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December 4, 2014

Exploring War Through Dance

When former ODC dancer “Private” Freeman told award-winning local choreographer Deborah Slater that he’d joined the military at 17, she was mystified. So she did what she often does when faced with an intriguing puzzle: she made a dance. First, she and Freeman created a solo for him.

As they worked together on the project, she was increasingly astonished by the strength of his convictions; he is from a military family and joined up, she says, for the “right” reasons: a sense of honor and responsibility. “It made me rethink my kneejerk liberal response to stuff,” she explains. And still she could not let go of “this thing about arts and the military.”

Now, several years later and in celebration of Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s 25th anniversary, she is premiering “Private Life,” a piece for four dancers—Derek Harris, Kerry Mehling and Kelly Kemp, who have been involved in developing the piece over several years, and newcomer Andrew Merrell—set to text by poet Deborah Crooks. The text is based on stories that Slater gathered from Freeman and other interviewees with military backgrounds; Crooks shaped those stories into a fragmented, poetic narrative spoken by onstage actors Paul Finocchiaro and Sarah Kliban. The evening-length piece includes original music by composer Bruno Louchouarn.

As a structural device, Slater looked to “The Art of War,” a 6th-century BCE military treatise by Sun Tzu that Freeman had recommended. She found the book intriguing—the author talks about psychological manipulation during warfare—and borrowed a series of titles from it to help delineate patterns of movement. Projected onto screens, the titles define types of terrain, strategies, tactics and more. Other multimedia elements include abstract videos that enhance the various scenarios.

Among the many stories that Crooks wrote, Slater chose the “little intimate stories of people trying to keep a relationship together with what they know [from war], and somehow trying to function in their regular lives. Some pull it off; many don’t.”

She cites the text that accompanies one sequence in particular, in which a married couple struggles to reconnect after two years apart: “There’s a fault line running through the house. There are no cracks in the walls but I can feel them. . . . Now you are back and we don’t know how to speak.” Says Slater, “This is so heart-breaking. It’s a whole world in a short, one-page text.”

In a rehearsal, Kemp and Merrell, as the struggling couple, sit silently side by side. She looks searchingly at him; he doesn’t look at her. His hands are fists. He partially collapses on her. She startles. He puts a hand on her thigh and they move into a slow, intense acrobatic duet. They hold each other upside down. She laughs, she flirts, she crashes her chair against his chair and he does the same in response—aggressive, violent. A phrase recurs: “I have something to tell you.” What the returning vet wants to tell his wife is never spoken, only expressed, in despair, through movement, yet never truly understood by her.

“The shape is right,” Slater tells the dancers. “I want to go through the emotional connections later.”

Not all the scenes are somber. In one, husband and wife (Harris and Mehling) squabble over car keys, and the best route to get home, as they careen down the highway. In another, dancers trade partners in a sexy, dramatic tango.

Although “Private Life” was not conceived with a beginning, middle and end, it did ultimately find an internal structure of its own, with each dancer embodying a particular character throughout. “There are a lot of ways to interpret what’s going on onstage,” says Slater. “I like to leave it open for the audience. But I make sure the dancers know exactly what they’re doing so they can be really full in the moment.” She adds, of the development process, “The dancers worked from the stories initially, to make movement up. Once the narrators came in, it affected rhythms and choices they made. They started attaching abstract movement to different places in the text—stillness, violence, abrupt changes—because it made sense as they heard the story.” The music came into the mix later. Slater observes that each medium—text, movement, music, video design—helps carry the stories and the emotion. “I’m interested in the undercurrents, the subtext,” she says—ways in which, for example, the music or the text can convey one thing, as the movement subtly portrays a contradictory feeling.

For Derek Harris, coming back to the project after its two-year hiatus, there’s a freedom now to probe the material further: the structure, the sentences, the content, the character’s intentions. “There’s a lot more to investigate, emotionally and physically,” he says. “We can go deeper into the subtleties of how long we take a pause, or how much gravity we give a certain gesture or movement.” He adds, “In solos, Deborah allows us to look at movement not as arbitrary but as language and sentences. She pushes us to find the punctuation—commas, exclamation points—and that has helped me tune my editorial eye.”

Harris grew up in a military family, which allowed him to bring a special perspective to his character. Still, he says, he wouldn’t want audiences to get too caught up in the military context: “It’s also a story about individuals [that is] accessible to anybody.”

Dancer Kerry Mehling, who’s tall with a Louise Brooks hairdo, agrees. “It’s a glimpse into our inner private life, and the setting happens to be the military,” she says. Her father was in the Air Force, so her background enables her to add a bit of texture that she feels connects her to others with military families.

Of creating the piece with Slater, who works very collaboratively with her dancers, Mehling says, “These stories are beautiful, singular nuggets in themselves, with no real through line. We had to create that, find out how these characters meet, interact, who are they to one another. I’m a piece of that puzzle.”

For Slater, creating a new work is always about trying to understand something, even if it’s incomprehensible to her, like war, which encompasses layers and layers of information that she can’t comprehend, she says. “What happens when you go to war,” she wonders, “and it’s kill or be killed, and you’re taught to protect yourself?—and then you come home."

She suspects that part of the reason that this topic was so interesting to her is because she once lived with a Vietnam vet. “He had a terrible cycle of relationships with his family, and anger I didn’t understand,” she muses, “and I think a lot of that didn’t have to do with me, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

Looking back after a quarter-century of dance-making, she is thrilled and surprised to find an overall consistency in her work. “I always just feel like I’m following an idea in some direction,” she says, but looking at old videos made her realize how she has always been interested in stories and emotional content—and now she knows better how to find her way into the material, how to de-clutter the stage and enrich the work. Of “Private Life,” she says, “Like most of the pieces I make, I’m trying to understand something. A couple of years from now, I’ll look back on it and say, ‘Oh, that’s what it was about.’”

December 11 → 14

"Private Life"
ODC Theater
3153 17th St., 415-863-9834

Photo Shawn Clover / CC BY-NC

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