THE SEPTEMBER attacks shook a nation, if not the world, to its core. To artists whose instinct is to mirror the human soul, to look upon at such devastation was paralyzing.
The attacks, though, did not destroy Bay Area dancers. Instead, many found a deeper appreciation for the freedom of movement, both in their performances and their ability to come together.
“For us, we work in community,” reflects Pam King, executive director of Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in San Francisco. “To come together, to create work together, is a very healing kind of thing.”
Audiences likewise sought solace in dance, even the very night after the attack. “It was hard for the performers to perform, and yet many, many people came,” says ODC co-artistic director KT Nelson. “I think they needed to commune, to be with other people.”
Diablo Ballet artistic director and co-founder Lauren Jonas admitted that rehearsals the Wednesday after felt “bizarre.” It was difficult to focus, and there were talks to figure out what the company would do. Ultimately, she says, “once we got into it, it was helpful.” The dances they had to perform were exuberant and joyful, and in a way, the dancers were determined to convey this liveliness.
“You’re happy to be alive. You’re grateful to be able to do what you love to do for a living, whereas (before) you take it for granted what you do,” Jonas says. “I know among the dancers they were feeling that as well.”
That is why she did not change the energetic program at Ohlone and St. Mary’s colleges. “I feel like at this time people really need the arts, and they really need something to uplift their spirits.”
Like Jonas, Moving Arts Collective artistic director Anandha Ray sat down with her dancers to talk about their opening performances on Sept. 28 and 29. “If we viewed ourselves as entertainment, we would have canceled the concert,” Ray said. Instead, the events “solidified for us the importance of what we do as a company to reflect the human condition through art.”
Still, she almost scuttled an especially emotionally wrenching piece, the award-winning “Mayday! Mayday!” about two World War II bomber pilots who crash and gradually realize they have become ghostly spirits. Ray’s 1986 piece had been inspired by World War II veterans (the audio even features sounds from the war front) who had brought their families to the performance. Instead, Ray included a heartfelt note to the program explaining its inclusion, and the music was toned down.
Ironically, a month ago, “I would have gone forward thinking of Mayday’ as artwork and not a political piece at all,” Ray notes. “It has been full circle.”
How the terrorist attacks will affect dancers’ artistic expressions, now and in the uncertain future, will take time to unfold. “Some of this will seep into our artwork. It takes time to sit with it and it becomes who we are,” Ray says.
Nelson had been finishing a “Duets,” a series of partner dances for the Diablo Ballet. After the attacks, the last duet became a dance of a human being and its soul, who separate upon death. She, too, believes the experiences will take time to seep in. In the present, she has discovered a sharpened sense of liberty. “I’m grateful for the life I have, that I can basically do what I want to do,” Nelson says.
With programs planned a year in advance, the choreographer will not be creating her next work until April. Nelson had been playing with the idea of “Sleeping Beauty.” “I really wanted to get at this figure of being asleep and being awakened to the realities of life,” she says. Nelson had been thinking of it in terms of girls becoming women, but now it has grown to “how we evolve in a sleep. I think we have been asleep, all of us, to some extent: How can you look at the world differently now?”
Live performance, she believes, will take on a different meaning. Before, “there was a kind of frivolousness, how far can we go,” Nelson observes. “Now it’s what matters; I think we’re not on the accelerator any more.”
In a way, the determination to go on comes from an instinct to preserve a tradition and to perpetuate a legacy. “People a century from now can look back and see who we were and what we experienced,” Ray says. “That’s what art does: It gives you a commentary of the people.”
Vera H-C Chan can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.