial injustice, and hence they are particularly interested in the cycle of trauma caused by oppression. “Trauma caused by oppression is the most insidious,” muses Mobley. “Belittlement or abuse at the hands of another is never justified, but when you consider the perpetrator can often be acting out from a foundation of trauma sometimes generations in the making, it makes you think.” Understanding the dynamics of this cycle can be the first step towards awareness and healing.

A post show discussion will be held following the performance to discuss the major themes of the show and promote awareness of community resources.

First premiering in 2018, “The Body Keeps the Score: Dancing with Trauma and Recovery” was created with generous support from the Pennsylvania Partners for the Arts. This program has previously been presented at the IceHouse Tonight Series, Cedar Crest College and William Allen High School.


About the Artists:

Sarah Carlson (director) is the Founder & Artistic Director of DanceLink which seeks to bridge people, ideas & and understanding through the power of movement. Sarah danced professionally for 10 years in NYC with companies including Alexandra Beller/Dances, Brian Brooks Moving Company, Clare Byrne Dance, Paul Mosley Dance and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. As an independent choreographer, her own work has been presented throughout the US at venues such as the Joyce Soho in NYC, On the Boards in Seattle, and The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard as well as in Benin, Africa. Sarah is a co-director of the Lehigh Valley Dance Exchange & the editor of the Lehigh Valley Dance in Review. Sarah has been on the dance faculty at Muhlenberg College, DeSales University, Cedar Crest College, Lehigh University, and the University of Southern Mississippi. Sarah received a BA in French and European Studies from Connecticut College and an MFA in Dance from the University of Washington.

Vernon J. Mobley (composer) has been a musician for more than 3 decades. As a drummer/percussionist he has worked tirelessly to craft an unmistakable sound and style that is unrivaled in the Lehigh Valley. His roots are of Gospel and his skills carefully cultivated while playing in church with his father (organist) and his brother (bassist & guitarist).
Longing for the opportunity to further use some of his talents and share his extensive musical knowledge with jazz aficionados, Vernon organized Fusion Jazz Trio in 2002. These days Vernon J. the drummer can be seen playing the drums with his award-winning band Fusion Jazz Trio, jazz sextet FunkXpress led by bassist Gene Perla(Miles Davis), funk quartet Post Junction with John Fadem or with guitar eccentric guitar ensemble Galvanic Ignition. In addition to being a drummer’s drummer Vernon has been a church organist for the past 23 years at Community Fellowship Cathedral in Allentown, PA. In 2016, Vernon J. scored “The Island”, a one act play by a local Lehigh Valley playwright for Allentown Public Theater. In 2017, Vern scored the music for “What Lies Within: Dancing with Race and Identity,” a collaboration between DanceLink and Basement Poetry. In 2018 Vernon was commissioned to write music for a dance ensemble piece “Blister” by choreographer Angela Sigley-Grossman. This piece is a response to historian Sarah Helm’s text on Ravenbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women. Vernon J. is a faculty member DeSales University serving as an accompanist for the dance department.

About the venue:

On the site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, PA, SteelStacks is a re-imagination of an industrial brownfield that uses the arts to rebuild and revitalize a post- industrial, urban community. SteelStacks is an arts & cultural campus… the heart of the campus is at 1st & Founders Way, at the Air Products Town Square and the ArtsQuest Center. With an awe-inspiring, birds-eye view of the historic Bethlehem Steel Blast Furnaces. Musikfest Café merges the past and present in a multi-purpose concert venue. At night this venue is truly special, with its floor to ceiling windows that look out onto the beautifully lit Blast Furnaces. The Musikfest Café can accommodate over 400 guests for a dining event.