Soul Soil: A-List Choreographer Moses Pendleton and the Alchemy of Turning Human Bodies into Saguaro Cacti and Other Odd Things

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

When Moses Pendleton, the superstar co-founder of Pilobolus and dance maker extraordinaire, was a wee lad, one of his jobs on the family dairy farm was to feed the veal calves a nutritious milk supplement. The name of the supplement?

Momix.

Pendleton returned to this physical memory later when he choreographed a solo for the 1980 Moscow Olympics called “Momix,” the “mo” reportedly doubling as a reference to Pendleton himself, the “mix” alluding to the grab-bag of theatrical delights Pendleton throws into his dance-making stew. To call what Pendleton does “dance” is misleading, especially for someone who may associate the word with classical, recognizable forms like ballet, jazz or even contemporary or hip-hop.

It’s more like movement theatrics.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus comes to The Straz on March 23. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

As a co-founder of Pilobolus, his first movement endeavor with fellow Dartmouth dance student Jonathan Wolken and others, Pendleton and crew pulled another name from a family source. Wolken’s dad was studying a certain light-loving fungus called Pilobolus crystallinus, and the name, Pilobolus [pe-LOB-ah-lus], stuck. The women and men of Pilobolus were way more into upending expectations than presenting pretty works to show off technique (hey, this was the ‘70s, after all, so being far out was, well    . . . far out! . . . and most of them didn’t have any dance training, anyway).  What they created was a mad-cap theatrical spectacle that relied as much on brute strength and derring-do as it did on anyone’s ability to extend through the line.

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An early performance of “Pilobolus.” This is the seminal work from which the company evolved. (Photo: Tim Matson)

By the end of the ‘70s, Pendleton’s creative drive led him to form a new company, a sort of off-shoot of the Pilobolus idea but with more intentional stagecraft like lighting tricks, props, and soundscaping. The name he chose conformed to the earth-family ties of Pilobolus nomenclature. The name that stuck?

MOMIX.

Pendleton, whose rural, agricultural upbringing defined his world view, eventually bought a Connecticut compound complete with a rambling 22-room main farmhouse and a converted horse barn for the MOMIX movement lab. He meant to explore the human form in non-human worlds, blending his study of animals, plants and minerals into works of gorgeous, simple explorations of themes: seasons (Botanica), the moon (Lunar Sea), the four elements (Alchemia).

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MOMIX Lunar Sea. (Photos: Max Pucciariello)

Even now as a man in his late-60s, he follows the same routine that he has for decades: get up, swim, build fire, go on walk, work. These walks, from three to four hours in the woods around his home, include copious photographs, many of which inspire later choreography. His photos, which are quite stunning, have been on exhibit in the United States and Europe and serve, as one gallery curator noted, as tangible documentation of where his dances come from. Sunflowers, decaying foliage, trees, lichen, rock formations—these images compel Pendleton and his MOMIX dancers to work tirelessly in the horse barn animating the non-human world through the human body, “the greatest toy we have,” Pendleton says.

To connect his dancers’ souls to the soil, Pendleton invites them to his land, giving them good old fashioned chores like weeding, tending the sunflower fields and planting marigolds to build their personal connection to the living things they will embody. He demands his dancers possess acting and mimetic skills equal to their dancing ability because the work of MOMIX often requires dancers to become something other than human—especially in his work coming here March 23, a reboot of his 2001 ingenious depiction of the southwestern desert mystique, Opus Cactus.

Opus Cactus, perhaps one of Pendleton’s most critically-acclaimed works (and definitely an audience favorite), captures the desert garden world of the southwest. With the help of entrancing world music and a lighting palette worthy of Georgia O’Keefe, the dancers morph in and out of various splendors found in the sun and sand—including the sun and the sand. Cacti tableaux abound as Pendleton’s crop of muscular dancer-gymnast-illusionists take the forms of the iconic saguaro and the pretty, lobular prickly pear.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

The trick to really enjoying MOMIX is to not think about it too much. Even MOMIX will tell you that most of the time it doesn’t “mean” anything. An evening with MOMIX is meant to bring satisfaction to the audience, in whatever ways works, whether it’s the deft use of props and costumes or the sensual architecture of human bodies morphing into fighting Gila monsters or mimicking the suspended-in-air radiation of desert heat.

As Pendleton said in an interview, “we are nurtured by nature. It’s a muse, an inspiration. Which jumps right into the aesthetic of MOMIX. There’s a level of the surreal and dream, and making the connection with plant, animal and mineral.”

Fun MOMIX note: maybe you’re getting a certain familiar feeling looking at the MOMIX pix? Well, you may remember the company from a few commercials, like this one from Hanes:

Or Target:

Seasons of Love

Adults around the world offer inspiration to LGBTQ youth through the It Gets Better Project.

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A scene from It Gets Better. Photo: Morten Kier.

In 2010, a series of teen suicides shocked the news cycle, shoving the real-life consequences of tormenting classmates into the national spotlight.

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist and freshman at Rutgers University, leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly Facebook live-streamed Clementi in a romantic encounter. Seth Walsh, 13, of California, and Billy Lucas, 15, of Indiana, hanged themselves after non-stop verbal abuse by their middle school classmates. Asher Brown, 13, from Texas, shot himself for the same reason.

There are other stories across the generations, all equally horrifying, all the direct results of school bullying of kids who happened to be gay.

The psychological effect of ridicule, especially in middle school years, shapes the brain and taps into one of the greatest human fears: the fear of abandonment (being outcast from one’s community). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) young people, who report that they often have no adults in their lives who they can talk to about personal problems*, must face this hostile school world day after day after day. And, let’s face it, middle school and high school can be rough enough socially without the added pressures of dealing with someone else’s arbitrary judgment about sexual orientation.

It can seem, trapped in a well of ridicule, that life will never get better, that there’s no way out.

These LGBTQ suicide reports fell across the desk of syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who survived middle school and high school as a “semi-out gay man” and went on to create a really great life for himself. He decided to carry a very important, very vital message to the next generation of young people toughing it out in the often cruel heteronormative ball of confusion that is middle school and high school: it gets better.

Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, created a simple video, posted it on YouTube, and it went viral instantly. The It Gets Better Project was born, and adults around the world saw their chance to step up and offer hope to LGBTQ kids. The list of celebrity testimonies grew, as did the corporations who valued diversity, creativity and inclusivity: Apple, Google, Pearson Education, Pixar, Facebook and NASA all taped videos for the It Gets Better Project. So did the Fire Department of New York, the Austin Police Department and Lt. James “Jim” Young of Orlando PD.

In time, It Gets Better went on tour, stopping in cities around the country for week-long residencies with local LGBTQ youth to create a concert based on the unique experiences of those young people.

It Gets Better evolved from a simple message of hope to an entire out-and-open community specifically lifting up LGTBQ young people who need support making it through their toughest years. Community serves as a source of strength, and adults built a visible, accessible network through It Gets Better as living proof that every wonderful, vibrant, creative and resilient fiber of an LGBTQ person has a place in the world somewhere, with something unique and valuable to offer.

As NASA says in their video: “You are necessary.”

This year, It Gets Better arrives in Tampa, with a performance here at The Straz on March 24.


For more information on the show and tour, take a look here .

*from the Human Rights Campaign’s report “Growing up LGBT in America: HRC Youth Survey Report Key Findings.”

A Cinderella Story

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Left to Right: Charles Robinson illustration inspired by Perrault’s version; Oliver Herford illustration inspired by Perrault’s version; Alexander Zick illustration inspired by the Brothers Grimm version.

Folk and fairy tale scholars estimate there may be 1500 different versions of the Cinderella tale, the earliest originating in Greece and China.

In Greece, the story is called Rhodopis, in which an eagle snatched Rhodopis’ shoe and transports it to the lap of the king of Egypt. In China, it is the story of Yeh-hsien and although she has no fairy godmother, a magical fish helps her along, and a golden shoe identifies Yeh-hsien to a prince who wants to marry her.

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The origins of the the ancient Greek fairy-tale figure Rhodopis may be traced back to the 6th-century BC hetaera Rhodopis.

The Algonquin Indians have a version called “The Rough-Face Girl,” and in west Africa, the heroine is called Chinye. The tale survives in cultures spanning the globe, with the star known by local noemclature including Vasilisa in Russia, Angkat in Cambodia, The Turkey Girl in the Native American Zuni tradition and, in Mexico and in Mexican American traditions, she is Adelita and Domitila.

The most recognized American version comes from French lawyer and writer Charles Perrault, from a story he published in 1697: “Cendrillion, ou la petite pantoufle de verre” or “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper,” a version that included a fairy godmother, a pumpkin carriage and a pair of glass slippers.

Rodgers and Hammerstein took that version and wrote a made-for-TV musical in 1957 for a very talented young actress and singer, Julie Andrews. The story was remade twice, once in 1965 with Lesley Anne Warren and again in 1997 with the singer, Brandy, as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. In 2013, the stage version of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA debuted on Broadway for the first time ever, featuring a new book by Douglas Carter Beane and direction by Mark Brokaw. It appeared at the Straz Center in 2014.

The operatic telling of Cinderella’s rags-to-riches journey debuted in 1817 with music by Gioachino Rossini and a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti. Here, the outcast step-daughter goes by Angelina (aka Cenerentola,) her Italian name, and tears out of the ball without any glass slippers (or fairy godmother) at all. However, she does last the whole opera as a comic turn on the tale, finishing with a fancy flourish of an aria – certainly befitting a princess.

See Opera Tampa’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola February 10 and 12.

Nacho Everyday Percussionist

Nacho Arimany’s years working with rhythm showed him how natural harmonic patterns heal the human body and mind.

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At first glance, Nacho Arimany can easily be confused for a European version of holistic healer J.P. Sears in the “Ultra Spiritual” spoofs.

But after a few moments into an interview or demonstration, Arimany reveals himself as the real deal. Here, he explains the cultural component of the recent neuroscientific findings about the effects of movement and rhythm on the brain:

Known around the world as “one of the most sought after Flamenco percussionists, composers and musicians for the brain,” ground-breaking, multi-cultural instrumentalist Arimany has mastered sound-scaping instruments from tiny harps to singing bowls to gourds. His work in bands and studying diverse ethnic communities and their percussion instruments drew Arimany down a rabbit hole of Fibonacci perfection when he began to make the rhythmic connections between mathematical truths like the golden ratio, frequency in the natural world, and the effects of certain resonances on the human body.

Arimany’s work rests on the foundation that 432 hertz (Hz) is the resonance of biological rhythms, termed “sound biology.” Humans exposed to instruments tuning to 432 Hz undergo physiological changes that enhance cellular harmony—bodies and minds literally tune themselves to this frequency (as bodies are chock full of biological rhythms). The result, Arimany explains, can improve fine motor skills, mental health and promote brain function through harmonic resonance. Over time, he created the Arimany Method, a blend of movement and rhythm used as a meditation to create “new architecture in the brain.”

Nacho Arimany, who performs for the first time at The Straz with Flamenco guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, will serve in his traditional role as multi-talented percussionist to Villegas’s famed flying fingers. You’ll see percussion incarnate, and just know, if you start to feel an unfamiliar sense of cosmic resonance, that Arimany may have taken you on the magical 432 carpet ride.

Go With the Flow

Florida-born National Water Dance Day connects dancers to the life source

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Water Dance Day participants in Miami, FL.

Earth is mostly water, a chemical compound that covers about 71% of the surface of our extraordinary, life-rich planet. The infant human body, by comparison, starts at about 75% water (so, very similar), though we drop in wetness as we age. The human fruit, we see every day, starts quite grape-like and ends quite raisin-like.

Water, a simple molecule of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom (H20), serves a complex, vital, fascinating function in the creation and perpetuation of life on earth. We drink it in liquid form, eat it in solid form, use it to cool down, use it to heat up. Water feeds our food and cooks our food, cleans us and supplies a lifetime of happiness in the forms of swimming, fishing, diving, paddling, snorkeling, boating . . . the list goes on.

Most importantly, water keeps us alive.

Water inspires every single artistic discipline: painting, sculpting, pottery, textiles, music, theater, filmmaking, photography.

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Inspired by travels and deep water dives, Shayna Leib, a Madison, Wisconsin-based artist, created a stunning glass artwork series, Wind and Water.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), The Wave, 1879.

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Alberta Ferretti presented an ocean-inspired FW16 collection at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, 2016. (Getty Images/Francois Durand)

Water, in particular, inspires dance. Most ancient and indigenous cultures celebrated the deities of water or bodies of water themselves in specific dances. America’s wild woman modern dance matron, Isadora Duncan, gained acclaim performing to Strauss’s The Blue Danube and rose to fame with her meditation on water, Water Study, in the early 1900s. Her style of dance became synonymous with the free-spirit of modern dance and dance’s obvious connection to nature—a “body” of water, a “body” of dance work, so to speak.

Florida, a former coral reef with some of the greatest biodiversity in its water systems in North America, has its own peculiar history with water. With most of the state covered in swampland when America hustled and bustled into the mid-20th century as a major industrialized nation, the biggest obstacle to growth and development was the pesky problem of how to literally drain the Florida swamp. In his comprehensive Everglades history, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, historian Michael Grunwald recounts the Army Corps of Engineers’ steps to tame by force Florida’s mighty waterways. The Army Corps issued Waters of Destiny, a propaganda film pitting humankind against its worst nightmare, water, a “villain” that was “the scourge of mankind, burying life and land under its relentless and merciless depths.” This attitude was rather well-received at the time and ushered in several decades of the worst environmental degradation on human record. Clean water in Florida a generation later, like water in an alarming number of states and countries, inched towards crisis. From then ‘til now, news reports flow in detailing pollution, droughts, falling water tables, the collapse of the natural springs and the yearly algae blooms from the Lake Okechobee discharges, the need for citizens to respond to Florida’s predicament pushed Miami choreographer and dancer Dale Andree to create National Water Dance.

“National Water Dance is a catalyst for empowering and informing students, dance artists and the community. For us, it is an ongoing question of what are we achieving and what do we hope to achieve? Our goal is action through inspiration,” Andree says. The organization exchanges research, articles, and video clips of other dancers and choreographers who have a water ethic and are creating outdoor works.

National Water Dance, a non-profit dedicated to fostering this new water ethic of personal responsibility, organizes members on the internet. Every two years, members create a “movement choir” around the country and live stream the event. Participants spend the months prior to Water Dance Day collaborating on shared movements and phrases and choosing their site-specific locations. Some dancers perform in parks or near public city fountains, some dance in rivers or on beaches. All participants are guided through the process of securing permits if necessary and for using the shared movements in their choreography.

“Connecting to the environment through performance has a visceral effect on the performers as well as those witnessing,” says Andree. “It creates an opportunity for the participants to use their physical voice to bring attention to these water issues and to do it in community with concerned dancers all across the state and the country. Our hope is that the energy, beauty and commitment of these student and professional dancers offers another lens by which the audience can be touched and moved to action.”

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Dancers from Grinnell College in Iowa participate in Water Dance Day.

Although access to water, especially as the environmental toll on clean water spikes, has come under scrutiny as a modern-day battleground, Andree remains hopeful that each person’s efforts—each drop in the bucket—will eventually add up to a solution that works, especially for Florida and the United States.

“In creating National Water Dance, I wanted to focus on the United States because I felt we so often see the problems outside of ourselves and miss the ones facing us,” she says. “As I developed the project, I realized what a bridge it presented for our communities in such a divided time. One of the most satisfying experiences for me is the sense of belonging and of creating a movement that addresses real issues in every community. We are building that movement and belonging with dance. We share the knowledge of our bodies and the expression that results to address the issues around the most basic need of survival, water, by connecting to our diverse environments. Our internet community has formed bridges of understanding and experience beyond politics.”

The next National Water Dance Day will be April 14, 2018. Here is the video of Water Dance Day 2016:

For more details about National Water Dance, visit here.

What Is Up With Not Sitting Down

A humorous look at the rise of the standing ovation … guess this is just what we do now.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet directed by Matthew Warchus, Plácido Domingo in a solo concert of arias, the premiere of Neil Simon’s Rumors, the launch of Broadway’s Footloose, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Firebird with *the* Virginia Johnson as Firebird – this recognizable, mostly legendary list (sorry, Footloose, you weren’t legendary, but we still liked you) shares an interesting feature: not a single one ended with a standing ovation. We know because we were there.

These were fantastic shows—amazing, jaw-dropping, soul-igniting performances, all hitting the boards in the late 90’s and all worthy of sitting ovations. Standing ovations happened during rare, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. They signified an honoring of the highest possible achievement. An artist or performance had to surpass perfection.

Twenty years ago we didn’t stand for Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf, Magneto) in a one-man Beckett play, but today we jump to our feet as soon as the third place winner from American Idol finishes a set of radio cover songs. Nowadays, attend any performance from the meh to the miraculous and it matters not: the audience stands, ovating, some even walking and clapping to get to the parking lot before everybody else.

What’s changed over the years? Is it the end-of-show equivalent of an A for effort? Is it, as some psychologists have argued, our attempt to justify paying for a live experience now that we’re spoiled by so much free online entertainment? Or maybe that same online entertainment is such rubbish we leap in gratitude by seeing decent art? Perhaps we are just more enthusiastic supporters of performing arts than our possibly more stiff-shirted predecessors.

We attempted researching this change, starting with the history of the standing ovation, yet we found no clear answers. The most interesting factoid, though, traced back to Roman times. After war, any leader who racked up the most impressive battle victories returned to Rome for his “triumph,” a parade celebrating his clear victories and spoils. The guy who came in second-place for battle greatness earned an “ovation,” a parade acknowledging he did alright out there and deserved props for whatever destruction, pillaging and land usurpation he wrested by force. A sheep (“ovis” in Latin) died in bloody sacrifice to his win, thus the origin of “ovation.”

What we did, find, however, were some very clear, hilariously vicious opinions penned by theater critics here and abroad scorching the now common practice of standing to clap at the end of a show.

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Ben Brantley, the well-known theater critic at The New York Times, wrote an urgent call for the return of the sitting ovation after he witnessed the audience staying seated *gasp* for a perfectly good Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2012. “Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish,” he wrote in his column “Theater Talkback: Against Ovation Inflation.” His argument, snarky as it is, ends with noting that “staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.”

London, England’s theater critics mince no pies about who is to blame for this moral deterioration (Broadway—a notable scapegoat for moral deterioration). They make Brantley look p.c. in their direct seat-shaming over the normalizing of the “s.o.”—a “curse,” as critic Michael Henderson noted in The Telegraph, and “an unwanted tradition spreading from America,” as if the s.o. is an STD (socially transmitted disease). Michael Billington, a British critic from The Guardian, likewise points his blame finger across the pond: “I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.”

Henderson explains that Britons, proud of their ability to curb the need to overly-reward actors, reputedly did not stand for Laurence Olivier, except upon the notification of his death in 1989, which Dustin Hoffman delivered to an audience in attendance of The Merchant of Venice. At this point, Hoffman muttered that the only way to get a standing ovation in England was “to f—ing die.” Henderson, whose article “The Curse of the Standing Ovation,” claims “it is … a gesture of self-reward … this canker in our theatre-going is also rooted in a narcissism that has spread through all parts of life. …Me, me, me. It’s all about me.” Sitting still, sitting quietly, he concludes, reflect the “old virtues,” a time before all this “blubbing and cheering, like stroppy teenagers.”

For Billington, the infection of the American need to present the s.o. to everything evokes probing issues of identity. “What’s come over us?” he asks in his 2008 theater blog “The Standing Ovation is a Filthy American Habit.” “Is it a result of rising ticket prices, the touchy-feely society in which emotions have to be displayed, or simply a product of a show-off culture in which you have to prove you can ovate more noisily than your neighbour? The argument against the standing ovation is simple. If you do it for virtually everything, it soon becomes valueless.”

The Brits are great at a cutting remark, but former St. Paul critic Dominic Papatola once quipped that “Minnesotans would give a standing ovation to a Schwan’s truck.” Ouch. We hope the beloved audiences in MN aren’t bleeders. Later, though, Papatola came clean about his feelings as he aged and had a little perspective. In the Duluth News Tribune, he said “now it’s not one of those things I can really let myself get worked up about . . . Mainly I am grateful that there are people in the audience at all.”

Mostly likely, we’re in an evolution of response. We don’t snap like the old Greco-Roman or Beat days. Maybe the standing ovation is returning to its Roman origins and is acknowledgement of a job well done, a hearty thank-you for participating in something not many others do.

If so, sitting for the performers at the curtain becomes what? A triumph?

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How the Arts Change the Lives of America’s Wounded Warriors

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“Man of the World” by Tampa area veteran and visual artist Derrick “Ricky” Mayer. His artwork appears throughout this article.

On any given day in America, between one and 20 veterans commit suicide. However, arts experiences help military personnel and their families amid the psychological and physical consequences of time at war.

This grim statistic from research by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs stands in stark contrast to the fact that more combat soldiers survive tours to return home than ever before in American history. However, many of these women and men come back with grievous injuries to body and mind, with one in three affected by post-traumatic stress (PTS), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or both. Combat soldiers, non-combat personnel and their families also suffer with depression, the third most common health issue among the military community.

Compound those invisible injuries with loss of limbs and eyes from improvised explosive devices, high rates of military sexual trauma to both women and men and families reeling from the emotional turmoil of a parent, spouse or child deployed or injured in the line of duty, and civilians can see the price our people in uniform are paying for the cost of war.

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

For the first time in relatively recent history, civilians and non-military organizations have expressed a growing willingness to put their empathy into action and give back to the people who serve.

But what can be done? In the spring of 2010, when waves of veterans were returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, a small group of military brass met with arts and health leaders to ask the same question. For years, Veterans Affairs doctors and psychologists documented that of the veterans who opted for treatment, traditional talk therapy or behavioral methods were not as successful as they hoped. The stigma of seeking help, especially in the transition to civilian life, remains embedded in the warrior’s code, so many try to go it alone or rely on friends and family. New approaches were needed.

It was time to look more closely at the health benefits of the arts.

After all, the American military shares a long history with the arts as part of its identity. Drum corps rapped out tactical instructions to soldiers across smoky, chaotic battlefields during the Revolution and Civil War. Even Benjamin Franklin commanded a military band. Drawing and poetry appear in military academy curriculum, centuries of fine art grace the Pentagon, and one of the lasting impressions of WWII lives in the iconography of pilots painting their fighter planes with animals, women and fearsome faces to create an identity between themselves, their mission and their machine.

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

Perhaps the most unbelievable connection of arts and the military resides in the story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, “The Ghost Army,” a WWII Army covert force of writers, artists, painters, sound engineers, ad agency men and other performing arts professionals that created illusions in the form of inflatable tanks, spoof radio and pretend convoys to spread confusion and disinformation to the Axis powers.

The military’s use of the arts for medicinal purposes also stretches back in history, with Florence Nightingale interviewed on the restorative value of music in an 1891 paper, “Music in Illness,” published in the medical journal Lancet. The military’s formal studies on the effects of music on convalescing veterans helped lay the foundation for the establishment of music therapy as a professional treatment.

A groundbreaking achievement arrived in 2011, after the successful collaboration between military and arts-health leaders in 2010 to address a more prominent, more committed, more elevated and more conscientious application of creative arts to healing across the military spectrum. The first National Summit: Arts in Healing for Warriors took place at Walter Reed Bethesda, the “President’s hospital,” and the largest military medical center in the country. This summit led to Americans for the Arts launching the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military (NIAHM) in 2012, with its first roundtable held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

The subsequent white paper, “Arts, Health and Well-Being across the Military Continuum,” published by NIAHM, plainly states “one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal – the arts – is often under-utilized and not well understood within the military and the healthcare system.” The paper also cites a study indicating that “providing service members and veterans with opportunities to express themselves and share their stories can help them cope with the most common symptoms of today’s conflicts: PTS, TBI and major depression.”

Today, Walter Reed hosts monthly performances, bedside concerts and creative art therapies for veterans and their families. The hospital continues to conduct research on the effects of arts therapies and engagement with the arts. Their Healing Arts Program “integrates art into the patient’s care, providing new tools in artistic and creative modalities,” writes Walter Reed Commander Rear Admiral Alton L. Stocks. He notes these methods alleviate anxiety and trouble focusing, as well as “provide a nonverbal outlet to help service members express themselves and process traumatic experiences.” The old ways of relying on drugs and toughing-it-out are giving way to the healing powers of the arts. In military parlance, the idea is known as “express yourself versus suppress yourself.”

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

Artists and civilians are stepping into this new world of arts health for veterans – not as therapists (that role is carefully and strictly held for certified health professionals) – but as facilitators and allies in bringing a greater arts influence into the lives of people who need to process trauma, heal relationships and navigate the transition from war to civilian life. “We have seen first-hand the success and value of creative arts programs and will continue to expand our arts programs through partnerships with artists and arts organizations,” writes Stocks.

The arts also side-step the stigma of seeking help because they allow for expression without directly confronting feelings, trauma or another person. Research shows music therapy works where traditional therapies do not and improves depression and anxiety for TBI. Dancing helps with balance and coordination more than muscular training programs, and dance therapy improves emotional responses, possibly helping to stabilize the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. Engagement in the arts, because they are pleasurable activities, releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical, and further studies indicate engaging in the arts also lowers risks of heart disease and cancer.

In essence, the performing arts don’t just supplement medicine. The performing arts are medicine, helping our women and men of the armed forces and their families find their way back to themselves once they return home.

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Mayer served in the Marines from 1988-1992, spending January-September 1991 in Operation Desert Storm. He is pictured with his copy of our INSIDE Magazine, featuring his artwork on the cover.

In 2017, the arts and health in the military National Summit on Policy and Practice happens in Tampa. With 1.5 million vets and counting, Florida has one of the highest concentrations of veterans, second only to Texas. Already, we have a growing number of artists and arts organizations partnering with veterans to bring the power of the performing arts to PTS, TBI, depression and reintegration. Arts2Action, a Tampa nonprofit, hosts a veterans’ open mic at Sacred Grounds coffeehouse on the first Sunday of each month and holds a weekly performance workshop at the Tampa Veterans Recovery Center. Board-certified music and dance therapists work with regional VA hospitals, and artist-in-residence programs bring performing arts experiences to veterans and their families.

If you would like to get involved or learn more about how the performing arts help veterans, you can visit the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military on the Americans for the Arts website.