Colin Wolfe was killed in Iraq in August 2006. A roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Anbar province just a few weeks after he arrived. He was one of almost 4,500 U.S. service members killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012. Nearly seven years later, on the heels of the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, his mother paid tribute to her son with a ballet.
"You're taking something which is horrible ... and turning it into something which is beautiful and life-affirming," Amy Wolfe tells NPR's Lynn Neary. "That's the way art is."
Wolfe, artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre in Virginia, choreographed and cast a four-part performance celebrating the young Marine's life. The ballet, simply called Colin, debuted in early March.
Colin, who was 19 at the time of his death, grew up dancing in the ballet company that his parents owned. Wolfe says he wanted to be a Marine ever since Marines came to his elementary school. His interest was solidified after Sept. 11, 2001.
"As he got older, he realized ballet was not his thing," Wolfe says, "but he kept doing it for me."
He practiced ballet right up until he enlisted.
Wolfe says she never intended to make a ballet about his death. A composer friend expressed interest in writing music for the ballet company, and wanted to compose something with a patriotic theme.
"I took it one step further and said, 'Why don't we make it about Colin?' "
Wolfe's husband, Mark, the executive director of the dance company, was skeptical about the idea at first. He was worried about how she would handle the process emotionally.
For Amy Wolfe, the experience was an important part of the grieving process. "I actually loved working on it. I kept my emotions at arm's length and looked at it as director and choreographer," she says.
"Most of the time, 95 percent of the time, I was able to keep my emotions as mother out of it."
The ballet has four movements. The first, called "Home," shows Colin as a little boy playing with his sister, practicing at the ballet bar and saying Sabbath prayers. It ends with Sept. 11 and his decision to become a Marine. That leads into the second movement, "Commitment and His Decision." The third movement, "Love," tells the story of how he met his girlfriend one month before deployment.
The final movement, "War," shows him patrolling the streets in Iraq. "And then he exits from the stage, and you know that the roadside bomb is there," Wolfe says.
"His mother, me portrayed by a dancer, comes running onto the stage as if to find him in his bedroom. But, of course, he's not there. The fourth movement goes on to show ... how we all coped with our misery."
Wolfe cast dancer Joshua Burnham to play Colin. She said he has a similar personality, almost the same build, and is the same age Colin would have been today.
"It was a huge experience," she says. "At the conclusion of each performance, he cried for like five minutes."
Wolfe says she did have a number of trying emotional moments during the creation of the ballet, but the toughest time came at the end.
"For me, then it was Colin's life coming to an end again," says Wolfe. "I had put his whole life on to the stage. So for me, he was living again on stage. And for the whole process to come to an end and be over, indeed it was like his life was over again."
Since the performance, Wolfe has received an outpouring of meaningful responses from other military families.
"There is a work of art that will go on forever," Wolfe says. "And so in one way, Colin will now live forever."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, where nearly 4,500 U.S. service members lost their lives. One of those casualties was Marine Private First Class Colin Wolfe. He was killed in August 2006 when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in al-Anbar Province just a few weeks after he arrived in Iraq. And he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on the fifth anniversary of September 11. To memorialize her son, Amy Wolfe thought not of a monument or a poem. Instead, she chose to honor his memory with a dance. After all, Colin grew up dancing in the ballet company that his parents owned. He performed right up until he enlisted. So earlier this month the Manassas Ballet Theatre premiered "Colin," a four-part performance celebrating the young Marine's life, choreographed and cast by his mother.
We want to hear from artists who have lost a loved one to war. How did you memorialize them? Call 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or join the conversation at our website. Go to our npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Amy Wolfe is artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre. She joins us here in Studio 3A. So good to have you with us.
AMY WOLFE: Thank you. Good to be here.
NEARY: Well, tell me about your son. I'm so curious about a young man who was both a ballet dancer and a Marine. What was he like?
WOLFE: Well, he was like most little boys. He loved playing with his trucks. He loved playing baseball. He loved playing with his friends, but he also did ballet because I've always done ballet, and he was very good at it. As he got older, he realized ballet was not his thing, but he kept doing it for me.
NEARY: Oh, that's nice. Did he ever get teased about...
WOLFE: Oh, very, very much.
NEARY: Oh, yes?
WOLFE: Oh, yes.
NEARY: How did you deal with that with him?
WOLFE: I told him, you know, to ignore them, to tell them, well, why don't you come try it. It's a lot harder than it looks. It's a sport as much as an art form. And also we told him, you know, he's being very smart. He's in a room with beautiful ballet dancers as opposed to, you know, sweaty gross boys on a field.
NEARY: And I understand that when he was in training that he found out that the training he'd gotten as a ballet dancer helped him as a soldier as well.
WOLFE: I think ballet and Marines are actually very closely tied. You have the discipline. You have the long hours of work. You have the - ignoring pain and being exhausted and just - to keep on going.
NEARY: Were you surprised when he decided to become a Marine?
WOLFE: Very much so.
WOLFE: Yeah. I was not raised in a family that had ties to the military, you know, career military, but he wanted to be a Marine ever since they came to his elementary school. And then 9/11, it was solidified. He wanted to be a Marine.
NEARY: Now, a fair number of years passed between his death and when you decided to create this dance to memorialize him. Why did that amount of time have to pass (unintelligible)?
WOLFE: Well, it's been six and a half years. I had no intent to make a ballet about Colin, his life and his death. What happened was, I was speaking to a dear friend of mine, a composer, and we decided that this was the year for him to compose music for the ballet company. So then we were trying to decide what, you know, what should we do? And he wanted to make it something very, very special, and he wanted it to be patriotic. So I took it one step further and said, why don't we make it about Colin?
NEARY: Did you know what you wanted to do from the start or...
WOLFE: No. With hours and hours of talking and figuring out about the music and listening to the composition little bit by little bit and having it all come together.
NEARY: Yeah. I know it's a dance in four parts. Is that right?
WOLFE: That is right.
NEARY: Can you explain it?
WOLFE: Absolutely. OK. The first movement is called Home, and it shows Colin first as a little boy with his little sister, CC(ph). And it shows him playing, and then it shows him at the ballet bar. And then it goes on to show that it is Friday evening, Sabbath, and saying the prayers because in addition to being proud to be an American and wanting to be a Marine, he was also very proud to be a Jew. And so all of that is shown in the first movement. And then the first movement ends with 9/11 and his decision to be a Marine. That leads into the second movement, Commitment and his Decision.
The third movement is called Love and how he met his girlfriend, Kira, one month before being deployed but that he must go to Iraq. Fourth movement is called War, and it shows him patrolling the streets in Iraq, slowly, up and down, up and down. And then he exits from the stage, and you know that the roadside bomb is there. His mother, me...
WOLFE: ...portrayed by a dancer, comes running onto the stage as if to find him in his bedroom. But, of course, he's not there. And the fourth movement goes on to show the mother, the father, the sister, the friends, the girlfriend and how we all coped with our misery.
NEARY: How did you cast this? It must have been - I can't imagine what the casting was like. These are - not only are you casting your son but yourself and his girlfriend, his sister, his father.
WOLFE: It all fell into place, actually, very, very easily.
NEARY: What was it like casting your son?
WOLFE: The dancer that I wanted to portray Colin - I knew immediately who I wanted. He's almost the exact same age that Colin would have been, almost the exact same build and very similar type of personality.
NEARY: Yeah. Yeah. I understand your husband was a little skeptical at first or a little worried about this.
WOLFE: I would say very skeptical.
NEARY: Well, what was he - what were his concerns?
WOLFE: First of all, I imagined how I would get through it. You know, how in the world could I do that, to work on it day in and day out and be emotionally OK? And how would others deal with it, you know, him and our daughter, et cetera? It's so close to home.
NEARY: Yeah. How difficult was it for you to work on it?
WOLFE: I actually loved working on it. I kept my emotions at arm's length and looked at it as director and choreographer. And most of the time, 95 percent of the time, I was able to keep my emotions as mother out of it.
NEARY: We are talking with Amy Wolfe. She's artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre, and we're talking about her decision to memorialize her son who was killed in Iraq, to memorialize him with a dance that she created and cast. We'd like to hear from other artists who have lost a loved one to war, and we'd like to hear how you memorialize them. The number is 800-989-8255, and the email address is email@example.com. Or join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So, Amy, when it all came together, the first performance when you saw it up there on stage, what was that like for you?
WOLFE: I felt it was beautiful. I was very happy with the outcome. More than that, though, were all the reactions that I got from the ballet. Not only from military families and how it really reached out to them, also from Jewish families that I wasn't scared to say, you know, that Colin was proud to be a Jew. So it was a very deep and meaningful experience for me.
NEARY: OK. Let's take a call. We're going to go to Janna(ph), and she's calling from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Hi, Janna.
NEARY: Go ahead.
JANNA: Well, I'm a quilter, and I've made several what I call wall art quilts. The reason I choose this medium is because quilts naturally are comforting and it has that comforting texture to it. I had a roommate who committed suicide. I've also known people that have been traumatized through military sexual trauma, served in Desert Storm. And my roommate, I symbolized her utilizing a big tree and it's broken. Trees are strong, but sometimes even the strongest people break. And there are dark colors in my quilt, which I think symbolized, to me, the military's efforts to hide military sexual trauma and the effects of war on our veterans. There are some light areas too.
I think the dark areas also show my own mental struggle with some of this, my own depression over it. And there are lighter areas that show my hope and my beliefs in eternal life. And I often use pieces of my military uniforms. I cut them up. And I oftentimes will use naked symbols, naked humans in my work because there's just such an effort on the part of the military, I think, at times to hide things. I think we need to be very naked, very open about it.
NEARY: Are these on display anywhere?
JANNA: They have been. Most recently, I took them with me to Washington, DC, to display at a viewing of a movie dealing with military sexual trauma called "The Invisible War." It placed in the National Veterans Arts Show second in - one in 2010 and one in 2011.
NEARY: Well, thanks so much for your call, Janna.
JANNA: You're welcome.
NEARY: And good luck with your work. I wanted to ask you, Amy, how does creating a work of art like this, like the dance that you created, how does it help you get through your own grieving process?
WOLFE: Partially by remembering everything, putting the whole story of a person's life and also because this way, there is a work of art that will go on forever. And so in one way, Colin will now live forever.
NEARY: Amy Wolfe is the choreographer of a tribute ballet to her son Colin who died as a Marine in Iraq. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Tell me a little bit more about how audiences have reacted to the dance.
WOLFE: Well, I get beautiful notes and phone calls and emails thanking me for this ballet, how much it means to them, you know, in their own lives.
NEARY: Yeah. Was there ever a moment in the process of creating this dance or in seeing the performance that was really tough for you?
WOLFE: Yes. I would say, as I got close to the end of it was most difficult because for me then it was Colin's life coming to an end again.
NEARY: It really felt like his life was coming to an end again.
NEARY: In what way?
WOLFE: Because I had put his whole life on to the stage. So for me, he was, you know, living again on stage. And for the whole process to come to an end and be over, indeed it was like his life was over again.
NEARY: OK. I'm sorry to hear that. And I just want to remind our listeners that we are talking to Amy Wolfe about the dance that she created to honor her son who was a casualty in the war in Iraq. And we'd love to hear from other artists who have lost someone in war and we'd like to hear you talk about how you chose to memorialize. And give us a call at 800-989-8255. Do you feel like you've gone past that?
WOLFE: I've moved on to the next production, of course. And I have put all the articles, et cetera, into scrapbook and put them into his room, same idea that I did, you know, at the time of his funeral.
NEARY: Yeah. How does your husband feel about it now that it's all over?
WOLFE: I think he's OK with it now.
NEARY: Yeah. What about other members of your family and his girlfriend, I guess...
WOLFE: Yes. His girlfriend and his girlfriend's mother have reached out to us. Her mother was able to come to the show and see the ballet, and it meant a great deal to her. So I think it has helped them as well. And my daughter - it was a beautiful reaction. I was very surprised. So I think it's been very good for her as well.
NEARY: Why do you say - what was her reaction? What...
WOLFE: Well, of course, she cried a little, you know, that kind of thing. But to see herself portrayed on stage, I just think she came to better grips with what we've gone through.
NEARY: Yeah, yeah. Do you every see yourself doing something like this again or was this a one time kind of thing or...
WOLFE: No. I can see doing something like this again. Absolutely.
NEARY: Yeah. What do you think other people get out of the - would get out of the experience of taking whatever their talent is and using it to memorialize somebody they love?
WOLFE: I think the most important, basic element is that you're taking something, which is horrible, you know, death and all of it and turning it into something which is beautiful and life-affirming because that's the way art is.
NEARY: Yeah. How do you think your son would've felt about this?
WOLFE: Well, I don't think he would've been surprised.
NEARY: What about the young the man who portrayed your son? I wonder what it was like for him.
WOLFE: Oh, for him it was a huge experience. At the conclusion of each performance, he cried for like five minutes.
NEARY: Really. And he was very close in age to your son.
WOLFE: Yes. Yes. Turning 26.
NEARY: Yeah. So have you reached out to other families who have children who were killed in Iraq and are you in touch with any other families as a result of this?
WOLFE: Well, we've been in touch with other families, you know, ever since this happened. And it's been more really them reaching out to me and then, of course, me reaching back to them.
NEARY: So what is - what area you working on now?
WOLFE: Oh, well, we're working on "Don Quixote," actually.
NEARY: Something completely different.
WOLFE: Something completely different.
NEARY: Yeah. So this whole experience has really helped you in many ways to sort of, you know...
WOLFE: Put it all together. Yes.
NEARY: Well, I'm glad that you were able to find a way to do that and in such a beautiful way.
WOLFE: Thank you. Thank you very much.
NEARY: It was great to have you. Amy Wolfe is the artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre and choreographer of their latest show, "Colin," about the life of her son. She joined us here in Studio 3A. So good to have you again.
WOLFE: Thank you.
NEARY: And tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be here to cover all the week's political news. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.