Amy Wolfe knows these moments are fleeting, but they are why, despite the advice of those closest to her and the painful memories it would conjure, she has created an unusual tribute to her son: a ballet that captures the life of a young man who was a dancer before he was a Marine.
She describes working on the ballet, titled simply “Colin,” as simultaneously “cathartic” and “extremely difficult.”
“For me, Colin is alive again,” she says. “So when it’s all done and put to rest, he will die for me again.”
Across the nation, parents of more than 6,600 service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have found countless ways to honor their children — with benches, parks, poems, scholarships. But this weekend on a Manassas stage, an audience will see not just a production in Colin’s name, but his life story as choreographed by his mother.
“I don’t frankly know how she’s able to do it,” says Mark Wolfe, Colin’s father.
As executive director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre, the professional dance company where his wife is the artistic director, he has stood by her side through countless productions. But this one is different, he says. Early on, he advised his wife of 32 years against taking on such an emotional project, and he has since told her that he might not be able to watch it when it is performed Saturday and Sunday at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.
“It will be exceptionally difficult,” says Mark Wolfe, who became interested in public service after his son’s death and is now a member of the Manassas City Council. “I think about Colin every day and cry still quite frequently.”
Mary Byers, president of American Gold Star Mothers, an organization for those whose children have died while serving in the military, understands the intensity of that grief.
“You’re never over it,” says Byers, whose son Joshua, an Army captain, was killed in 2003 at the age of 29. “You walk in a building, and a smell will trigger a memory, and it’s like you’re being stabbed in the heart.”
Byers says the biggest fear for parents who have suffered such a loss is that their children will be forgotten, so the impulse for public tributes is a strong one. She has heard about mothers memorializing slain children through concerts, bike rides, gardens and foundations. But never, she says, through a ballet.
Learning to pirouette
Amy Wolfe sits against a mirror-lined wall and watches as women and men in flesh-toned slippers rehearse the moves she has scripted. With graceful, sweeping movements, the dancers play the roles of Colin as well as his sister, Cece, his girlfriend, Kira, and his parents.
“Bigger!” Amy yells at one point.
“Yes!” she shouts at another.
At one point, her character dances with Colin’s character. The two swirl across the floor and she gently kisses his forehead. The scene was inspired by the moments when Amy would comfort her son, who as a late bloomer was sometimes picked on by other boys.
Joshua Burnham, the dancer who plays Colin, says he, too, was that scrawny kid who had to work at building up his body. When Amy had him try on her son’s Marine Corp dress shirt for the role, he was surprised.
“It’s like it was actually tailored for me,” says Burnham, who has been dancing since he was 7 and, at 25, is just a few months younger than Colin would have been had he survived. During the performance, he will wear Colin’s Marine-issued belt and the more dance-friendly desert camouflage uniform of one of Colin’s best friends.
Burnham is practicing in the same studio, nestled in a strip mall between a bowling alley and a dental office, where Colin learned to leap and pirouette as a child. He showed talent and learned to guide his partners with confidence, but he never fully embraced the art, his mother says.
“He danced because I danced,” Amy explains. “As he got older, he knew dancing wasn’t his thing, but he kept doing it for me.”
Mark Wolfe says his son took some ribbing for dancing but kept at it until he was 18. He credits the ballet training with instilling a mental toughness and discipline in Colin that later helped him in the Marines. He recalls the story Colin’s battalion commander told the family about how at the end of a 15-mile hike, the entire group fell exhausted to the ground. Except for Colin. When the commander asked him why he didn’t take off his bag and relax, Colin replied, “Because you haven’t yet, sir.”
Amy didn’t set out to create a ballet for Colin. She had been talking to longtime friend and Dallas-based composer Mark Menza last fall about creating a piece of music for the ballet company. Menza suggested that they do something special, maybe a patriotic piece. Wolfe took it one step further. What if they made it about Colin?
“I remember being very silent on the phone,” Menza says.
Menza, who composes music primarily for TV and film, had mainly watched Colin grow up through Christmas cards and says he suddenly found himself in the role of biographer. He and Wolfe had many painful telephone conversations about Colin, some that left him wondering how he’d cope if he lost his own son, now 7.
In the end, Menza composed a 27-minute piece of music that is broken into four movements: home, commitment, love and war. For those who listen closely, they will hear nods to the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn and Don McLean’s folk anthem “American Pie,” which Colin wanted played if anything happened to him.
“We were trying to take the point of view of how this affects a family, how it affects a community,” Menza says. “With all this political static out there, we sometimes forget that there are these families out there and what they have really gone through.”
A startling idea
Colin was 14 when the Pentagon burned and the twin towers fell. He decided then that he wanted to join the Marines.
The idea startled his parents. Amy says her world was rooted in art, far removed from the tough culture of the Marines. Growing up, she didn’t know anyone who served in the military. But she also knew that Colin wasn’t likely to change his mind. Instead, she and her husband tried to encourage him to go to college first and enter the military as an officer.
“But he wanted to be on the front line,” she says. “In Israel, when a child graduates from high school, everyone serves for two years, and he felt that was the way it should be in the U.S. as well.”
On the day Colin left for boot camp, Amy went to the pool, her favorite escape, and “cried and cried and cried.”
Seven weeks after Colin left for Iraq, two Marines showed up at his parents’ home about 4:30 a.m. with the news that he had been killed in a roadside bomb attack. The family buried him at Arlington National Cemetery on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11.
“Even though it’s been six and a half years, it could have been six and half days,” Amy says. “I know now it’s going to be that way for the rest of our lives.”
Colin’s room remains the same as when he left. Amy says she made the mistake of rifling through it in search of props for the production and spent that night unable to sleep.
On Saturday and Sunday night, Colin’s ballet will come at the end of a larger production, “La Boutique Fantasque & More.”
Amy says she has not yet decided whether she will speak before it starts. But if she does, she will say this:
“Once upon a time, there was a little boy who loved his trucks, who loved his baseball, who danced ballet because his Mommy did. He was very proud of his Jewish heritage and was very proud to be an American and wanted to be a Marine to make the world a better place. And he did.”