To celebrate the 20th anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, New York-based choreographer Robin Becker toured Vietnam with her performance Into Sunlight – a dance inspired by the Vietnam War as recorded in the book They Marched Into Sunlight by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss. The tour, in partnership with the Vietnamese contemporary dance company Together Higher, combined Becker’s unique artistic expression of war with the vision of Le Vu Long, who extended the invitation for the September 2015 Vietnam tour.
In 2003, Becker, who serves on the faculty of Hofstra University and is an accredited teacher of the Martha Graham Technique, felt inspired to create a performance addressing the impact of war and violence. The hope was to use the integrative power of dance as “a unifying process of reconciliation for those who experience the trauma of battle and for a culture engaged in its own battle of reconciliation.”
Becker started by studying the Greek Classics before moving on to contemporary work written about the Vietnam War. In 2004, she read They Marched Into Sunlight by Maraniss and was struck by the universality of his study of a series of events that took place in October 1967. As Amazon’s synopsis describes it:
"Maraniss weaves together the stories of three very different worlds: the death and heroism of soldiers in Vietnam, the anger and anxiety of antiwar students back home, and the confusion and obfuscating behavior of officials in Washington. To understand what happens to the people in these interconnected stories is to understand America's anguish."
Maraniss had painted an intimate portrait of a broad spectrum of individuals from the era: U.S. soldiers serving with the Black Lions of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, whose forces were decimated in a withering ambush 50 miles north of Saigon; the Viet Cong commander who led the ambush against the Black Lions; anti-war protesters who were attacked by police while protesting Dow Chemical at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and the politicians who sent the American troops to war. Maraniss’ writing, highlighting similarities shared by soldiers and students, friends and foes, gave Becker the perfect template to choreograph her dance, and what resulted was something special.
Into Sunlight premiered in 2011 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and at Hofstra University in New York, where the performance was the center of conferences examining the effects of war and violence on individuals and society, and Becker's efforts received financial support from Veterans Advantage. The dance has also been performed before Veterans Advantage members and at numerous locations – including West Point, where uniformed members of the audience gave Becker some of the most moving feedback to date.
In a letter of endorsement written after the performance, retired Col. Scott Krawczyk, professor and head of the Academy’s Department of English and Philosophy, said:
"Into Sunlight is not just worth one’s time. It’s a necessary experience in today’s society, for it reflects with rare sincerity on the echoes of Vietnam as they reverberate in American life right now. At its best, art has the potential to heal. This is art at its best."
In 2014, Becker and the 15 dancers of Into Sunlight were invited by Long to tour Vietnam with Together Higher, who were performing their own piece, A Group of Individuals. The tour was planned as a celebration of the anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations between Vietnam and America and the 40th anniversary of the unification of North and South Vietnam. Together Higher is the first contemporary dance company in Vietnam and operates with support from the UNESCO Center for Culture and Sport Development and is managed by both Long and Luu Thi Thu Lan. Their own dance, part of a larger project called Vietnam in the ‘70s, also focuses on that tumultuous time in their home country and expresses the joy of reunion and postwar torment that was felt during the late years of the war between North and South Vietnam.
“They really spearheaded this idea to have both companies there, artists from both sides of the ocean, offering their work dedicated to healing and reconciliation,” said Becker in an exclusive interview with Veterans Advantage.
This was Becker’s first trip to Vietnam and she was deeply moved by the warm welcome she and the performance received from audiences at their three performances in Hanoi, Halong Bay and in Ho Chi Minh, where 1,100 people attended. Becker also had an opportunity to finally visit the landscape where the war her work was based on took place, even coming close to a battlefield where a guest with their party had lost her father during the conflict.
“It was very moving for me to actually experience Vietnam and that landscape where those battles happened, because to imagine our military there in the jungle just brought to life so much of the challenges [American soldiers faced],” Becker said.
There was also an opportunity for Becker to teach a master class at the Hanoi Dance College, working with 17–22 year olds where she used dance and movement as a tool to communicate across their once-distant cultures.
“I was able to touch people who don’t even think they are dancers or dance lovers, and I think the universality of movement has a language that communicates across cultures,” she added.
The nine-day trip concluded on September 30, 2015. Becker hopes one day to take the performance to Vietnam again and tour the dance through the U.S. in her continued effort to spark dialogue about the widespread trauma of war. But most of all, Becker hopes that Into Sunlight can help many veterans from the Vietnam War realize that their experience is being memorialized in art beyond somber statues and images.
“There is a level of validation that happens when [veterans] feel that their experience is at least trying to be embraced and held by others,” Becker said.
For more information about Into Sunlight, visit robinbeckerdance.org.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Robin Becker