Sunday, May 22, 2016


Saturday June 21 was Armed Forces Day, a day to honor Americans serving in the five military branches. And, on this same day, Portland Ballet performed a dance that looked at the reality of war and the toll war takes on soldiers. The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace was first commissioned in 2013. Artist Director Nell Shipman created a soldiers conflict with Life, Death, Conscience, Body and Spirit.

The performance was done in collaboration with The Telling Room, a non-profit writing center for young writers. The evening began with stories from 3 writers who one by one told their personal story of surviving war. Salim Salim, Kaifa Abdulla, and Mohammed Albehadli spoke about living through war as young children and young adults. Amid bombings, blood, and being a war prisoner, the stories were intense.

The speakers left the stage and the sound of marching footsteps built, then the sound of military bugles. Female dancers marched onto the stage with precision and stoic demeanor. There was also a soldier who stared outward. He is all military with strength and no emotion. The dance is performed to music by Karl Jenkins. His Mass, in 12 sections varied with choral and orchestration ranging from prayers, hymns, chanting and screams that represent the battlefield and death.

The dancers were exceptional. This was an ensemble piece with 12 women and 2 men. Shipman's choreography had the female dancers moving in lush sweeping gestures. They fell to the ground and quickly swirled back to their feet. They surrounded the soldier who stood still. They grabbed their dress skirts and hugged them into their stomachs while their bodies heaved forward in pain. Jennifer Jones represented Life. Erica Diesl was Death. And the soldiers Conscience was danced by Morgan Brown Sanborn. The solider was danced by Wyatt Barr whose quiet presence was haunting. The soldier was killed at war and then Joseph Jefferies emerged as the Solder in Spirit. In a section titled "Benedictus" the Soldier Spirit danced with Life and Death where traditional ballet partnering was enhanced by using more modern lifts and unconventional positions that made the dance seem more immediate, personal and less etherial.

Two dancers, Deborah Grammatic and Amelia Bielen, marked this show as their last performance as they retire from the Portland Ballet Company.

Bravo to Portland Ballet for presenting work that is edgy, relevant and timely.

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, May 20-21 at John Ford Theater, Portland, Maine

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