for the arms that have held me
Saturday, July 21 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
10330 – 84 Ave.
Tickets: $25 Visit www.tickets.fringetheatre.ca
On the surface Jenna Werhun’s life seems yanked out of a Hollywood horror movie.
At 19, the St. Albert resident endured a violent sexual assault on University of Alberta grounds while in first year education.
While recovering from the assault, the tap dancer, choreographer and teacher was involved in a serious car crash that caused assorted injuries including a spine that was fractured in seven places.
Werhun spent two weeks in hospital followed by some pretty intense therapy spread across months of rehabilitation.
Now 24, Werhun returns to the stage with philanthropy on her mind.
“I can still dance. It’s a slower process. But it’s OK. I’m healthy and I’ve had lots of support,” said Werhun.
These two traumatic incidents have empowered her to help others. She is the producer-director “for the arms that have held me,” a fundraiser for the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), a trauma-informed centre that assisted Werhun to cope with the impact of a brutal attack and rebuild a resilient life.
for the arms that have held me, running Saturday, July 21 at Westbury Theatre, features an all-female multi-disciplinary cast of 25 artists from dance, music and spoken word showcasing a deeply personal narrative of Werhun’s experiences.
The show is dedicated to those who assisted her through a complex healing process and is told through an eclectic program of tap dancing, hip hop, live music and original poetry.
“My experience was stereotypical. A stranger jumped me and it was very violent. It was the perfect storm,” said Werhun.
“I hope that by telling my story through this work that it does get better and more people will have the confidence to tell their story.”
Several of the local blue-chip contributors are Nasra Adem and Mallory Chipman. Adem is a former Edmonton Youth Poet Laureate who will tie five major vignettes together with spoken word.
Chipman, a MacEwan University music instructor and show-music director, has pulled together various styles ranging from hip hop, rap and soul/R&B to pop, rock and lyrical ballad.
St. Albert dancers excited about their participation include Amy Werhun, Caity Dwyer, Janae Olsen and Kristen Farmern.
The one-hour-plus program showcases 13 numbers broken into five vignettes of healing Werhun experienced. She choreographed all the dances except Katherine Semchuk’s powerfully executed Victress.
The five stages start with Rigor Samsa, the initial despairing emotion of isolation.
“It’s when you go through loss and become a hollowed-out shell.”
The show’s second stage is We Used to Hold, a coming-to-terms with anger and using a coping mechanism of relying on others while losing one’s independence.
Liberosis, the third stage, is a desire to liberate one’s self and enjoying what it means to have independence.
The fourth stage is Victress, a salute to a woman’s empowerment.
“It’s about a woman who has achieved victory without fear of the future. This one has a lot of poetry and it’s overlaid with music.”
The fifth stage, Dénouement, focuses on growth and evolution.
“It’s about arriving at the end of the experience and wanting to share the growth and what you’ve rebuilt.”
But it’s a long road to recovery. Immediately after the attack, Werhun was emotionally raw and felt as if she was walking an emotional tightrope.
“Imagine having to try to change something of yourself you can’t control. I was terrified. I would plateau and crash, grow, plateau and crash all over again.
“I would leave a lineup in Subway if a guy stood too close to my back. I still carry a backpack to gain a few extra inches of space.”
On another occasion, a young man sat next to Werhun in class. Unable to concentrate or function, she left immediately. Later, when speaking to the instructor, she broke down in tears. The sympathetic instructor immediately drew up a seating plan for the class.
A huge turning point was the important realization that everyone – the police, SACE, family and friends – believed her story and were prepared to offer whatever support was available.
“I started a journal, and when I’d crash, I’d look back to see how far I’ve come. The key when there’s a crash is self-compassion and going easy on yourself.”
Despite all the information that is circulated in our daily lives, Werhun cites some frightening statistics: one in four women experience sexual harassment or sexual violence at some point in their life.
“I look at my cast and that’s one in six people.”
Werhun is a survivor and has emerged victorious over past traumas.
“I have a beautiful support system and I am now in a positive place, and I hope this gives people in similar situations the courage to ask for help. It’s there and fully accessible.”
The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton has a 24-hour support line at 780-423-4121. St. Albert’s Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF Society) can be reached Monday to Friday at 780-460-2195.