About 500 boys have packed the auditorium at Bethesda’s Landon School. They look sharp, all in blazers and clean pants (it’s Monday), but by the way they’re slumped in the seats, heads lolling over the backs or bent toward their buddies, it looks as if they’d rather be anywhere else than here.
The dance performance these middle and high school kids are waiting for might as well be a lecture on urban planning, no matter how hard the man onstage in a suit, tie and crew-cut hair tries to sell it.
“You’re about to see this piece for the very first time!” Roman Baca tells them. He’s the director of the Exit 12 Dance Company.
A boy in the back row yawns.
“Think about going off to war, and how your mom feels, and how your dad feels,” says Baca. He ought to know. Baca, 38, was a Marine before he founded the dance troupe.
A boy in the front row twists his ball cap in his hands.
Then the dance begins. Two young men in jeans and T-shirts tumble onto the stage, beating on each other the way brothers do. With a mom’s gentle exasperation, a woman in pink ruffles their hair. They reappear with pretty girlfriends (at this point, you sense the kids start to sit up a little straighter), and the guys are now in Army fatigues. The violins grow piercing. Suddenly, it’s clear. The piece is about two terrors hitting you at once: love and goodbye.
The boys in the audience are silent.
Now they’re paying attention.
“Sometimes, Silence” was created by Angela Scimonelli of Shippensburg, Pa., a mother and former dancer, after she sent her only two children overseas. Her sons Sam and Jake Myers deployed to Afghanistan in May 2012. Both were Army: Sam a sergeant, Jake a captain.
“We were beyond proud of them,” says Scimonelli after the performance. Her dance training shows in the elegant way she navigates the auditorium in high heels. Her dark hair is swept back in a bun. But control evades her; her eyes well up as she talks about sending her boys away.
“Every day, every other minute of every day, you think, ‘Are they okay?’ ” She kept her Facebook page open around the clock, consoled by the green dot beside their names that let her know they were online too, and alive. Days without the dot led to panic.
To live with the worry, she decided to make a dance about war, from a mother’s point of view. Over the years she had choreographed for the Houston Grand Opera and staged various high school musicals. Through a friend, she found Baca, a man who also turned to dance to ease his pain. After traveling around Iraq in a Humvee, carrying an M-16 through Fallujah, encountering terrified parents and children on his hunt for bad guys, he came home suffering from stress. He had been a dancer in college and before enlisting, and he knew that in movement he could express what he couldn’t talk about. He founded Exit 12 in New York as a way to educate audiences about the lasting effects of violence and conflict.
His response to Scimonelli’s Mom Ballet idea: When do we start?
Scimonelli turned to her brother, Paul Scimonelli, director of strings at Landon School, to compose the score. It is lovely, moving swiftly from a bit of Aaron Copland-style brightness to an introspective jazz piano and strings, layered in warmth and sweetness. It is a perfect fit for this work, which is straightforward, exquisitely simple and unmuddled with cliche or overwrought emotionalism. With touching artlessness, Angela Scimonelli captures the folkways of the teenage boy and the young man, the mix of brashness and uncertainty.
At the end of the dance, as the two men are about to deploy, rucksacks on their shoulders, they share a quick look. On the same impulse, they run back into their mother’s arms.
If you are a mom, it is almost more than you can bear.
And if you are a son? The audience silence suggested that the young hearts were stirred.
Silence can say a lot, as Scimonelli knows. People used to ask her, how do you do it, with two boys in Afghanistan? She could never find the words to reply.
“There are days when I wanted to stay in bed because I was so terrified for them,” Scimonelli says. “So you can’t answer that. You shrug your shoulders. And you just remain silent.”
“Sometimes, Silence” was her answer.
By the way, both Myers brothers returned home safely. They came back to their mom on Valentine’s Day.