UW News

October 31, 2002

Dancers, actors to explore healing power of art in times of war, crisis

The turmoil following Sept. 11 has given birth to a series of lectures and performances exploring the role of the arts in a time of crisis, a project that kicks off next week with a talk by history professor emeritus Jon Bridgman.

Bridgman will speak Nov. 7 on London under the Bombs, part of a project called “Myra’s War.”

The project began with dance lecturer Peter Kyle, who was near the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11 last year.

“All around us were reports of rescue efforts and heroism,” Kyle said, “and I was going back into rehearsal for a French Baroque farce opera with Mark Morris.”

The irony led him to question his chosen path as an artist, but in that mood he happened to hear a radio broadcast that mentioned Myra Hess, a concert pianist who sponsored performances in London during the World War II blitz. He became so interested that he found a book on Hess and read the chapters dealing with her World War II work.

“I was really fascinated by what I read and my spirit was buoyed by her example,” Kyle said.

Meanwhile, Kyle had begun a dialogue by phone and e-mail with Drama Professor Robyn Hunt that revolved around the question of what artists can do in a time of crisis. When Kyle and colleague Maria Simpson — who was performing with him in New York — returned to Seattle, they decided to collaborate with Hunt and others on a project with that theme.

With funding from the UW’s Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, the project grew to include the three lectures in fall quarter, five performances in winter quarter and a culminating “theater/dance suite” to be presented in April. Others involved in the planning include Steve Pearson, head of the Professional Actor Training Program; Chris Shainin a graduate student in music; and Victor Holtcamp, a graduate student in drama.

The group is enthused about honoring the accomplishments of Hess, who was an internationally known concert pianist when World War II broke out. Scheduled to tour America at the time, she decided instead to stay in London, where the blackout had closed down theaters, movie houses and concert halls.

“She was visited by some Jewish refugees from Europe who wanted to meet her,” Pearson said. “They asked her if she would play and she did. And she said later that she was aware of the power of that music — she could see things disappear from their faces. It had a healing effect. So she thought it would be good for Londoners to have some concerts.”

With the concert halls closed, Hess asked the director of the National Gallery — which had been emptied of its paintings — if she could hold concerts there. He agreed, and between 1939 and 1946 there were lunchtime concerts every weekday — 1,698 concerts in all. Hess booked top performers along with rising stars. She performed 150 concerts herself.

Bridgman’s lecture — on Thursday, Nov. 7 — will recreate London at the time Hess was giving her concerts. On Nov. 21 two oral and military historians — Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore Cook — will speak on War/Memory. And on Dec. 5, Herbert Blau, the Byron and Alice L. Lockwood professor of humanities, will speak on Art and Crisis. All lectures are free and are at 7 p.m. in the Architecture Building auditorium.

The winter quarter performances will be held the week of Jan. 20. Because of the Martin Luther King Day holiday on Monday, there will be no events that day. However, there will be noontime performances every day, Tuesday through Friday and an evening concert on Friday.

The schedule for the week has not yet been finalized. What’s known at this point is that one of the noontime performances will be by the Contemporary Chamber Composers and Players, a group managed by Shainin. They will perform music they have written with the project’s theme in mind. Another midday event will be an open rehearsal of the theater/dance suite. And the Friday night performance will be a piano concert with music from the Hess repertoire.

The theater/dance suite hasn’t yet been created, although Kyle said he and the others are “itching to get in the studio.” Kyle, Simpson and Hunt, together with UW drama graduate Lisa Bonney, will be the principal performers. There will also be a chorus/corps de ballet of seven women. Pearson will direct, Shainin will contribute music and Holtcamp will serve as dramaturg.

Beyond that, the group can only say that Hunt will play a “Myra Hess-like character,” and that the piece will be a fusion of dance, theater and music/sound — but definitely not musical theater. It will be presented April 3–6 in Meany Studio Theatre.

Through the project as a whole, the group hopes the audience will think about the place of art in society, particularly in times of crisis, as experienced by Kyle on Sept. 11.

“When I talked to Peter on the phone after Sept. 11, he didn’t sound like Peter,” Hunt said. “He sounded like someone who had been through something unthinkable. It was the idea of Myra Hess and the possibility that art could heal that brought him back.

“I think art is one of the few things that gives meaning to us and also gives us a course, a way to take action,” she added. “We hope that what we make during this project may cause people to be buoyed up, or to be changed, or to think.”