Susan Werbe

Executive Director of 'The Great War Dance Project' explains the Boston Arts Academy effort to mark the Centenary

Posted on on 10 May 2013
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Susan Werbe, Executive Director of The Great War Dance Project, writes for Centenary News explaining the process and thought behind developing a "multimedia, interdisciplinary contemporary dance piece" to mark the Centenary of the First World War.

Since the Boston Arts Academy (BAA) opened its doors in 1998, one of the guiding principles of Boston’s first public high school for the visual and performing arts has been the integration of arts and academics.  The Great War Dance Project affords BAA the opportunity to engage the entire school community in a compelling and powerful example of this principle.  With the approach of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, BAA’s Dance Department proposes to work with a cohort of the school’s dance majors to create a multimedia, interdisciplinary contemporary dance piece that will bear witness to this cataclysmic chapter in human history and pay tribute to the tragic loss – on both sides – of so much human potential.

Using dance as its centerpiece, The Great War Dance Project will contextualize the effects of war both on those at the front lines and on those communities that are forever changed by such conflicts, creating a unique and powerful experience for the audience and the students involved in the development of this work.  The completed work will use World War I to examine the question: why this war and, ultimately, why war?  The medium of dance allows us to examine these questions from a universal perspective; the complementing use of other arts disciplines connects the universal to the particular.  

William McLaughlin, co-chair of BAA’s dance department will choreograph the final production using the process of Embodied Research to develop source material. This process involves the use of artifacts and meditative improvisational practices to elicit authentic artistic responses from the participants. The dance company will consist of 12 - 20 Boston Arts Academy dance majors as well as BAA alumni who are currently dancing professionally in the Boston area. 

Prior to the beginning of the rehearsal process, background history sessions for the dance company will be led by Dr. Steven Cohen, senior lecturer, Tufts University and Susan Werbe, independent scholar and the project’s executive producer.  In these sessions, the company will examine both the actual history of the war and the art that was produced during it, most particularly the poetry and the visual arts.  Following these sessions and throughout the creative process, dancers will reference this material while also drawing parallels to current events and personal experiences, making both the creative process and the final product relevant and authentic.  Furthermore, the dancers will compare the documentation of The Great War to how war is documented today. This exploration, through new media, will be product-oriented, aspects of which may be incorporated into the final in-school and public performances.

The background research will include contemporary writings (a selection of iconic pieces of war poetry and journals), music from the period, and images (including archival film footage, still photographs, and paintings), which will inform the creation of the piece and provide the historical context in which the dancers will perform.  In addition, artifacts from more recent wars will be included in the process of creating this work.

This project serves as a unique opportunity to illustrate the power of using the arts as a pathway into a specific period of history.  The written words as well as the visual arts created on the battlefield and on the home front are potent examples of people using the arts to reflect upon and process their experiences – in many cases as they were occurring.  Primary source material, including poems written at the Front as well as diaries and letters, will be included in the dancer background historical sessions and will be integrated as spoken words into the piece itself.

The historical background materials that the dancers will use in preparation for the performance will serve as the basis for curriculum materials that will deepen the audience’s experience.  These materials will be used in pre- performance discussions for the school-wide BAA performance.  An abbreviated version will also be part of the public performances printed program.  In addition, the dancers will participate in an audience “talk back” at the end of each performance. 

The research process that will lay the foundation for The Great War Dance Project not only will involve members of the dance company, but will also include BAA visual arts majors.   In the spring of 2013, a cohort of visual arts majors will research and study art and artifacts, including archival film footage, comparing it with how war and conflict are documented today.  Throughout these sessions, students will create their own art in response to the materials they study.

The final 45-minute production will offer an integrated work within which the war experiences of both men and women will be presented through dance, music, projection, and the spoken word. The final production will be a powerful and engaging representation of both the frontlines of the war and the home front.  The piece will be choreographed by William McLaughlin, with dancer participation during July 2013.  The background history sessions will be held in order to establish the sense of time and place and history for the dancers as they begin the rehearsal process. 

Rehearsals and revisions for the final piece will begin in September 2013.  The piece will then be workshopped through the 2013 – 2014 school year.  It is also anticipated that a “virtual” collaboration with a high school in the UK will take place during 2013 – 2014.  The first complete public performances of the piece will be presented in the Fall of 2014 to mark the Great War’s centennial.

For additional information, please contact:

Susan Werbe, Executive Director, The Great War Dance Project

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