Actor Bill Pullman, rehearsing a dance piece upstairs at Arena Stage, gracefully sinks into a crouch. So does his wife, dancer Tamara Hurwitz Pullman. Moving slowly, they gracefully sweep their left arms in a leftward direction. In tandem, they stretch toward the floor.
“There is a lot of fear in Iraq,” says Pullman, the screen star who played presidents in the movie “Independence Day” and in the recent short-lived TV series “1600 Penn.” A moment later, Tamara Pullman — a frequent performer with choreographer Liz Lerman — recites a harsh battle report. Behind her, half a dozen or so dancers playing soldiers crumple to the ground.
This is “The Healing Wars,” a dance-theater hybrid Lerman has been working on with the Pullmans and a core of dancers for several years.
The show, which is at Arena’s 200-seat Kogod Cradle through June 29, is a cornerstone in the ambitious, Lerman-inspired National Civil War Project, with partnerships between universities and arts organizations in the District, Baltimore, Boston and Atlanta poised to yield a dozen newly commissioned works.
The sweeping focus of “The Healing Wars” is on soldiers and medics from the Civil War through today coping with the toll of combat, and it happens to be landing in a capital gripped by alarming headlines about negligent care at Veterans Affairs hospitals.
As her dancers toggle between centuries in the 70-minute work, suggesting everything from Clara Barton to the modern military, Lerman says, “they are themselves and others, moving between time frames. You kind of have to go with that.”
It’s a lot to take in, and mistakes can be made. With his trademark boyish grin, Pullman reports that one workshop ad promised “Bill Pullman and his Dancers.”
“The Healing Wars” is hardly that, although it’s fascinating to watch Pullman — tall, lanky and still sporting matinee idol hair at 60 — moving alongside Lerman’s characteristically multigenerational ensemble. (He’s the only performer wearing shoes during this rehearsal — the other cast members are barefoot.)
But the piece, which has been researched and refined through nearly half a dozen university residencies, edges Lerman closer to the theater world than she’s ever been. The three weeks at Arena will be the longest run for anything she’s created, and the story, devised by Lerman and the ensemble after input from medics, veterans and historians, will feature more speaking than usual.
“I wanted to push myself and see what would happen,” Lerman says. She adds that the audience may stretch, too, with a dance crowd hopefully mingling with Arena’s theater regulars.
The sculptural set by designer David Israel Reynoso has hospital beds hanging above the stage. To nudge audiences close to the performers and their characters, the dancers first will be in costume backstage in small dramatic dioramas. Patrons wishing to enter through this behind-the-scenes display (it’s optional) will eventually walk across the stage, where Pullman will be sitting and chatting with real-life veteran Paul Hurley, who lost part of a leg while serving in Bahrain in 2006 (and, yes, he will dance a bit).
During a break in rehearsals, Pullman marvels that the company is finally in “the bottleneck” toward opening after several years of exploration and intermittent flurries of actually putting the work on its feet. He’s currently working on the action comedy “American Ultra,” starring Jesse Eisenberg, which is shooting in New Orleans, but he’s just off the plane from Norway, where he’s set to play “Othello.”
“For a year,” Pullman says, explaining his commitment to “The Healing Wars,” “I just want to do bang bang bang theater stuff.” The “bangs” apparently mean no film disruptions, his keen interest in “American Ultra” notwithstanding.
With Lerman’s cast, is he a fish out of water? Sensible brown shoes among bouncing bare feet?
“I went to school in the 1970s, and there was a lot of physical theater in those days,” Pullman says, citing the influence of avant-gurus like Polish theater experimentalist Jerzy Grotowski. Still, he allows, “I didn’t want to feel like I was straining to dance.”
The project is like family for him, since he has closely watched such Lerman works as the 2010 “The Matter of Origins” (which contemplated physics via dance) that his wife has been in. Still, Pullman seems boggled by the process, by the fact that “things that came out of gestures that I did.”
“It’s so wild,” he says. “That pointing thing” — the crouch and slow lunge with Tamara – “came out of an exercise. I looked back, and all these people are doing this [crappy] thing that I did. Liz made a dance of it.”
During World War II, Pullman’s father was a physician on a destroyer in the South Pacific. “It was that generation where you didn’t know a lot about it until the last 10 years of his life,” the actor says. His dad carried a sidearm; it’s the kind of experience that the ensemble has grafted onto the show during the long gestation process.
Very early, Lerman was tipped off to read “Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War,” by Eric T. Dean Jr., among other works.
“I would bring books to rehearsal, lay them out on a table, and say, ‘Take something home,’ ” Lerman says.
Meantime, the ensemble was free to bring information and angles of their own. According to Pullman, “Liz’s whole thing is not about hierarchy.”
Even the choreography credit, at least in the early press material, reads “developed by Lerman and [Keith] Thompson in collaboration with the performers.” Yet Lerman is the decider, as she clarifies in a way that may be useful as the theater world swoons through a new vogue for “devised” work. Succinctly put: “Everyone is contributing. It is not a collective.”
Lerman and the group listened to the many veterans they encountered while developing the piece, and during the rehearsal, “The Healing Wars” marches through an interpretation of today’s disturbing rise in military suicides. Performance, Lerman believes, grants artists “permission to take the floor” while giving audiences “permission to stare.” With an issue like the aftermath of combat, that may be a balm.
That raises the question of whether art itself can heal — and if so, who in this case needs healing? Lerman suggests that it’s not only the wounded, but also the societies that send them into harm’s way.
A wary veteran wasn’t sure he wanted to watch the piece. He asked, “Will anybody be healed?” Lerman replied that if he meant would injured people be made completely better, no.
But in terms of all of us learning how to live with what has happened? Hopefully, she told him, yes.
The Healing Wars Conceived and directed by Liz Lerman. Through June 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $119, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.