The Live Context of War
BY JASON VICTOR SERINUS
Imagine a world in which the barriers between art and society, university and community, and mind and heart are erased, and creative synthesis becomes the norm. Such is the vision from which Stanford Live’s Live Context: Art + Ideas was born.
This season’s two extraordinary Live Context: Art + Ideas series, War: Return & Recovery and Arts & Social Change, culminate this month with three events that lay bare the realities of modern American warfare. These unique, heart-meets-head explorations are designed to deepen the connection between art and intellectual discourse that Stanford University fervently champions.
BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN VETS AND CIVILIANS
The events begin with an intense 90-minute discussion, “Who Bleeds, Who Pays? Ethics and Strategy in the Era of the All-Volunteer Force” at Bing Concert Hall on Tuesday, April 19. As part of a provocative panel, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry (former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan), professor David Kennedy (Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and editor of The Modern American Military), and army officer Tim Hsia (J.D./M.B.A., Stanford 2014, and cofounder of Service to School, a nonprofit that assists transitioning veterans with applying to schools of higher learning) will discuss the disturbing realities of today’s all-volunteer force— recruited mainly from America’s disadvantaged population— and technologically based, remote warfare that further insulates the general population from the realities of war.
The men’s ideas, some of which were articulated in a 2013 New York Times op-ed entitled “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” will set the stage for two subsequent events with AXIS Dance Company. April 22’s AXIS Dance Workshop for Veterans (at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System’s Welcome Center in Menlo Park) will culminate the next night in the AXIS Dance performance of to go again at Bing. Choreographed by Joe Goode, the evening features the AXIS troupe of dancers with and without disability living out the stories of resilient, disabled vets who have returned from recent wars determined to move on with their lives. Introduced at 6:30 pm by a discussion in which members of the university, veterans, and members of AXIS will address changing conceptions of combat trauma in science and art, to go again serves to bridge the gaps between thought and experience, audience and performers, and civilians and veterans.
LIVE CONTEXT: THE HEART OF THE MATTER
“Live Context: Art + Ideas was launched by Stanford Live last season as a way of gaining understanding by deepening the texture of arts performances,” Stanford’s Associate Dean for Advancement of the Arts, Matthew Tiews, explains. “If a performance moves and excites you, this offers the means to delve deeper via conversations with the artists and others who offer different perspectives into the meaning and excitement of the artwork.”
A living alternative to dry lectures and classroom environments, Live Context: Art + Ideas enriches the emotional and spiritual content of a work of art and expands the horizon of understanding by catalyzing intellectual curiosity while getting to the heart of the matter at hand.
“It is of utmost importance for people who work in the arts to make clear that the arts are relevant and important to the big issues we face,” Tiews says. “I want people who work in and care about the arts to find real excitement in the fact that we’re in conversation about things that really matter in our lives. Stanford doesn’t want it to seem as though important things happen, and then the arts are in a separate place. For people who have passion about the arts and performance, and want to see how they connect to and can impact the world, Live Context: Art + Ideas can be a very exciting way to do it.”
Tiews’ position springs from a campus-wide arts initiative that launched in 2006 with the goal of making the arts a fundamental part of a Stanford education. With its resolve to build the resources, programs, and facilities that can fulfill Stanford’s commitment to arts and education at a level of excellence commensurate with the university’s international reputation, the initiative has birthed new programs across the campus that enable students of every major to engage meaningfully with the arts.
That Stanford has expanded its arts faculty and instituted new M.F.A. and Ph.D. fellowships to help students become arts professionals may not, at first glance, seem of utmost importance to arts lovers who flock to the campus to attend Stanford Live’s world-class cultural events. But Stanford’s arts initiative has also mandated construction and renovation of four buildings that include Bing Concert Hall and the Anderson Collection of postwar contemporary art. In addition, with a renovated and reenvisioned Roble Gym, which includes a new black-box theater, upgraded dance studios, and a drop-in arts gym for students, and the new McMurtry Building that houses the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford has created a new campus arts district.
“We intentionally created this arts district at the very front of the campus so that it would serve, in a sense, as a front door,” says Tiews. “The arts, and this program in particular, are a doorway that welcomes the community to a place where community members, Stanford students and faculty, and ideas can mix with the broader world.”
TO WAR AND BACK
The broader world, Live Context: Art + Ideas constantly reminds us, is hardly a sheltered place. Just as with last October’s War: Return & Recovery events—that began with journalist Trent Angers’ talk “The Forgotten Hero of My Lai” and culminated in a performance by Rinde Eckert, Kronos Quartet, and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ of Jonathan Berger’s and Harriet Scott Chessman’s opera, My Lai, which examined the multilayered aspects of U.S. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson’s heroic intervention in the My Lai massacre—this month’s events will present the different faces of war via the stories of recently returning, remarkably resilient vets.
Rinde Eckert and the Kronos Quartet premiered Jonathan Berger's My Lai in October. Photo: Joel Simon
AXIS Dance Company artistic director and dancer Judith Smith, a former champion equestrian who became quadriplegic in a car accident at age 17, has long wanted to shed light on the world of veterans. After facilitating a pilot social dance for disabled vets at Palo Alto’s veterans hospital, she received a commission “out of the blue” to create a piece about veterans. Immediately she contacted Bay Area choreographer and UC Berkeley faculty member, Joe Goode, who previously had choreographed two works for AXIS.
Unbeknownst to Smith, Goode had already started engaging with veterans. While in the midst of devising dance/theater works in which people retell their real tales of resilience, he received a call from Linda Duke, curator of the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University, to create a work based on stories of veterans from Kansas’ Fort Riley community.
“I tell the human stories of mostly young men and women who have dealt with very challenging circumstances,” says Goode. “The humanity of what they’ve been able to do and the way they tell their stories is really generous. It’s beautiful material. I don’t get into whether people went to war reluctantly, enthusiastically, or just stumbled into it. People may include that in their stories, but I still don’t have a point of view about the war part. Through engaging with veterans, I’ve realized it is a far more complex issue than I had originally thought when it was not a part of my world.”
Smith, whose company’s purpose is to change the face of dance and disability, champions dance as a bridge builder. Twenty-one years ago, when AXIS went to Siberia to do a residency with a newly organizing disability community, she transcended the language barrier via the common language of dance. Now she’s obliterating barriers once again by doing workshops with veterans and performing to go again.
While Smith makes no bones about the fact that she has been against war “from the beginning,” she insists that the only way that her beliefs color to go again is through her commitment to be socially responsive.
“We don’t bring our own personal political beliefs into the piece or take a political stand,” she says. “We just try to present the experiences of veterans as best we can. People sign up to fight our wars for very complex reasons. Regardless of why they went, I think we share deep feelings about what is happening to them and how they come back damaged. I think that’s what moves people about this piece.” From season to season, Live Context: Art + Ideas fulfills Stanford’s commitment to unite university and community and spirit and mind in real time via the union of artistic creation and intellectual discourse. With next year promising two series that explore topics that couldn’t be more timely or multifaceted, Imagining the West and Islamic Voices, the program continues to shine a brilliant light on some of the most profound issues and concerns.
Jason Victor Serinus is an arts writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Classical Voice North America, Stereophile, and Listen.