Updated as of 6:54 p.m. on Oct. 29 to include mental health and crisis prevention resources.
“Semicolon,” a student-run dance production three years in the making, involved more than 40 students and community members collaborating to tell the stories of those impacted by suicide ideation, convey a message of hope and create a safe space for community members to share their stories.
Director and choreographer Pheriby Bryan is a junior and began planning the performance during her freshman year, after learning about a grant opportunity for Elon students to explore choreographic creativity through a research project.
Bryan said when she first learned about the grant, she didn’t plan on applying, until one day during winter break when a hymn from Jeffery L. Ames’ “In Remembrance” was stuck in her head.
In 2018, Bryan performed the hymn with her high school choir at the vigil service for Sean Bonner, an alum of her high school who died by suicide. The song, and Bryan’s memory of it, became a primary source of inspiration for “Semicolon.” Bryan said after she found the song online again she knew she wanted to choreograph a dance to a live choir singing the hymn.
A couple weeks later, Bryan said she heard from her mom that a student at her high school had published a series of journal entries about his experiences with suicidal ideation. After reading the student’s — William Burleson’s — journal called “semi-colon,” Bryan said she knew she had to apply for the grant.
“This journal that he published in order to make people aware of his journey, but also that this is something that’s experienced by so many kids and so many young adults,” Bryan said. “I read his journal and it was beautiful. I immediately was moved by it.”
While Burleson’s journals and Bryan’s memory of the hymn inspired her to apply for the grant, Bryan said she knew she needed to bring this project to life — and to Elon — after reflecting on how suicide impacted college students.
In September of her freshman year in 2021, a student in Bryan’s residence hall died by suicide and the University of North Carolina, Chapell Hill lost three students to suicide within a two-month period.
“That was the third point of inspiration that was calling me to action to create this piece,” Bryan said.
Junior Meredith Peck has been friends with Bryan since the start of their freshman year and was one of the first people Bryan shared the concept with. Peck said she remembers the moment Bryan walked into her room to tell her about the project.
“I remember just sobbing because it just felt like something that was just fated to happen, something that needed to be on campus,” Peck said.
Bryan received the Rhoades Research and Choreography Grant in spring 2022 and started her research that fall with her mentors, Elon dance professors Keshia Wall and Jen Metcalf.
With three performances across Oct. 20 and 21, Bryan’s research was presented to the public through four dance pieces. The production featured recordings of Burleson reading excerpts from his journals, and the live choir Bryan envisioned came in the form of the Elon Camerata.
Bryan said although the topic is dark and painful, she hoped people could engage with the performances with a feeling of hope. She said Burleson’s journals were a key inspiration for the hopeful narrative in “Semicolon.”
“That’s what the semicolon represents, is a moment that you could have chose to end a sentence but decided not to,” Bryan said. “You could have chose to end your life and he decided not to, so it’s really a symbol of hope.”
Juniors Sarah Rothacker and Katey O’Connell were two of the eight dancers in “Semicolon” and said they remember sitting with Bryan during their freshman year Winter Term class while Bryan was working on her initial grant application. O’Connell said they would proofread the application drafts and she had hoped Bryan would ask her to be part of the performance.
“Everyone has their own personal connection to suicide prevention,” O’Connell said. “I feel like in situations like these, when you come out on the other end, the best part about it is that you can make sure that people don’t feel the same way.”
Rothacker said while she hopes the performances had a positive impact on the community, the impact it had on Bryan and everyone involved was also fulfilling.
“Seeing it from literally a proposal on paper — and I think it was an 11-page paper or something like that — into a full 40-minute production with costumes and lighting and all of the people that have been involved and seeing her grow … It’s really been inspiring,” Rothacker said.
From choreographing the pieces to research and interviews to their first rehearsal in February, Bryan spent the past three years planning and developing “Semicolon.”
“The biggest message with this piece is that the best way that we can prevent this from happening and to help people is to talk about it,” Bryan said. “That’s what I wanted to translate into this piece of art, is talking about it openly.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 to 24 years old. The CDC also reported that suicide rates in this age group increased more than 52% between 2000 and 2021.
Bryan said it was important for the production to be free and open to the public beyond the Elon community, to reach as many people as she could.
“Not being afraid to talk about it will help people not feel alone in their experience,” Bryan said. “The fact that we’re putting on this piece of art for the public … is a message of collectivity and not feeling alone.”
Peck said her favorite part of working on this project was seeing everyone connect with the material, use it as a way to express themselves, connect with one another and process their own emotions. She said while mental health is important to talk about, sometimes it can be hard to find the words.
“In a way, dancing it is more healing because a lot of things can be danced but not said,” Peck said.
“Semicolon” was comprised of four dances. The first, “Tired Soul,” is an interpretation of Burleson’s journals performed by senior Ellie Schmidt and introduced by a recording of Burleson reading an excerpt from “semi-colon.”
Peck worked with Bryan to co-choreograph the second dance, “grief and I would do life together.” Bryan said the piece is dedicated to parents who have lost a child to suicide. The dance’s name is a quote from April Simpkins whose daughter Chelsie Kryst, 2019 Miss USA, died by suicide in 2022.
The piece is introduced with a different excerpt from Burleson’s “semi-colon” and starts with a solo from Peck, who is joined by the ensemble before ending the dance alone. The first two pieces were both performed to versions of AURORA’s song “Through the Eyes of a Child.”
“Human Heart,” which is performed to a Coldplay song of the same name, was an ensemble piece; Bryan said the dance is a reminder that no one is alone in their struggle.
“The third piece is really meant to have a feeling of fellowship, the human experience,” Bryan said. “It’s meant to remind everyone that although we all have individual experiences with mental illness – at some point in our lives we all do – so it’s that collectivity.”
Bryan said, for her, one of the most rewarding parts of the project was getting to invite Burleson and Heather Bonner, the mother of Sean, to attend the performances.
“I’m doing this for everyone, and I want to give this to them because they’ve given so much to help people save lives, and I want to show them that,” Bryan said. “I want to do what they do. I want to save lives like they have. And so I’m really just extending the work that they’ve done.”
Heather founded Mission 34 after her son died by suicide in 2018. The suicide prevention and awareness nonprofit is named after Sean’s college baseball number.
“Our whole mission is raising awareness and trying to de-stigmatize the conversation,” Heather said. “I’m all in favor of however you need to do that: through music, through movement, through dance, through conversation.”
The finale of “Semicolon” is a full ensemble piece, and the only piece Bryan dances in. Burleson’s voice comes through the speakers reading Emily Dickonson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” as the Elon Camerata files on stage. As the lights came on, over 20 singers stood in black robes with green stoles and began singing “In Remembrance” to live music as the eight dancers moved around Roberts Studio Theatre telling a story of sorrow, community, fellowship and hope.
Bryan said the finale is meant to send the audience away with a message of hope.
After each performance, there was a panel of different guest speakers answering audience questions about mental health and suicide prevention. The speakers included Heather, Burleson and local advocates.
During the panel after the Oct. 20 performance, Bryan said she is working on creating a Mission 34 chapter at Elon, which will be launching in the spring.
For resources, students, faculty and staff can contact the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at 336-278-7729, staff with Student Care and Outreach in the Office of the Dean of Students at 336-278-7200, or counselors from Counseling Services at 336-278-7280. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 988.
Students can access 24/7 resources from the crisis counselor on-call at 336-278-2222, TalkNow from TimelyCare, or Student Life administrator on-call through Campus Safety and Police at 336-278-5555. Faculty and staff may also utilize Elon Work-Life Resources for support.