We saw them, briefly, last Sunday afternoon. All of them: the celebrants, the bride, the groom; the proud parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews. The children of the village, there; the friends, the guests, the wishers-well: all there. The community, united in a time of love: all, all were there.

And then we saw them mowed down, in an instant, when U.S. planes, misinterpreting the traditional gunfire at such events, turned upon the wedding party and opened fire.

The images were not in infrared. Nor were they JPEGed, TIFFed or bitmapped. They did not originate from spy satellites, military drones or mounted missile cams, nor did they come from C-SPAN, CNN or Al-Jazeera. The images had not been cleared by military censors, or the folks from Network Standards and Practices. There was no instant running political analysis before, during or after. No station identification. No commercial break.

The only technology visible were drums.

On a grassy field in Duke Gardens, on an overcast Sunday afternoon, over 60 people dressed in white let an audience in excess of 200 see, through them and through their movements, a single moment of atrocity from last summer’s war in Afghanistan.

On July 1 of this year, a U.S. airplane, through a military miscalculation, dropped what the Pentagon called “an errant bomb” on an Afghan wedding party. At first count 20 people were reported dead, with more than 60 wounded. Then it was 40 dead, with 100 wounded. When wedding party members spoke with reporters, The London Independent placed the toll at over 120.

Choreographer M’Liss Dorrance recalls that the story played in the media for a couple of days. “Then it disappeared so quickly that it stunned me,” she said. “Whenever commercial airliners have gone down in the past decade, you hear about it for a while. But this just disappeared and it disturbed me. I kept thinking ‘I can’t believe it, it’s just gone now, there’s no more discussion.’”

It was enough to keep the incident on her mind when Duke Institute of the Arts put out a call for proposals in September for a series that has only grown more timely since. It’s name is “The Arts in Times of War.”

On behalf of Duke’s Department of Dance, Ms. Dorrance proposed a large-ensemble, outdoors work commemorating the attack. Remembering a Wedding became the first performance in the series, a 10-part mixture of performances, lectures and screenings that span nearly all of the fine arts. War’s effects through the ages on photography, painting, classical music, performance art, theater and film will be considered during the next five months. One January lecture will deal with the relationship between war and country music.

The “Arts in Times of War” series continues next Friday, Nov. 15, with professor Kristine Stiles lecturing on artist Joseph Beuys’ experiences in World War II at the Duke University Museum of Art.

When asked about the need for such a series, Kathy Silbiger, director of Duke Institute of the Arts observes, “You can’t ignore what’s happening now. We shouldn’t ignore it.”

“The arts are so often not considered to have any relevance to important events of the day,” Silbiger said. “There was the feeling that we needed to do something to show that the arts have always been present in good times, in bad times, and that artists are thinking people too, who comment in their own way upon the course of human events.”

Silbiger notes that all art about war is not in protest of the activity. “Sometimes they’re egging it on and fanning the flames,” she observes. “There’s been some very good war pieces set to music.”

“Right now we’re in a time when people are feeling kind of upset about the way things are,” Silbiger says. “Maybe it’s a good time to investigate, through the various lenses of different arts, through different times, how we have reacted to or incited conflict.”

Dorrance’s work seeks to make the people caught in conflict visible, in their joy, their passion, their suffering and death. “We’re not face to face with it here,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to get it outside, to get it out in the open. I think we start to lose compassion for individuals–there’s so much war, so much conflict going on the world. In a sense it’s ‘those people over there,’ ‘I don’t have to deal with that or face that,’ that it’s not part of my life. The further they’re physically away, the easier it is to forget about them.”

After a moment’s silence, Dorrance says, “All I wanted to do was to make it tangible, to remind us all that we’re all part of the human race.”

All in all, it’s not necessarily the first form of artistic expression one might expect from a woman who grew up a self-acknowledged Air Force brat. “I grew up with a real ‘hawk’ kind of background,” Dorrance notes, “but never in my upbringing did my father ever teach us that the first thing we should do when threatened is, you know, go get ’em!”

Though the ballet choreographer and director of Duke Dance’s Choreolab acknowledges the necessity at times of armed conflict, she remains chary of any equation involving ends and means. “There isn’t anything good about what happens during the war,” she says. “Maybe in the long term people are protected, or they regain some of their human rights. Or by defending a group of people we give them the freedom to choose some destiny for themselves. But the actual act of war, there is no good, there’s absolutely no good in it.”

The sounds of African drums accompany Dwayne Worthington, a wiry, kinetic young man who plays a role the program simply calls “Messenger.” After circumnavigating a rectangle whose boundaries are set apart by thin white tape, he pauses in mid-field, crouches low to the ground and passes both hands back and forth, as if either dowsing or reading, with his fingertips, some invisible Braille that discloses the identity of this place, and the events which took place here.

The fingers draw back, and the look of anguish on his face tells us what he’s learned. He’s standing on the killing field itself: reason enough to step carefully, and with respect. Both hands are seen to pat downward, as if to still troubled waters or smooth some surface that’s been disturbed.

Then in a gathering motion, the messenger’s hands draw up from the ground something of the grief there, which he holds to his chest. His arms open.

Then, with a simple hand gesture upward from the Messenger, the dead rise up again.

Worthington’s character cedes the area to these spirits. He watches their joyous reunion, and their re-enactment of the party before. The exuberance of the drummers is contagious. As the bride and groom are greeted by family, friends and members of the community, the Messenger invites us to clap along with the drums, an easy request given the circumstances.

Dorrance’s choreography merges the balletic with African dance forms. Groups combine jetes with earth-based dances of invocation and blessing. It’s no new development for regular followers of Duke’s Dance Choreolab, but a new experience for many in the crowd judging from their response. The fusion here of variant dance forms seems far more organic than the earlier examples we’ve seen at Duke, a seamless mixing of West and East, air and earth, body and soul.

At the height of their revels, the bride and groom, each one’s arms around the other’s waist, twirl in a counter-clockwise spin, while concentric circles of revelers spin about them. All generations are present on the field: young dancers, children, old ones and many in-between.

You know what happens next. You read a few words about it in a paper, if you were looking on the right couple of days four months ago. Or maybe you heard it on NPR one morning on the way to work. The news may have even bothered you for a while.

To the sound of a whirling rope and wooden swing, mimicking the engine of a plane in flight, the group is blown down from right to left.

The Messenger is the only one left standing.

He looks all around, and steps respectfully among the bodies.

Then he carefully raises his hands once more, and the dead souls rise again. This time, though, they do not repeat their revels. Instead, they walk calmly to the perimeter of the space.

Then they just look at us, for an extended period of time.

You can almost hear their questions.

Now do you see?

Now can you see us?

Do you see what happened?

Do you see what happens when people do such things?


Then, with a sudden sound of bells and chimes, the souls step out of the rectangle, and fly off in all directions. Thus ends a powerful image, brought to us by no optics more enhanced than an artist’s vision, and by a community of dance: a powerful lesson about what the arts can do in a time of war. EndBlock