An Exclusive Seven Pillars Interview with Robin Becker
Recently, Seven Pillars’ Laurie Lane-Zucker and Corin Girard sat down with Guiding Voice, dancer and choreographer Robin Becker to discuss her original production, Into Sunlight. In the interview, Robin spoke of what inspired her to create this poignant work, the “chaos theory” behind her artistic process, the company’s upcoming New York City performances and the creation of an eagerly anticipated documentary film based on the production.
Welcome Robin, it is so nice to see you. Would you please begin by telling us where the seeds for Into Sunlight originated?
I began this project when the United States decided to go into Iraq. I couldn’t believe we were choosing war as a means of solving conflict in the 21st century. I was heartbroken. I felt I had to do something, and I wanted to create something that I hoped would contribute to healing in the world.
I began by doing research about war. Asking things like, why do humans choose war? What is the history of war? As an artist, I wanted to make a statement of hope, transformation and possibility. During my research David Maraniss’ book They Marched Into Sunlight was published in 2003. I knew David through a family friend, and when I read his book, I was struck by the parallels of that era to what was going on in the world when we went into Iraq, and even now, with what we are seeing in the Middle East.
Give us a little background on the historical elements of David’s book.
They Marched into Sunlight documents two events that happened simultaneously on two sides of the world on October 17th and 18th, 1967: the ambush of a battalion of young American soldiers in Viet Nam and an anti-war protest that turned violent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
In Vietnam, a battalion of the Black Lions walked into a terrible ambush that is now known as the Battle of Ong Thanh, and in Madison, a group of students organized what was intended to be a peaceful demonstration against Dow Chemical Company who made Agent Orange and Napalm, the horrible chemicals used in the war.
In Madison, Dow was coming on campus that day to recruit, and the students did not want them there. (David Maraniss was there as a freshman). The administration of the school, including the new President, grew nervous about the protest and called in the police. The police were actually the ones who started the violence. And because it turned into such a bloody mess, many students that were not originally involved in the demonstration, got involved. It was a life changing event for many students on that campus. This was really the first demonstration in the Vietnam era that became violent, and that is why it is significant historically.
In Vietnam, the Black Lions Battalion walked into a horseshoe ambush set up by the Vietcong. The surviving marine commander had a negative intuition about going on that mission, but the other commander who was in charge of the final decision had a number of pressures going on in his life, and felt for many reasons that he had to say yes and follow the orders to go on that search and destroy mission. They walked in at sunrise and half of them were killed and the other half injured. It was quite a massacre actually.
What moved you most about They Marched Into Sunlight?
What I valued was David’s sensitive and thorough way of presenting the whole picture. You saw the reality of the lives of these young men, many of whom had been drafted. You learned of their experience on the long boat ride, often getting terribly seasick, being terrified, and writing home: Would they live? Would they die? What would it be like in Vietnam? What would it be like to have to kill someone?
David takes you into the humanity of their experience. You see the human dimension. And then, what is very meaningful about the book, is that ultimately you see the evolution of how those events shaped people’s lives. You can also see the similarities between those who fought the war and those who fought against the war.
David got to know all the soldiers who survived, and the family members of those who died, down to the dreams they had the night before their family member was killed. David also got to know the Vietcong Commander who planned the ambush, and learned what was going on in this man’s life as well. His men were starving — they hadn’t had a thing to eat in two weeks. They had to cross the American line in order to get to some rice. In the Epilogue, David documents how he brought both the surviving Marine commander and the Vietcong commander together on the battlefield forty years later.
C-span did a special on David’s book that filmed the meeting on the battlefield 40 years later. It was so moving to see these two much older very dignified men meet each other with respect and shake hands….that image really informed my work.
Video interview with the dancers of Into Sunlight by Steve Sclafani, The Static Eye
Is Into Sunlight a literal interpretation of David’s book?
No. There is nothing particularly literal about this work. I have taken ideas and images very directly from David’s book and then let them grow in a more poetic, imaginative way — which is always how I work. So there is a thread, and there is a way that you really do experience the book, but it is not a literal telling of the work.
To be honest, I didn’t have any interest in portraying the battle. In fact, I made a very conscious choice in the choreography not to do that. Initially, I thought I might bring in fight choreographers and learn how to do combat choreography, and then I thought that would be ridiculous! There is no way that someone who has not been in combat can capture or embody that experience. I wanted to respect that.
So what are you trying to capture then?
I wanted to capture the essence of the violence. In fact, the dancers and I informally call one section of the work “stark violence.” What I have thought a lot about is how, if you slow down a physical fight, it might look incredibly intimate. If you get really, really close, are people making love or are they trying to strangle each other?
I wanted to show the tension in the bodies. I started to slow movement way down. I saw people fighting in slow motion, in which they were intimately connected. And then a powerful image emerged in my imagination that informed the direction I took with the dance: an invisible webbing that covered everyone appeared in my mind’s eye. Like an invisible fabric curtain in the stage space, it began to rise and separate the bodies that had been in combat and now were still connected but no longer fighting—suspended and interconnected like spiders in a web because of this fabric curtain. I actually worked with a fabric artist initially, but the cost and technical aspects of creating that image were too high. Instead, one day I realized that the dancers bodies could create the webbing through the space. The original inspiration of the fabric inspired what we actually did with our bodies. We refer to the section of the dance where this occurs as the “wall of carnage.”
The other thing I did was speak with many veterans about their experience, and over and over again I heard from people, “No one can know what war is, except the people who have been there.” So I did not want to pretend I knew what it was like. I just wanted to respond from my heart, from my sadness about this kind of violence in the world.
Did going through the creative process on the project get you any closer to the answer to the question: Why do people still choose war?
Well, I don’t think I gained more answers, but what 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 where people can participate and feel deeply, 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. And protesters from that era were also deeply moved. A colleague of mine who was very much a part of the antiwar movement during Vietnam, saw this work recently and was weeping at the end. He 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. I think my goal was unity.
When you first gathered the dancers, did you have them read the book? How did you contextualize this project for them?
I think, for a dancer, entering a dance is almost like a ritual, like an actor entering a role. In a way it is like a reenactment, and an honoring of the lives you are getting to learn more about. So absolutely, I made everyone read the book. Well actually, I think everyone was inspired to read the book anyway! And we watched quite a few films together on the events of David’s book.
We also met with veterans. That dialogue was very interesting for them. And they met with protesters. Especially after we premiered Into Sunlight, audience members would come back in tears saying to these much younger dancers, “Do you realize what you are embodying for us? Thank you so much. Do you realize the power of what you are doing?” I think the dancers were in awe of that and took it very, very seriously. Many of them have let me know they found the whole experience of the dance to be life changing.
How is it that young performers that may not even have been born when the soldiers were experiencing this battle can draw out the response that you have described from the people who were there and are still alive? How does that happen?
All we can hope as artists is that we are really coming close through a level of commitment. What is portrayed will never be what another person has experienced. But if each artist finds a depth within themselves, that depth is what is communicated to others.
As part of the imagery in the “stark violence” section I talk about, I brought in images of Pompeii. I shared images of people crawling up stairs—the bodies that are there for eternity, sculpted in ash and lava mid-action. That is how fast it must have come!
I even asked the dancers to experiment with imploding. What would it be like to experience more terror than you could imagine? It is exhausting to try to do that, and we tried to do that a lot. The work becomes extraordinarily challenging, trying to embody those terrible experiences while communicating them outwardly: In one scene they are imploding, letting the worst horror that can be imagined start to affect their tissue, and in the next moment they are trying to embody the animal rage and anger of someone trying to protect a life. Then in another section, they are asked to embody the love, caring and connection behind a family argument – you want your son to go to war, you don’t want your son to go to war, you’re begging them to go, you’re begging them not to go – the arguments within a family system. We just worked at trying to dive in deeply using all the resources of our imagination and empathy.
It is a bit mysterious, but there is the power of a resonant field that is created among the dancers that keeps expanding to include the audience. So somehow, it becomes a journey that everyone takes. For me, I never think of people performing. That is a word I think has the wrong connotations. For me it is always about presence and great authenticity and also generosity. I see performance as a type of service if it is comes from a deeply authentic place.
We worked for over a year and a half on choreography, just experimenting. In answer to your question, all I can say is that it happens through commitment and profound exploration. I have no formulas, ever. I just explore.
What do you mean by presence in this context?
Presence for me is the act of meeting each emerging moment with the fullness of our being. We are multidimensional creatures, and I consider true presence to be an inclusive state of our thinking, feeling, and a profound sensory awareness—the aliveness of all our faculties, including our animal nature. This is an ideal, not easily achieved.
Why do you think you felt called to respond on the topic of war?
Part of my call to do this work was my deep interest in healing throughout my life. There has been a strong thread of that. I often tell people that I knew I was a dancer and a nurse from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. It was crystal clear back then! I didn’t become a nurse, but my interest in healing has always been there.
What propelled my longing to create something that would contribute to healing in the world was my deep concern for how trauma lives on through generations in the tissue of those who have been traumatized. Up to now, we have had very little understanding of how to heal trauma. Thankfully, there is much more interest and research about trauma going on today. But, even so, it is only in the last decade that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been acknowledged as a wound of war, even though it has damaged and diminished so many people’s lives.
What role can dance play in that healing?
It is my intention to help people really feel. My ideal and hope for dance is that an inspired performance could become a context for the transformation of consciousness…like music. Most of us consider dance to be a visual experience that we go to watch…. I think of witnessing dance as a kinesthetic experience – something to feel and experience along with the dancers, not only an event to watch.
Our first language is movement and we all respond viscerally to it. As infants we could all communicate quite clearly, long before concepts or words. The way that infants and parents communicate is through sensory movement, and our very survival depends on it. As adults we still deeply know this primary language, and yet we are urged to forget this language in a culture that primarily values thinking. Sit still, don’t move, just think, conceptualize! But that takes us away from so many life skills and sensory capacities.
I work with a somatic practice called Continuum Movement, which is a study of the body as a fluid system. The body and the planet are composed primarily of fluids, and fluid systems characteristically function in resonance with all other fluid systems. My dancers are involved with this practice. It offers a process for exploring a resonant field of relationship – immediate communication between the dancers, and with the audience too. I believe, if we go very, very deeply into a sensory feeling state within ourselves, and into the very substance we are made of, we can tap into this primary action of how life moves at the most fundamental levels (which most of us never take time to consider, even many dancers). I believe that movement is a powerful communicator if it arises from a place of great depth and authenticity.
Edward Tick, the psychotherapist who weaves modern psychology with shamanic esoteric traditions to work with PTSD sufferers, believes that it is impossible for a human being to be in a modern warfare situation and not have his or her soul wounded significantly. If possible, can you address how you believe dance speaks to the soul and can potentially heal a damaged soul?
There are many parts to it. First, I would just like to say that Edward Tick has had an enormous influence on me. He continues to be an incredible inspiration. In fact, I attended a Seven Pillars’ program called The Spiritual Dimensions of War and the Wounding and Healing of our soldiers (click here to access the audio on our site). His talk was so powerful that I asked him to be a part of the interdisciplinary conference on the topic of War and Peace and the lasting effects of violence in our time at Hofstra University. His talk was powerful there as well. (A similar symposium was also inspired by Into Sunlight at the University of Wisconsin where we premiered the work.)
Ed speaks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as being a wound of the soul that is the result of the moral reversal or inversion that happens in war. In the section of my dance called Holleder’s Run, I worked with the archetype of the noble warrior. Don Holleder was a well-known quarterback for West Point’s football team. He was killed in the battle of Ong Thanh when he volunteered to lead a team to rescue fellow soldiers. As he ran ahead of the others toward his trapped comrades, he was killed by a sniper. I think the quality of the Noble Warrior is something many of us feel, both men and women. This is an idea of service, of bringing forth, of doing good. So many young people, especially after 9/11 said, “I am signing up for the military, I want to go and protect this country and take a stand and be of service!” But contemporary warfare is extremely technological now. Soldiers are asked to release a horrible weapon by pressing a button. You are disconnected from the hundreds and hundreds of people who are going to be blown up…but at a soul level you do know, and this is what I believe Ed is saying is intolerable for the soul to carry.
Ed Tick speaks about how in the Civil War soldiers were given the direction, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” And, in fact, many people could not shoot when they saw the opposing soldier so intimately. Now we are industrializing war at such a level that it is dehumanizing.
So, how does dance offer a healing of the soul?
I don’t know if I have the direct answer to that, but I know I have my hope and my ideal. If dancers can embody a deep level of awareness, it will communicate directly to that level of awareness and being in another. That is the ideal. I strive to reach for something universal. That is why I do what I do.
A glimpse inside “Into Sunlight” by Steve Sclafani, The Static Eye
Let’s change gears. You have said that Seven Pillars had an influence on this work. Can you explain how?
The idea for this work was alive for at least a few years before the Inaugural weekend for Seven Pillars in 2008. And honestly, I knew I had to make a dance, but I was struggling to find the momentum. I always tell my choreography students, “Please don’t do anything unless you have to. The world does not need more clever, innovative things. I feel like we need more soul. We need to see your work if you have to do it, if you deeply need to do it. “
Into Sunlight claimed me in that way. Initially, I could not find the oomph to do what I knew would be necessary at that particular moment in my life. I couldn’t find my energy around it. And it was at the inaugural weekend at Seven Pillars, where 250 people gathered to dialogue on the topic of wisdom that I found the missing ingredient to fuel the energy around my inspiration. The whole event was inspiring, but the words “spiritual engagement” and “spiritual activism” really sparked me.
I remember going over to the field at Darrow School and sitting on a bench to call one of my dearest friends in California to tell her, “I’ve got it! I have figured out why I haven’t had any energy. I was thinking too small!” What I figured out was that I needed this work to have a broad message and a broad reach. I wanted it to touch a lot of people, and I wanted to involve a lot of people. I needed this project to be a lot bigger than my personal need to make a dance. And in fact, I am proud to say I don’t feel that much ownership. The project feels like it is much bigger.
What excited me so much about Seven Pillars, and subsequently being invited to serve as a Guiding Voice, was feeling recognized for the gifts of artistry. It wasn’t just an interfaith gathering. Seven Pillars was really about wisdom. How does wisdom live in the world? How does wisdom live in the path of an artist that may not be affiliated with a particular sacred heritage? How does wisdom live within the natural world of the body? What are all the contributions to wisdom? For me, it is connected to love, and inclusivity. In many ways I have been dedicated to that all of my life.
Will you speak a little more about spiritual activism and how it relates to your work? Do you see this performance as a piece of spiritual activism? What does that tell us about activism? Is it essentially an act of healing?
Just like the complexity and dimensions that reside within human beings, there are dimensions to activism. My first response to that is, one does what one is able to do. I have spent my life as a dancer and a choreographer, and this is where my gifts and abilities lie. So Dance is a resource for me, and something I have to offer in terms of activism. I also think there are appropriate actions for different situations. There are times when taking a stand in a picket line is essential, or getting involved politically in the legislature. There are different needs for different events, and we must choose what to do based on our nature and our particular gifts and capacities.
I also think that in terms of activism and spiritual activism, there is the deep, deep work of consciousness that makes a profound contribution to the world as well. One’s inner work is a type of activism. I like to think of the word activism as having many, many dimensions and not just one definition. The inner work we do affects the presence we bring to the world.
What role does wisdom play in your work?
Once I sense that something wants to come through, I think of it like a birth. I actually will sit with the spirit of a work. The work itself becomes a living presence, and I allow that spirit or energy make the decisions. Sometimes I might be really attached to a particular movement or image or something, but when I tune in to the needs of the work, I realize, no, that is not what wants to happen. It is not serving the greater idea. And it has got to go!
Sometimes I have a room full of dancers that have spent two months trying to master a really difficult movement phrase that they have become really proud of – and I say, ‘Sorry, it’s got to go! I know you worked really hard and you’re really proud of it but we are throwing that whole idea out. It only got us here, it does not serve what wants to happen now.‘
So, I don’t know if wisdom is intuition, but I am profoundly intuitive. If I try to have a detailed plan before I begin a creative endeavor, I freak out! My late husband used to tease me that I do everything via the chaos theory, because I do go very, very wide with the possibilities I’m willing to explore. That can appear quite unorganized, and then, all of a sudden, I begin to have clarity about the decisions I need to make. It is kind of mysterious as it feels as though the clarity comes through me from somewhere else. I just tune into that experience, and then I am able to cut, shape and form the work.
At Seven Pillars we refer to living wisdom, which we believe is relevant and evolving. What do you think? Is living wisdom something that needs to be birthed? Is it finding something that existed before, or finding something that is nascent or potential, and giving it its rightful form in the here and now?
I think that is a beautiful description of a living wisdom. The here and now includes what has come before. I am very much tuned to what has come before; it is what has brought me to the moment I’m at. But the creative process of being open to what we don’t know, being open to What May Be –that response in itself is a creative endeavor.
I have wondered from time to time if a living wisdom is in fact a context or atmosphere to cultivate, where creativity and wisdom become more easily accessible to people. Many scientists have taught us now, that the context of a situation will always determine the creative possibilities and creative outcomes of that situation. I think one’s consciousness can be one’s context. It in itself is a type of container or context.
I don’t have any answers but there are certainly many questions I ask myself!
Thank you so much Robin. We hear that you will be creating a documentary about Into Sunlight. Have they begun filming yet?
Yes! We have just begun filming. Moving Pictures New York, is run by wonderful filmmakers, Ron Honsa and Nan Penman, and they have been in the world of film and dance for decades. Their last film, a documentary on Jacob’s Pillow called Never Stand Still, was just picked up by PBS.
From the beginning of Into Sunlight, there has been this request that we create a film, and when we were down at Georgetown University in Washington DC, a woman who played a significant role in both the Vietnam Memorial and the Holocaust Museum, met one of my Board members. She and her husband had come to the performance because they had seen the feature article on Into Sunlight in the Washington Post. They changed their plans to come. After the show she said, “This is so amazing, and should be an educational tool for university level and high school teachers. This is the wave of the future about interdisciplinary ways of learning.”
And so that really sparked an idea about creating a documentary. This project is unique, because translating historical events into a dance is rarely done. We plan to do the primary shooting in October. David Maraniss will be speaking at each performance, and participating in talk-backs with the audience, which will also be documented. We are so excited to say that many people who are included in David’s book will be at the performances as well. Clark Welch, the surviving Marine Commander of the battle will be attending. And Paul Soglin, the current Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, who organized and led the student demonstration will be there. We also hope to have many veterans in attendance.
So there is great hope for this project to have a long life, so that it can keep spreading this message through a documentary film. We are very excited about this and the filmmakers!
Seven Pillars staff and Board of Trustees will attend Robin Becker Dance’s performance of Into Sunlight in New York City on Friday, October 25th. Please invite your friends and join us in support of Robin’s work!
Meet Robin Becker Dance Company
Company: Edwardo Brito, Lisa Clementi, Chazz Fenner-McBride, Oisín Monaghan, Sarah Parker, Nicole Sclafani and Yoko Sugimoto-Ikezawa
Ensemble: Leah Cernosek, Jessica Ho, Eileen Klugh, Joseph Loto, Nancy Louigene, Katherine Mayo, Lacey Moore, Julie Seal, Nicole Speletic, Brandon Washington and Ricky Wenthen
Choreography: Robin Becker
Music Director: Arthur Solari
Composer: Chris Lastovicka
Lighting Design: Burke Wilmore
Projection: John Goodwin
Costume Design: Cheryl McCarron
Into Sunlight Peformance Schedule
October 25 & 26 at 8pm, 26 & 27 at 2pm
Florence Gould Hall at FIAF
55 East 59th ST, (Between Park & Madison Aves)
New York, NY 10022
Purchase Tickets here.
Learn more about Robin Becker and her dance piece, Into Sunlight: