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Into Sunlight: Dance, Reconciliation, and Peace

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series, click here.)

By Gloria Hage

The devastation of war reaches beyond political boundaries, inflicting trauma on the individual, society, and the environment. How do we create a lasting peace where there is a legacy of war? How do we embrace our shared humanity and find the common ground necessary to rebuild what hatred and war have destroyed? Reconciliation and healing are prerequisites for peace. Peace is a prerequisite for all of life. Movement is our primary language.  Through this universal language, dance has the unique capacity to generate a deeply felt experience of healing. Into Sunlight, a performance by Robin Becker Dance, demonstrates how dance can help us bear witness to life, awakening us to our state of being, and to our shared humanity. 

Robin Becker Dance is a New York City based dance company founded in 1987. The company’s current project Into Sunlight is an evening-length dance inspired by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best selling author David Maraniss’s book, They Marched Into Sunlight. The book portrays the tumultuous shift of cultural perspective caused by the Vietnam War through the lens of events on October 1967. By weaving together stories about soldiers in Vietnam with growing social and political unrest on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Maraniss explores the effects of violence on both those in battle and those at home desperately searching for peace.

Artistic Director and choreographer Robin Becker describes her creative impetus for Into Sunlight:

Throughout my life I have believed in dance as a powerful tool for transformation, providing a context in which we may discover our shared humanity through the moving, sensing body. Deeply saddened when the US invaded Iraq, and with a hope of contributing to the healing process, I embarked upon an evening-length dance that dealt with war, peace, and protest in our time.  My initial research was to investigate images and mythologies from world cultures to find archetypes that would offer insight into the human activity of war. I discovered the book They Marched Into Sunlight. When I read it, I immediately responded to the timelessness and universality of the themes and events documented. I was deeply moved by the integrity, honor and commitment of both those who fought the war, and those who fought against it. I embarked upon the creation of this dance, Into Sunlight, hoping that the universal language of the body would offer the same sense of healing that David’s words evoked in me.

The dance, Into Sunlight, premiered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2011, and at Hofstra University, New York. At each campus it served as the centerpiece for an interdisciplinary conference examining the effects of war and violence on the individual body and the social body, from Vietnam to our present era. The conferences addressed perspectives of History, Psychology, Political Science, Trauma Studies, Anthropology, Visual Art and Theater through the lens of war’s impact. After every performance, audiences, which included war veterans, were engaged in discussion, expressing their emotions, concerns, interpretations, and ideals for action. Our work in the dance and symposium addressed themes of cultural embodiment, the impact of war and violence, and the integrative power of art, with the dance providing a unifying process of reconciliation for those who experience the trauma of battle and for a culture engaged in its own battle of reconciliation.

Subsequent performances in 2012, included Georgetown University, the 92nd Street Y, Stony Brook University’s Festival of the Moving Body, and at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School, where it was the focal point of an extensive residency.  In 2013 Into Sunlight made its full New York City debut.

Author, David Maraniss describes his book and the dance:

My book is about war and peace. It is a nonfiction account of two days in October 1967 when war was raging in Vietnam and the antiwar movement was raging in America. It is about two simultaneous events, a battle and a protest. In Vietnam, on the morning of October 17, a battalion of young American soldiers walked out into the jungle on what was known as a “search and destroy” mission and got destroyed themselves in an ambush set up by the Viet Cong; sixty men killed and sixty wounded in a few hours of fighting. Back in the U.S., at about the same time, students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison were protesting the presence on campus of job recruiters from Dow Chemical Co., the makers of napalm and Agent Orange, two of the horrific weapons of war. The protest turned into the first violent confrontation on a college campus during the war when local police waded into the sit-down protest and bashed heads with their billy clubs.

Those are the specifics of the story, but the themes are what drive the book, and what energize Robin’s amazing dance. As different as the young soldiers and the young protesters might seem on the surface, more bound them together than separated them, and it is the commonality of the human experience that Robin evokes – the fears, the questions, heading off to the unknown, young vs. old, brother vs. brother, love and hate, the meaning of loyalty and patriotism and the eternal sorrow of war. It is one thing to hit on a timeless theme, it is quite another to bring true art to the stage. That is what Robin and the dancers are doing.

Into Sunlight provokes discussions and considerations of how war and violence shape our experiences, transforming us physically, mentally and emotionally. The emotional reactions of countless war veterans and audience members underscores the importance of this work, and how it can be a catalyst for vital dialogue on post-traumatic stress in the individual body, as well as the rippling effects of war and violence throughout the societal body.

Robin Becker shares her hope as a dance artist and for Into Sunlight:  

My hope is, and what continues to lead me as a dance artist, is my belief that if people can feel more of themselves, if I can create something people can participate in and feel deeply about, then the impact of that might inspire new and hopefully heart-based actions. After seeing the work, Veterans have shared some very emotional responses. Many have expressed their gratitude and a feeling that something has been at last reconciled for them. Protesters from that era were also deeply moved. A colleague of mine, who was very much a part of the antiwar movement during Vietnam said, “Something just came full circle for me, a really important healing.” I hear that a lot. From people who protested against the war, and those who participated in it. My goal was to provide a place for unity.

Into Sunlight constitutes a model for dance’s fundamental role in addressing the individual and societal devastation of war by offering a medium for healing and dialogue. It has the potential to elicit within us a personal awakening to the field of possibility, which in turn inspires us to take action for our own betterment, and for a better world. Into Sunlight and its potential for healing and reconciliation is not specific to October 1967, or the Vietnam War; it is universal. Whether a country is at peace, in war, or recovering from war, this dance inspires us to our greater good and awakens all of us to our shared humanity. And only by acknowledging this shared humanity can we begin to heal from war’s devastation, build healthy, productive communities, and choose peace-based actions to resolve conflict. 

*****

*****

Gloria Hage is the executive director of Robin Becker Dance 

[Photo courtesy of Robin Becker Dance] 

[Video produced by Moving Pictures]

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