Interview with a Fallen Angel

Interview with a Fallen Angel

By Nathan A Thompson 09/10/14

Paul Bayes Kitcher talks with The Fix about Risen, his all-recovering addicts dance group.

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Risen

I first met Paul Bayes Kitcher in a pointless town in northern England. I was in rehab and he had come to run a dance workshop. He communicated more with his body than his voice, touching and guiding us through a process of embodying our hopes and fears and turning them into a dance performance. It was a tough crowd. Every week there would be a few guys with shaved heads and folded arms scrunched in the corner - “I’m not doing that shite." 

Today he’s on my Skype screen. He seems happy but he’s come straight from rehearsal and the adrenaline is still flowing causing him to talk at double-shot speed. “I was rocketed into recovery," he says. “And I found I had this thirst to help people because, when I was addicted, I was only concerned with what I could take. Now it’s all about seeing how much I can give.”

Paul is in his forties but looks younger, with fresh grey eyes and fine hair that lays in a natural side parting. There’s something choir-boy about him, as if he never lost the open, guileless expression of childhood. But he’s no lightweight. His body has a toughness forged at the fists of playground bullies and in the relentless halls of the great ballet schools. 

Paul was the most electrifying dancer of his generation but found himself on a downward spiral of dope. Soon he was injecting heroin into the same feet that once danced for Princess Diana. He recovered with the help of the 12-step program and now he helps others make the journey from shooting gallery to ballet. 

“We take recovering addicts,” explains Paul. “And if they come to our outreach projects regularly and we feel they want to develop and start performing they join Risen.” 

Risen is a dance group staffed entirely by addicts in recovery. As well as the outreach projects that take dance into rehabs, prisons and homeless shelters, Paul also runs Fallen Angels – a professional dance company that has performed at major venues in the UK. 

The choreography for Fallen Angels is inspired by the addicts Paul meets in his outreach work, “they are like rough diamonds,” he says. “They create amazing shapes from the intensity of their feelings and we take that movement and develop it into the professional performance.” Both groups will perform at the Royal Opera House in London in October.

It’s been a long road for Paul who always knew he wanted to be a dancer. “I had an ambition and talent to entertain people,” says Paul. “So I started going to a local dance school twice a week and eventually I got into the Royal Ballet School (RBS) when I was 10.”

But being a boy ballet dancer in a working-class area of Northern England was tough, “I was beaten up all the time,” says Paul. “I tried to give as good as I got but it’s not a nice thing to go through when you’re growing up – it instilled fear in me until I would automatically respond to everything with fear; I was frightened of succeeding, frightened of not succeeding, frightened of being the best and frightened of not being the best.”

RBS is one of the most prestigious dance academies in the world and training was intense. “It was like being in the army except you’re 11 years old,” says Paul. He pauses; thinking about his childhood is not something he does often. “If I went home I would have continued to get my arse kicked so at least I fitted in with the kids at RBS even if the training was tough and I was homesick.”

Paul spent five years at RBS. “You’re always striving for perfection,” he says. “You’re looking at yourself in the studio mirror and constantly trying to improve so you’re always pulling yourself apart.” After five years of constant training he was told that he would never make it as a classical dancer.

“It was one of my darkest moments,” says Paul. “But it was a good thing because it made me work really hard and prove them wrong.” Instead of quitting he continued training every day until he finally won a contract with the Birmingham Royal Ballet – an internationally renowned company. 

“I danced all over the world, worked with the best choreographers and had roles created for me,” says Paul. “I remember Princess Diana walking into a rehearsal when we were practicing the Nutcracker and she sat and watched us – it was a significant moment.”

Paul was near the top of his game and could have reached the highest rank of principal but addiction was already breathing down his neck. “I started drinking every night at college and this went on all through my career. I’d be out taking drugs and drink until three or four in the morning, get a few hours sleep, and do a full day’s training the next day – I  don’t know how my body coped.”

He resigned from the Royal Ballet when he was 30. “The passion was gone,” he says. ”It became like a job so I decided to quit and become an actor, but because I had started smoking crack by then I never stood a chance.” 

Paul’s life went violently downhill. “Dancing must have been holding my addiction at bay,” he says. “Because my addiction escalated and became all day every day. I was smoking crack and drinking neat vodka until I passed out and then waking up and starting again.” Within two months of quitting ballet he was in rehab. 

It was a dramatic fall from grace. “My plan was to train as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” says Paul. “But I ended up with nothing and almost lost my life – that wasn’t the plan. I remember waking up in rehab and thinking, ‘wow, how did I get here?’”

After rehab Paul struggled to cope and soon relapsed - this time on heroin. “Thinking back, it must have been a shock,” Paul says. “I mean, to go from touring all over the world, staying in the best hotels and performing in front of royalty to living like a rat with no electricity.”

The light came back a few years later. “Step five is when we make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” says Paul quoting the step perfectly. “I remember taking it to my sponsor – a biography of all the harm I’d done – and we burned it. On my way home, even though it was night, everything seemed bright…” Paul trails off searching for words to describe the ineffable. “It was almost like everything was glistening and I felt this internal warmth and sense of peace that I’d never known before. Ever since then drink and drugs don’t attract me.”

Paul’s story is similar to that of Bill W, the founder of AA, who also had a “sudden and profound” spiritual experience. Following Bill W’s example, Paul maintains the peace he found that day by helping others. “Now my life is about putting energy into someone else without getting anything in return,” he says. He thinks for a second and then, “but of course something does come back because you get a freedom from selfishness and it’s beautiful to watch other people grow.”

By taking dance into rehabs, prisons and homeless shelters, Paul and Fallen Angels have seen lives transformed. “We found that when addicts in rehab expressed themselves through movement it had a knock-on effect in their treatment - they started opening up and talking more in group therapy.” 

Paul begins a session by encouraging participants to write – anything about their addiction, trauma and hope. These stories then inspire tangles of new movement. Groups come together and create a healing dream where shared pain manifests and is exorcised through dance.

The technique works especially well for people who have trouble articulating themselves in talking therapy. “For the first seven months of my recovery I sat on my hands and looked at the floor,” says Paul. “I could hardly speak because the drugs had shot my head to pieces, so I can relate to people who struggle like that.”    

“They said it would never work but we did an amazing performance with the boys in a young offender’s institute,” continues Paul. “There was one boy who was always fighting and causing trouble but by the end of our sessions his probation officer couldn’t believe he was the same person. He had this amazing quality of movement and when he got out he auditioned for a ballet production of Lord of the Flies and got down to the last 50 from a crowd of 600. He told me that dance had given him a purpose in life.” 

At the time of this writing, Fallen Angels and Risen are in rehearsal for a performance at the Royal Opera House in London. “It’s the first time a group of people in recovery have had the chance to perform in such a prestigious arena so we’re really excited,” says Paul. “We’re hopefully going to do a tour of Britain next year and who knows what will come after that – Europe would be great.”

And the signs are good if the reactions to their previous performances are anything to go by. “After the show people always come and hug us and say how they’ve been blown away,” Paul says. “It’s so important for the dancers to be former addicts because that proves we do recover.”

Nathan A Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites

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Nathan A. Thompson is the president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, where he has been based since 2013. He has reported for VICE News, the TelegraphGuardianSlateSalonand Christian Science Monitor both in Cambodia and across the region and currently works in editorial at ucanews.com. He writes travel articles, essays and released his first poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong Only Lightning in 2016. Follow Nathan on Twitter.

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