By Deborah Slater

February 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

All warfare is based on deception…
The Art of War, Sun Tzu

“I joined the military when I was 17”, he said, “I started dancing when I was 18.”   Thus began a series of conversations with dancer Private Freeman* about his life as a professional artist and a professional soldier. Coming from a military family, he expected to be a policeman when he grew up. The values of the military, not politics, were his connection – loyalty, integrity, courage, obedience, etc.

Pictured: Kelly Kemp & Rogelio Lopez Photo by: Nisha Singh
Pictured: Kelly Kemp & Rogelio Lopez
Photo by: Nisha Singh

Private talked about the sense of responsibility he felt towards his community, and how, after 9/11, he wanted to go into active duty to protect them. Private Life explores the unique bonds, loyalties and rifts born of the contradictions of the military experience set on a human scale. Private life — military and civilian — implies an intimacy based on the sharing of exclusive knowledge, experience and shared codes of conduct. How do our private beliefs about morality, honor, etc. lead us to conduct ourselves and how does this conduct steer us toward or away from one another, create tribes or enemies?

Our conversations were complex and intriguing. We explored what it meant to be an artist and a soldier simultaneously, and specifically, how each realm conflicted and/or complemented the other, and what it is about a person that drives their desire and ability to be both. In the solo form, as performance and short film, we delved into Private’s talents, personality and intellect, using spoken word, acting and dancing.

We examined multiple perspectives through a single movement phrase – done first in the body of a military man, then as dancer, and then as a fusion of both. We explored the structure and discipline that draws someone like Private into a process, whether it’s military training or the creative construction of a dance. He employed humor and physical expression, while still holding the underlying seriousness of his values and integrity.

Attack by stratagem – Breaking the enemy’s resistance is best…
If I give you that inch, Will you take this mile?
–Deborah Crooks

From this has come the next phase: the expansion and refinement of the idea that we often have no clue what experiences other people have had, and what we see is not all that is there.

For this next round of Private Life, performers Kelly Kemp, Derek Harris*, Kerry Mehling* and Rogelio Lopez, with actors Delia MacDougall & Robert Ernst are working with text created by writer Deborah Crooks*. Crooks created intimate vignettes based on the strategies in The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Composer and neuro-scientist Bruno Louchouarn is creating music to reflect the underlying feelings in each story, as well as a unified field of sound. Videographers Ben Estabrook and Ian Winters* are taking different approaches – in Ben’s case, a small movie, using Private, about making a choice to go or stay; in Ian’s case, pin hole camera scenarios that complement and contrast the stage action.

With the dancers, we are exploring: 1) how our beliefs about morality, honor, etc., lead us to live our lives one-way and 2) how our life experiences, especially those that contradict our values, alter our beliefs.

Each dancer is given a story, discusses the moral dilemmas, and explores how to inhabit the character from the inside. It is challenging to suspend judgment; to accept that each character is doing what they think is best.

The Public’s view has shifted from the Viet Nam war era and the country now seems more inclined to appreciate the soldier, while hating the war, a disorienting dilemma itself. We share an underlying seriousness of the essential values, no matter what one’s occupation. DSDT is using The Art of War to turn philosophical ideas into movement, employing Sun Tsu’s strategies and how they parallel relationships and life in general.

Two enemies will help each other in a time of common peril, so an army, with things in common, will help its parts even more…
-The Art of War, Sun Tzu

One example would be a duet with Rogelio Lopez and Kelly Kemp. Each has a solo, developed in response to a specific situation – for Rogelio, giving up in the face of endless failure; for Kelly, coping with unexpected betrayal. The duet began with a new story, two people trying to re-connect after a long period apart and unspecified extreme experiences. Using their solos as source material and two chairs as a frame, they took turns pushing into or withdrawing from each other inside their movements. Could a balance be done on the lap of the other person? Could a support be offered or pulled away, causing a new cycle of movement to evolve?  How did their characters feelings change as the piece went along? Were they growing or deceiving themselves? Discussions, movement, direction, repeat – a collaborative process between the dancers and choreographer.

In the end, a glimpse into a universal dilemma, and perhaps greater empathy for what we all go through.

*From military families

Private Life Studies Nov 2-4 co-production w/CounterPULSE, with special guests Kelly Kemp/Number 9 and Sue Roginski w/Christy Funsch. The premiere produced by ZSpace in 2013.

This article appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of In Dance.

Deborah Slater, director/choreographer/performer, has worked in dance and theater for over 30 years. She is the Artistic Director of Deborah Slater Dance Theater, a multi-media dance company, creating visually gorgeous, acrobatic, talking dance and dedicated to the creation of full-length works exploring social issues, science and art through original dance, text and music. Slater co-founded Studio 210, a performance/rehearsal space celebrating its 40th Anniversary in 2020. Selected commissions and residencies include SF MOMA, USF Dance & Social Justice, Iowa State University and the Exploratorium.