Dance Theater on the Eve of the Election

By Emily Hite

October 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“It’s just been very intriguing to me, I didn’t plan it this way: it always seems as if the support and the interest of the venues seem to come forward right around the time of the elections,” choreographer Kathryn Roszak says in reference to her dance theater work with director Nancy Shelby, The Fifth Book of Peace. Inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston’s book of the same name, the project was born of a chance meeting at a performance in 2004. Roszak’s staging of her new work will bookend this year’s national vote, playing October 24-26 in San Francisco and November 6 in San Rafael. It happens that Stanford’s Drama Department, which includes the University’s Dance Division, will ring in the election with the first performances of its yearlong series rooted in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Multidisciplinary performance artist and scholar Aleta Hayes will premier her Wasteland in Black and White on campus, October 30-November 1. Independently, these two works re-imagine texts that relate to previous conflicts and their repercussions; The Fifth Book of Peace examines veterans’ stories from the Vietnam War, while The Waste Land arrives from the post World War I era. Though neither dance theater work puts forth a direct statement on the November 4th choices, both will likely prompt a meditation on the consequences of war as voters are about to enter the polling booths.

Roszak weaves story elements extracted from two of Kingston’s books with her own text to create her central character: “I wanted to do a piece that focused on the archetypal journey of a soldier and what that means not only for the individual but for the whole culture: that we have people go to war for us.” Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, a collection of essays and poems written by veterans and edited by Kingston, joins The Fifth Book of Peace as fuel for the production. Some of the writings describe turbulent personal conflict from participating in a plan seen from home to be largely senseless and destructive. Kingston, Senior Lecturer Emeritus in the English department at UC Berkeley, was deeply affected by her two brothers’ service in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. In response to the emotionally unsettled aftermath in the US she began the Veterans Writing Group, a monthly meeting of local vets in Berkeley, in 1993. The workshop has spawned numerous published writers from the potentially therapeutic act of artful expression.

Veteran Ted Sexauer, one author whose work was studied in preparation for Roszak’s performance, writes in an introduction to his poems that an inner struggle led him to become a medic after he had enlisted in the U.S. Army. “As a citizen of the offending nation, I felt I had an obligation to try to set right the wrong,” Sexauer explains in Kingston’s anthology. With time, “the moral clarity I’d acted on became clouded and confused. I saved some lives, and I helped the army machine do its work. I was accomplice to murder,” he says. Sexauer’s poem “The Well by the Trail to My An” speaks of compassion for the Vietnamese civilians mistreated by “careless youth from a rich world”—soldiers behaving in ways they might live to regret. The complexity of the individual and his or her situation and the ambiguity between good and evil in the midst of war are kept intact rather than simplified or forced into resolution.

Roszak aims to uphold this realistic point of view in her production. In her words, she creates onstage “a world which embraces beauty and horror at the same time.” Such a world calls for a range of talented artists to tell the soldier’s tale, which may not be strictly linear. For this project she has employed dancers from the LINES Ballet/ Dominican University BFA program, actors, martial artists, and a commissioned score by Ron van Leeuwaarde. She also consulted a few fight choreographers on the matter of stage violence. On the subject enduring beauty and the march toward peace, the dancers will embody the landscape and animals in Vietnam, alluding to excerpts from James Janko’s novel, Buffalo Boy and Geronimo, which began at a veterans’ meditation and writing retreat. The soldier in the performance encounters other characters along his path such as the bodhisattva of compassion, Kuan Yin, and the ghost of a woman the soldier has killed. The ghost figure appeared repeatedly among the veterans’ stories, which Roszak found to have dramatic carriage.

As a former member of the San Francisco Opera Ballet as well as several theater organizations, Roszak feels that “Even though I might not be working on a huge scale, I still like to sometimes think in operatic terms about what we’re doing.” Also thinking on an operatic scale, Hayes has crafted a play within a play for her Wasteland production, using the Dido and Aeneas story from the Aeneid as an entry point. Both the opera and Virgil’s epic poem will be drawn from; Hayes, who will perform in the work as well as direct it, has long adored the aria expressing Dido’s lament. Hayes’s professional career has utilized her talents in dancing, acting and singing; after graduating from Stanford she spent years in New York and touring with Robert Wilson, Jane Comfort and Ping Chong in addition to creating her own multidimensional work. Her collaborators for the Wasteland project are Virginia Preston, a graduate student, and Donnie Hill, an undergraduate, in Stanford’s Drama Department, who each bring specific skills to the work as dramaturge and actor in addition to performing characters through dance.

Of particular interest in Eliot’s poem are the numerous references to works of literature. On re-envisioning The Waste Land and adapting it for the stage, Hayes remarks, “It eludes one interpretation. It eludes one way of doing it. It’s not a piece of theater, it’s a poem.” Therefore the possibilities for presenting as well as interpreting the work are wide open, rather than following or departing from a seminal live production. The text provides fertile ground for the five productions taking place at Stanford this year to be largely different from one another while creating dialogue among them. Asked whether the timing of the production with a World War I history is significant, Hayes replied, “If this current war has anything to do with it, it was considered also a senseless war.”

Both The Fifth Book of Peace and Wasteland in Black and White will be performed at a sensitive time, with a potential to influence. Kingston notes that the dance drama her works have inspired “will be true serendipitous preparation for the coming elections. From the lives and the pens of veterans, we learn about the consequences of war. We learn about the ways to peace.” For Roszak, it is both the telling of veterans’ stories and the active listening of a receptive audience that will make her pre-election premiere timely. Hayes is also delighted by the proximity of her performances to November 4th. To her the election signifies “the possibility of enormous change. This huge potentiality in front of us.” And what may come of it.

The Fifth Book of Peace premieres at Dance Mission Theater, October 24-25 at 8 pm, October 26 at 3 pm. Post-performance talk with Maxine Hong Kingston on October 25. You can also see it at Dominican University, San Rafael, November 6 at 8pm followed by a post-performance talk with Daniel Ellsberg, political analyst and revealer of The Pentagon Papers.

Wasteland in Black and White premieres at the Upper Scene Shop in Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University, October 30-November 1. Related events are a Presidential Lecture with Robert Wilson, Piggott Theatre, Stanford University, October 1 at 8 pm and a Master Class with Robert Wilson examining a scene from Wasteland in Black and White, Piggott Theatre, October 1 at 3:30 pm.

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.

Emily Hite has contributed to the Dancing Times, Stanford magazine, Stanford Lively Arts magazine, Dance Magazine, Voice of, and Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2006). In 2008 she interviewed Yvonne Mounsey for the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. She joined Hope Mohr Dance in 2007.