When theatergoers attend a performance of the ballet "Colin" at Virginia's Hylton Performing Arts Center this weekend, among the first performers they'll see are two real active-duty Marines, clad in their dress blue uniforms.
It's a fitting way to begin a production dedicated to a Marine who lost his life while serving his country in combat. The full-length one-act ballet was created by Amy Wolfe, the artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theater and the mother of Lance Cpl. Colin Wolfe, who was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006 near Habbaniyah, Iraq, when he was just 18.
The ballet began last year as a labor of love and collaboration between Wolfe and a friend, composer Mark Menza. They produced a 30-minute, four-movement tribute that reenacted Colin's life, from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that cemented his decision to join the Marine Corps at age 14, to his days patrolling the streets of Iraq on his first deployment. Since Colin himself was a dancer, she said it felt appropriate to honor him this way. Ultimately, the project received so much attention that Wolfe and Menza decided to revisit the creative process and expand the ballet into a full-length production.
This involved extensive research, Wolfe said, because even a mother doesn't see every facet of her son's life. Wolfe said she conducted interviews with Colin's childhood friends, the Marines he trained with at boot camp, and the troops who were in the vehicle with him during his final moments. While it was sometimes difficult to learn the specifics of the tragedy, Wolfe said it helped to hear from those closest to hear son.
"It's the natural instinct; you want to know exactly what happened," Wolfe said. "What Colin was talking about right before [the deadly explosion] happened, for instance. I used all of that in choreography, because Colin was talking about family and home and his girlfriend right before the explosion."
The final production has an orchestra of 56 musicians and 38 dancers, compared to the nine who starred in the original ballet. That number includes Wolfe, who plays herself in a number of scenes. She came to the stage after a hiatus of four years, having had hip replacement surgery on both sides. It felt scary performing after the long break, but also natural, she said.
"It was a much better process to simply have me in it as opposed to spending hours and hours to teach a 22-year-old how to play a 56-year-old mother who had lost her only son," she said.
She arranged permission for the two Marines, who play casualty assistance calls officers, to participate in the ballet on loan from their home station of Marine Barracks Washington.
But while Wolfe said her research and attention to detail was meticulous, realism was not her goal when it came to scenes of Marines training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, or operating in a combat zone.
"As I set upon the task of choreographing, I realized it would not work, it would not look good to try in any way to mimic reality. It's better to use ballet as metaphor," she said. "[For the boot camp scenes] I have the ballet dancers doing huge multiple leaps and double tours in the air and pirouettes. The most difficult male steps I can think of."
Wolfe's goal with the project is not just to tell her son's story, and certainly not to find closure or come to terms with his death, she said. Rather, it's a way to reach out to others who have experienced similar loss and experience a message of hope.
"Be happy that you are alive. Be happy that you were spared. Make the most of your life; give to others," she said. "And make the person who you've lost proud of you."
Manassas Ballet Theatre's production of "COLIN: Son, Marine, Hero," will be performed at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas Nov. 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 3 p.m.