“They Marched Into Sunlight,” David Maraniss’s history about a Vietnam War ambush in 1967 and the simultaneous Dow Chemical riots in Madison, has been translated many times.
But for the first time on Saturday, the stories of the soldiers and those they left behind were told in the language of dance.
Two works — one by choreographer Robin Becker, of Robin Becker Dance in New York, the other by University of Wisconsin-Madison Dance Department Chair Jin-Wen Yu — made up a two-hour program Saturday night in the Wisconsin Union Theater.
Common themes echoed through each work: camaraderie between soldiers, the chaos of student protests, the solace found in solidarity during political and emotional unrest.
Becker’s piece, “Into Sunlight,” ran for more than an hour and was overall the stronger of the two. Separated into a series of vignettes, it was abstract but clear, using strong, angular movement to evoke the depth of emotion behind Maraniss’s stories.
In “Leaving/Staying,” a man running across the stage was stopped by a woman, who leaned toward him pushing with both hands — a universal “don’t go” expression. The dancers, including seven professionals from Becker’s company and nine Hofstra University students, resisted the urge to overact.
“Gathering Unrest” captured the turmoil of the students, as the dancers leapt frantically, echoed later in a barricade of drooped but connected bodies in “Until the Angels Came,” a poignant and devastating image.
The most heart-breaking of the movements was “Longing,” danced by Yoko Sugimoto-Ikezawa and Joseph Jehle. Sitting rigid on the floor next to other prone bodies (presumably his fallen comrades), Jehle never moved while Sugimoto rolled her head against his back, ran hands down his motionless calves and eventually, wrapped his limp arm around her own shoulders.
Jin-Wen Yu’s 38-minute “Sunlit Fields” was just as imaginative, if less clean and focused than its predecessor. In comparison to the 15-minute version shown last fall at the UW faculty dance concert, this piece was less literal, with a new score.
Yu’s previous piece (“March Into Sunlight”) was stronger, emphasizing simultaneous action — soldiers leaping and rolling together while young protesters in ‘60s skirts clustered elsewhere onstage. Too often, this longer “Sunlit Fields” seemed to ramble, the disjointed score serving to confuse rather than meld each section with the next.
Still, despite the gap in skill level between the UW students and Becker’s performers (or perhaps because of it), Yu’s piece had a youthful energy. During a “panty raid” section, the women wiggled and shook, channeling “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Even a section with crash helmets looked playful, as students cartwheeled onto the stage.
Moments of connection, as in Becker’s “Longing,” were the most powerful — a girl resting her head on another’s knee, a group of women surrounding a single victim, who crouched and winced away from them. Yu himself descended from a cargo net hung from the ceiling, his movements quick and sharp.
Design elements, like spiraling, angular patterns that made it hard to see the dancers or a “letter” appearing word by word on a massive scroll, more often distracted than enhanced the movement.
But central to Maraniss’s concept in “They Marched Into Sunlight” is the myriad of people affected by violence at home and thousands of miles away. With so many voices, some will be clearer than others.