Yu presented an expanded "Sunlit Fields."
Both department chair Yu and visiting choreographer Robin Becker, a dance educator at New York's Hofstra University, used David Maraniss' book They Marched Into Sunlight as the inspiration for their work, and Saturday's performance at Wisconsin Union Theater was part of the three-day Sunlight Project & Symposium. The book explores separate but connected events on two pivotal days during the Vietnam War, Oct. 17 and 18, 1967. UW students protested Dow Chemical's recruiting presence on campus, in what began as a sit-in and escalated into a violent confrontation with police. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the ambush of the Black Lions battalion in the Battle of Ong Thanh became a massacre that left 60 Americans dead and many more injured.
Maraniss was on hand to help introduce the performance. He said his books have been translated into many different languages, but never before the "most soulful language of all" -- modern dance
Becker's piece, "Into Sunlight," was thoughtful and evocative without being a verbatim retelling. It opened with "Meeting the Unknown," as students from Hofstra, clad in simple grey costumes, set a somber tone by carefully stepping backwards, then gingerly lowering themselves to the floor. They formed the orderly rows of soldiers being transported (I also thought of the tragic precision of Arlington cemetery). A group of dancers from Becker's company created an undulating platform of bodies to purposefully deliver Yoko Sugimoto-Ikezawa, perched on top, across the stage. The movement alluded to those heading to the massacre in Vietnam, and to those left behind.
I commend Becker for using a sensitive touch. She is a master at creating shapes with the dancers' bodies and letting simple gestures resonate. In the section "A Dream of Goodbye," Paul Monaghan and Nicole Sclafani, both with long curly, red hair and a palpable connection, performed a dance of love and loss. The two were conspicuously set apart before Sclafani inserted herself into Monaghan's space, carving out a niche by his side, his back leg wrapped behind. The tone here, and throughout Becker's work, was one of sadness and reverence. Her restraint kept things from becoming maudlin.
Later, in "Holleder's Run," Chazz Fenner-McBride performed a solo that referenced the heroic efforts of former West Point football standout Dan Holleder to aid the ambushed soldiers. Fenner-McBride has a brawny build, so it was fascinating to see him balance that strength with real gentleness and quiet, using his impressive ability to shift dynamics (a skill he shares with many of Becker's dancers). As composer Chris Lastovicka's wonderful score crackled and rumbled behind him, Fenner-McBride propelled himself through space, his jumps soaring before he was felled.
In "Brotherhood," Fenner-McBride, Monaghan and Edwardo Brito danced. (All share a strong affinity for Graham technique.) You saw the bond of men serving together and what it might be like to enter a terrifying situation. When they removed their shirts, the presentation became more visceral and primal.
In "Longing," three dancers in grey lay still on the floor. Joseph Jehle's upright upper body created a frame for the grieving Sugimoto-Ikezawa to cling to and to drape herself around. When she first approached him, nuzzling her face into the back of his neck, the intimacy and longing of that stark moment shocked me. Again, the movement was slow and cautious, the emotions clear but never overplayed. After tenderly wrapping herself around him, Sugimoto rose into a gorgeous arabesque and lowered Jehle's torso to the ground. She skittered down his body in a crab walk before lying on top of him, then rolled to his side. Then, mostly obscured by his body, she lifted his still arm and wrapped it around herself, saying so much with one movement.
At the end, many of the dancers were frozen in a death tableau, almost like citizens of Pompeii trapped as tragic lava statues. The group finally rose together and formed a triangle, with the names of those who perished shown behind them. I sensed hope: that we now know enough to never let a war like this happen again. It's a tribute to both Maraniss and Becker that this dance is clearly inspired by the book, but viewers should be moved by it even if they don't know the stories behind it.
I saw an earlier version of Yu's "Sunlit Fields" last fall and was touched by it, particularly the dramatic ending in which Yu, padding softly towards the edge of the stage, released handfuls of red petals. But this time I worry that the work, now expanded, seems too literal, with its soldiers in camo pants and students in 1960s garb, images of dog tags and helmets flashing behind them. The piece now reads as too heavy-handed, especially in comparison with Becker's more subdued elegance.
But there was some good dancing here as well, especially whenever Sarah Mitchell and Mary Patterson were paired. Perhaps the most wrenching and true moment came when Yu teetered precariously on top of a helmet, making me think of fragility, hubris and the senselessness of war -- especially now, as the U.S. is involved in so many conflicts.
Maraniss spoke of the works being poetic and not literal. I think Becker was more successful in that regard. But everyone involved should be proud -- those whose stories were told, and those telling the stories.