In June of 2011, Anchorage dancer and choreographer Leslie Kimiko Ward worried that her two week artist residency at the school in the Western Alaska village of Saint Michael would be cut short. At the end of her first week in the village, a young man drowned in a lake near the school.
Alaska State Troopers reported that 23-year-old Johnny Prince, of nearby Kotlik, tried to "skip" his snowmachine across the pond, but the machine stalled and sank. Prince had several relatives in St. Michael and was visiting family when the incident occurred.
Teachers told Ward that students might not come to school the next week. They shared their fears that the blow could trigger grief and depression that would cause a friend or family member to take his or her own life, possibly leading to a chain reaction of more suicides.
"I didn't know what to do with myself," Ward said in an interview. "But I decided to fold 1,000 origami cranes in the week I had left -- a gesture, I guess."
In Japan, the paper cranes are a symbol of peace and reconciliation -- not to mention a distraction. The crane is not a particularly easy form to make. It requires patience and concentration.
The kids did come back to school and some began making cranes with her.
"It had a good effect on the kids," said Alice Fitka, a behavioral health specialist with Norton Sound Health Corp., whose job duties include substance abuse assessment and counseling. "It really lifted their spirits to have something like that happen in the young man's memory."
Ward posted pictures on the Internet. Friends in Anchorage joined in and sent their own photos to the Saint Michael kids.
Suddenly, Ward said, "The story went viral. We had people sending us pictures of their cranes from Washington, Louisiana, Greece, Sweden, a whole Coast Guard unit in Georgia."
"It made it less painful for everyone," Fitka said. "Especially when they learned it had gone on the Internet, that other people were doing it too."
Ward and the students finished the 1,000 cranes in four days. They presented the finished pieces to the village in a performance.
Fitka remembered the presentation in the school gym with the 1,000 paper birds and a performance with the kids drumming on five gallon buckets.
"That part really amazed me," she said, "how in such a short period of time she had the kids making music with buckets wrapped with clear packing tape. And it sounded so beautiful. I think she really lifted up the community."
For Ward the cranes were a tangible way of overcoming the sense of isolation that can contribute to depression. "Suicide is the ultimate disconnect," she said. The project had the effect of connecting people from around the world with villagers in Saint Michael. Ward said a pivotal moment came when one of the students mused, "How do all these people know who we are? Why do they care about us?"
In January, Ward created a short piece in the "Under 30" show at Out North Contemporary Art House in Anchorage, working with storyteller Jack Dalton to present the crane experience as something like a legend.
The show came and went, but she mentioned it over coffee with Tami Lubitsh. Lubitsh, an Anchorage mental health clinician who has used theater as therapy with prisoners, was intrigued. She had worked as a theater director in Israel before moving to the United States. The two agreed to collaborate in turning the "Under 30" piece into a full-length performance work, which will debut at 8 p.m. Friday. at Out North.
The revised "1,000 Cranes" is about 90 minutes long, Lubitsh said. It includes dance, theater and video to drive home the message of connection.
"We have a lot of ways to connect on a superficial level," Lubitsh said. "But the deeper level is becoming neglected. We've lost something very profound."
Expanding the original performance piece has been "a pretty big process," Ward said, "and one that I stuck around in Alaska just to have."
Ward had planned to move to a farm in Oregon this summer before she joined forces with Lubitsh. "I sold everything I own, turned down all my summer work, got rid of my housing. I've been car camping and couch surfing, working only on this project. Maybe it will make some impact on the hemorrhage of smart, bright people in this state."
Alaska's suicide rate, 23 per 100,000, is double the national average according to the most recent annual report of the Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. In much of rural Alaska it borders on an epidemic. The suicide rate among Alaska Natives is reported to be 40.4 per 100,000. (The 100,000 basis is applied in the numbers that follow.) For non-Native Alaskans, the number is 17.7. Natives living in large towns or cities have a suicide rate not much different than the general population, 25.8. But in villages it's 60. Among Native males between the ages of 20 and 29, the number is a horrifying 155.3.
Ward said that for the past year, St. Michael has been suicide-free. Whether her cranes had anything to do with that is anyone's guess. But the people in the village still remember the event fondly.
"The kids were really proud of themselves and their contribution," Fitka said. "It taught them to be compassionate when we've had a loss, to be caring and supportive.
"It was a very positive thing for that lady to do that for the community."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.