Healing Wars was the most powerful performance I have ever witnessed. Liz Lerman’s combination of dance, music, speech, and media was ingenious. www.lizlerman.com. Her exploration of humanity from the civil war to the war in Iraq was extremely sensitive, moving many to tears. The amount of research Lerman did was obvious, from facts about medical procedures and technology to military training procedures to personal letters and interviews with soldiers and veterans. Lerman masterfully combined multiple storylines and small scenes throughout the performance without any disconnect. The layers of meaning and development of characters happened naturally. One of my favorite small details was the doll in a hoop skirt frame that the female soldier was holding during therapy, recalling the first museum scene where the same woman was in a hoop skirt frame waiting to receive medical attention. The scene changes were paced extremely well, offering moments of relief after intensely emotional scenes. With audience members saturated by iphones and computer screens, the incorporation of multi-media projections was smart, helpful, and refreshingly nuanced, including pictures, videos and text.
As I walked through the backstage museum scenes, the dancers moved in character, and at times engaged with the audience. I lost a staring contest to the dancer playing a civil war veteran driven mad and locked in an attic, another girl got a letter from the dancer playing Clara Barton, the freedman character was holding an electric light over some people. Part museum, part haunted house, I felt curious at some exhibits and passed others quite quickly. I lingered the longest listening to the middle of a conversation the navy veteran with a prosthetic leg was having about donated blood. Seeing his prosthetic leg, made me realize that this would be a very real, maybe even raw production. Not being able to answer the question, “Where were you when the Battle of Baghdad began?” made me wonder if I was ready for it.
I was expecting modern dance, but I was not expecting such truthful movements. Since dancers are normally silent, I was alarmed when they began to speak, loudly and directly to us. I was decidedly against their speaking, but as the performance continued I was anxious to hear what they would say next. Their early movements seemed heavy and difficult, without many stylized dance moves. It seemed too labor intensive, even when they were only moving a few feet. Watching them longer, I realized they were moving like real people: crawling, fighting, and dying.
A scene full of struggle was the dance against a wall of the civil war surgeon and the disguised female soldier. The harsh angles their bodies made were visually gripping. It was a physical struggle for both of them: for the doctor, the lifesaving maneuvers were brutal, and for her it was pain to live and difficult to die. The music during this scene was slow, with a haunting melody that underscored the emotional turmoil. For an early rehearsal of this scene see this video: http://vimeo.com/34088962 .
One scene that did feature more stylized, synchronized dancing was the dance of the suicidal soldiers. With sounds of a military drill team playing, the dancers began marching and saluting in time, moving around each other, simulating a drill team. The marching continued, but the movements suddenly changed to actions of suicide: a shot in the temple, slitting wrists, hanging, drinking, stabbing. How many soldiers march to this end?
A fun scene that provided a moment of relief for the audience happened when Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” started playing and the dancers let go and danced as if they were in a club. In the background, videos of soldiers dancing played. In the audience talk back, a young veteran thanked Lerman for including this light-hearted side of soldiers.
In one of the final scenes, the navy veteran removed his prosthetic leg, and I ached at his vulnerability. The civil war freed man came to him and they began to move gently through a cathartic reenactment of the car crash that injured the navy veteran. By the end they were sitting side by side and the tenderness with which the civil war freed man sat and held his hand made me cry.
There were many different kinds of music used throughout the performance: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a gospel hymn, sound effects of chirping crickets, Lady Gaga, tonal melodies, and music that sounded like a sine wave/drone tone with slow pulses. Silence was a prominent sound throughout the production, most of the time it felt heavy. There were explosions, unprepared and extremely loud, that gave a jolt to my system. These explosions prevented me from getting lost in the intellect or emotions. When I jumped at the noise, I was reminded of my own instincts, my fear response, my body.
The back wall of the stage was a mirror, used strategically to reflect the dancers. The entire production was like a mirror, reflecting our humanity. I am still wondering, what did I just see?