Dance moves through National Building Museum honor history, humanity

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By Michael Casper

Michael Casper is a writer living in Pennsylvania with one of the project’s participants, dancer-choreographer-educator Ann Van Kuren, and is passionate about the power of the performing arts.

The January 2019 Creative in Residence project “Transits and Passages” by dance choreographer Heather Sultz at the National Building Museum managed to move hearts, minds, memory and vision profoundly in less than an hour.

Sultz’s two-week residency at NBM also showcased the noteworthy architectural details of this often overlooked gem in the heart of the nation’s capital. Importantly, these trappings served as the foreground for an exploration and extrication of the largely unmined history that took place here: the conferring of pensions to Union soldier veterans of the Civil War.

A quick scan of the interior of this unique Roman style structure, largely copied from another in Italy and built in the 1880s, reveals such aspects as long, low brick steps gleaming from care yet showing wear from hundreds of thousands of footfalls going up and coming down, or the largest interior columns in the world (at the time, the largest anywhere). The cavernous interior space, well lit even with no lights on, thanks to the thoughtful design of Montgomery C. Meigs, a U.S. Army quartermaster general, made an ideal venue for Sultz’s exposé on history and humanity.

Beginning on the huge interior’s expansive main level, four small groups of dancers enter in turn, representing four divisions of the U.S. military. The first of these seizes one’s attention immediately with slow, deliberate drumbeats and the performers’ focused gazes. The fourth group carries a red ribbon and moves with aching sounds, seemingly echoing cries of the wounded and sacrificed and echoed the original sense of the term “red tape.”

Several vignettes of movement, some with vocal impressions formed and vanished on four different levels of the interior as the audience made their way on a winding tour facilitated by smiling guides silently pointing the way.

Carefully placed lines of individual shoes of all sorts nod to the builders of this structure, who had walled up some of their own footwear as good luck.

Halfway up the deep, slowly climbing brick staircase was a tall metal gate on which a dancer clung with silent seriousness. When the gate closed after only half of the group had passed, this viewer among those caught behind experienced multiple reactions. How am I not allowed to go through? Should I feel entitled? What of the war veterans or others who for some reason were unable to pass this gate or other gates keeping back their futures? Soon the gate opened again, accentuating the swift judgments, valid or not, one can so easily make.

At one spot on the second level, a male dancer stands motionless and while others place individual sheets of moistened paper on him, one after another, another person reads from a record of pensioners’ names, followed by their war disabilities and pension amounts of $4 or more per month, until the figure was covered with paper and ceased to resemble a live person – as I listened to the reader, I asked myself, was he ever there? At that time this was quite an exercise undertaken to care for these war heroes. How hard must have been these veterans’ lives. And how easy it is, for the millions of people who fought to preserve our Union, today to be only conceptual, summarized in a few words.

Nearby in a narrow staircase, a dancer’s leg appears to explore the space, then more of a body as two feet move along the banister and a female figure walks slowly on her hands down several steps, symbolic perhaps of the perilousness or genuine uncertainty of life – then or now – and the trick or good fortune to survive. A second, male dancer keeping low on his back moves past her, then they partner as he supports her and as she leans back over the banister and into the open air, we see the essentialness of mutual support and what exquisite strength and beauty is possible with it.

Later, walking down the brick staircase, several dancers have taken stationary positions, one erect holding an imaginary object, another prostrate on the stairs with eyes open, a third seated at an angle, such that one has to carefully step around and over them, giving an experience of real people, real casualties, the flesh and blood of then and now and of whom we are or are not mindful as we traverse our day.

A single dancer performed a solo on the fourth level’s narrow, open walkway near a columnal artifice, seeming to honor it and the handiwork it stands for, her movements working actively and gracefully but showing no fatigue or effort.

One of the highlight moments occurred upon entry on the second floor to the pensioner’s office where pensions were conveyed. Before crossing the threshold one could hear a throng of voices converged on a single yet multi-tonal musical note that refused to end; an opening between their two subgroups allowed passersby to walk through the center of this amazing, powerful, eerie, otherworldly yet purposeful sound, the singers’ eyes focused somewhere beyond this place.

On traversing this experience one hears the sounds of a single cello, and in the next room a contemplative African-American musician (Tommie Adams Jr.) is calmly, intently bowing the instrument in answer to the voices. As a throng collected to view, hear, experience him, some seemed to find this an oddity while others watched transfixed. As the group meandered away and he eventually was left alone, he continued to play, as if to note that he was not playing only for them, but for them, those who went this way before, many years ago.

In a final scene, dancers move together in pairs, sharing weight, later running to the bases of the magnificent interior columns on the main level, climbing in bare feet to hold on around the curved surfaces, as a lone male vocalist (Greg Watkins) sang out into the cavernous air, respectful, spiritual hymns. The voice filled the air with its humble yet universal sound, dwarfed by the huge interior yet quietly powerful.

The dancers gradually peeled off one by one from the columns to form a line in different poses, stationary, facing the audience with a quiet, composed confidence, as if to say, we are each quite magnificent in our small way, and so are you.

The performers’ own varied life paths ranged from journalist to science teacher to real estate and health care.

Heather Sultz, by this work, transformed this space and accessed its history such that it will live in a new way, always, for those who had the good fortune to attend this remarkable experience.