time to change the way we view music and the arts

Dancing Around the Topic of Violence and War

Flags on Fifth Avenue

“Flags on Fifth Avenue” by Frederick Childe Hassam
(Cit. FrederickHassam.org)

It being Memorial Day here in the U.S., I thought it only appropriate that the topic for today’s post recognize the occasion and the significance of its realities.

Today brings a variety of activities out of the woodworks for U.S. citizens everywhere. These can range from the seasonally celebrated, like barbecues and big dinners, to the independently reserved and serious, like salutes, memorial tributes and gravesite visits. The idea that we as a nation take pause to acknowledge and give thanks for the ultimate sacrifice made by those who preceded us…that in an of itself is a beautiful thing. It is the reason those sacrifices had to be made that is so disheartening and unwanted: wars, violence and premature death.
You might be asking yourself what this has to do with performing arts or if I am even providing an arts based post today. Just stick with things for a bit.
Wars, battles, missions, each soldier’s unique story…these events have made for acceptable source material for our own modern day entertainment. When I say entertainment, it is meant as a reference of onlooking education or enlightening exposure; not necessarily things meant to make one “feel good” in the traditional, everyday sense. Artistic mediums of all kinds have breached the subject of war for some level of “entertaining/exposure value:” from film, (Saving Private Ryan,) to visual art (Fracisco de Goya’s Third of May,) to music (William Steffe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic,) to literature (Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier’s My Brother Sam is Dead) to theatre (Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.) There are many examples strewn throughout the world and throughout the history thereof but the point being that this is a concept which knows no bounds of depiction or intellectual and emotional poignancy.
What though, about the sphere of dance -more specifically- traditional ballet? The mediums mentioned above each has its own sense of self and ability to convey that the others lack but a common capability for each of them is their ability to connect with an outwardly appreciable amount of realism. These examples can both strike at artistic individuality and a single creator’s voice while also leaving room for grounded reality if that is so chosen. Revolving around the subject of battle and violence and then subsequent commemoration of a person, elements can be pulled into any of these forms that do not strip away the raw slap in the face that someone getting killed actually is.
Of course I have nothing to say of real life experience, having never enlisted or served, nor having ever been a serious ballet dancer. However, consider this: There has in fact, been a recent production by the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, titled, “Frontier: War of 1812,” which was workshopped and then performed on a few different occasions at a few different venues in 2012. This production was is described as follows, quoted directly from the Ballet Theatre’s website:

Frontier: The War of 1812 is a live dance multi-media performance that captures the fiery independence of colonial America as it forges itself into a nation. Set to David Arkenstone’s Emmy award-winning score, this production is inspired by the letters and memoirs of Dolley Madison and other significant women of the period and depicts the major events of the war that shaped America’s destiny, beginning with the causes and declaration of war through the Burning of Washington to the Battle of Fort McHenry and the creation of the Star Spangled Banner.

Knowing that the War of 1812 was itself an event wrought with as much era-specific history as violence and hardship, while this work was praised and promoted during the time leading up to its run and then during and after, what is there to say about its depiction and execution of events that clearly step outside the typical boundaries of grace and control expected of the human body whilst performing ballet?
This is not to say that there are no dance styles overall, which can connect to more visceral music or movements, displaying perhaps a more hardened sense of posturing but, still, a great deal of physical self-awareness is involved in ballet, so I ask dancers out there, choreographers any others of knowledge:
Even though every artistic medium is different, is there something particular about ballet that perhaps prevents it from presenting a realistically gripping display (unlike its artistic counterparts,) and fosters instead a more artistic display, when it comes to creating a work that is meant to retell a wartime storyline? 
Let’s be blunt here: (again, keeping in mind, I acknowledge I have never been there first hand) War usually incites casualties. If a person is unexpectedly killed, let’s say by a gunshot, there is no grace to be had in that act. Such a death is an ugly, tragic thing and although unpleasant, this reality can be re-enacted and re-imagined through art to allow for both an individual artist’s vision and a level of firm seriousness that keeps the concept of a premature death in the necessarily disturbing place it belongs. Paintings, movies, compositions, words…these tools of art can create this kind of connection but can ballet, with its innate qualities of balance, precision and poise?
…and a thank you to all service men and women out there. Living with us here and those who have passed on. Your real life commitment is to be revered and respected.

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS