Dancing to heal wounds of combat
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Dancers from Diavolo, Kansas State University and the Warrior Transition Battalion, Irwin Army Community Hospital perform the final scene March 29 at McCain Auditorium on the campus of K-State University. The group performed "Save our Souls, Signs of... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Dancing to heal wounds of combat
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

As the curtain raised at McCain Auditorium the narrator set the scene -- World War I, American Soldiers were in the trenches.

Members of Diavolo, a performing arts company from Los Angeles, were on stage to present a contemporary dance performance. With them were Kansas State University students, two veterans and two Soldiers assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, Irwin Army Community Hospital.

Spc. Jonathan Edward James Hatch and Spc. Tiara Williams each had their own reasons for signing up for the two-week workshop, but they both agreed it was an experience of a lifetime.

"I needed something different," Hatch said. "I'm in the WTB because I'm getting med-boarded. And the reason for my med-board is because I've been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. One of the things about fibromyalgia … is to be active -- and this is as active as it gets."

The performance was about 30 minutes, but the team spent hours for two weeks rehearsing the moves, which had them climbing, twisting and turning all over the stage.

He said before he enlisted, performing was something he had always enjoyed and did whenever he had the opportunity. Likewise, Williams jumped at the opportunity to participate when she heard there was dance involved.

But the dance turned out to be a little different than what she is accustomed to.

"I wanted to get back into the groove," she said. "I actually thought it was like the legit dance thing. But it was different than what I was used to, because back home, I do Latin dance. When they said that we will be paired with K-State people and the Diavolo people I thought I was going to learn different techniques."

Although it was not what Williams expected, she said she is glad it wasn't because it gave her a new perspective of dance.

"It's not just about turns and spins, being in straight lines and pliés," she said. "There are different aspects to dance."

The Diavolo performance was a contemporary dance, which told a story. With no words spoken, beyond opening and closing narration, it was up to the audience to interpret the story. Each person may have come up with their own interpretation based on how they related their life experiences to what they were watching on stage.

Jacques Heim, founder and artistic director, had consistently referred to the group of dancers as a tribe, he frequently reminded them of the importance of every member looking after the others.

For Williams, the story behind the dance started with a tribe affirmation as they prepared to go into the world.

Each object brought out on stage as a prop was a representation of a theme.

"The gurney was turned into a wall, we had to get over the wall," she said. "The cage represented us being in captivity and then getting free out of it. There's so many different aspects to this. It was very beautiful."

At the end of the show, all but one of the dancers were lowered down into the band pit, their hands reaching out to the one member of their tribe who was left behind.

"There could be many different takes on it," Williams said. "My take on it was, that the group that was in the pit going down, it's like we were trying to get to one but we couldn't get to him in time. But it could have been the other way around -- that he was the one who made it free."

Regardless of how the dance is interpreted, one theme that connected different generations to the performance is the effects of war and the importance of being able to count on each other.

"I feel like it brings back all the camaraderie that is supposed to be there," she said. "It's still here but I feel like it's not as intact -- like it used to be -- how we all have to work together to get things accomplished. Now, I feel like things are more like 'I have to do this for me so that I can get up through the ranks and everything like that.' But that piece showed that it takes a team -- you have to work together. If you don't work together, the whole thing is going to fail."

The story was about a tribe. Williams said it was, at times, stressful. Heim was tough, in his deep French accent he would bark out orders and corrections, often using colorful language -- but she liked that.

"He had a vision," she said. "He wanted to tell what he thought the story was, and he didn't want us to look bad, as well as himself."

Heim had been working on developing the show for more than two years he said. The inspiration was two-fold.

A native of France, Heim's troupe has been on "America's Got Talent" and he choreographed KÀ for Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas. By invitation from retired Lt. Col. Art DeGroat, executive director of Military and Veterans Affairs at Kansas State University he visited the campus and Fort Riley.

It was at Fort Riley where he got the inspiration for the show. But his appreciation and admiration of the American Soldier inspired him many years ago to start working with veterans in California.

"The reason why I wanted to work with veterans is because I am in awe of their sacrifice and dedication," he said. "And I believe that civilians can learn from that."

He also recognized the parallel between the way he pushes his dancers beyond their own physical, emotional, mental limits and the way the Soldiers are pushed. Using that parallel he saw how the dance could help restore a veteran's physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ability, he said.

"Every single woman, every single man that go to war … they come back somehow, all of them come back whether mentally and emotionally damaged somewhere," Heim said. "War just damages. Let's face it, there's no one coming back from war saying 'wow that was awesome. The one that look like you and I, we look like we're totally normal. You have two arms, two legs, you have a head, eyes, nose, ears, okay. But no, inside we're hurt, damaged. Our emotional is off balance, our mental is off balance, something is happening inside."

As he met the veterans and learned how they suffer inside, he wanted to do more than simply say 'thank you for your service.' With his dance company, he could reach out and help those whom he has the utmost respect for.

He created workshops and began touring to give veterans across the country a tool they can use in their recovery so they "can see that they are powerful, they are beautiful, they still are strong, they still are mentally strong," he said.

The message resonated with Hatch who is coming to terms with his diagnosis as well as a couple of emotionally challenging situations including survivor's guilt.

What he learned over the course of the Diavolo workshop was the importance for him to physically and mentally stay in the game.

"I'm going to start training again in my martial arts," he said. "I want to go back to the tournaments. But also, it's given me some more ideas to interact with my son, because he's an active two-year-old. And doing this program, it's actually loosened up a lot of things in my a lot of joints and things in my muscles and in my body to where I can start playing with him again."

It's this type of physical activity that also helps him clear his mind of situations that weigh heavily.

For Williams, she walks away from the experience with a reminder of how everyone has something going on in their lives and the power everyone if they simply listen.

"Civilian or military, everybody needs help, everybody needs somebody to be there to listen to their story," she said. "So just being a more compassionate to different walks of life -- everybody at the end of the day is a human being and they want to tell their story."