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The Fifth Book of Peace

Inspired by the book of the same name by MAXINE HONG KINGSTON

Fifth Book of Peace

The Fifth Book of Peace is an innovative dance-theater performance created by Kathryn Roszak, presented in Fall 2008 as the first major new work for the newly-renamed Danse Lumière company. The work is based on the extraordinary book of the same name by noted Bay Area author, activist, and National Book Award winner Maxine Hong Kingston.

Created in the midst of the recent Iraq War, the work is a poignant exploration of war and peace, drawing from the deeply personal stories of Vietnam war veterans that Ms. Kingston bears witness to in her book, as well as in the anthology "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace", which she edited.

In both choreography and dialogue Kathryn Roszak addresses and examines social justice themes, and explores the concepts of violence and war, and their effect upon the human psyche, through the artistic fusion of dance, literature, theater and music. The Fifth Book of Peace also combines contemporary dance with martial arts.

Veterans and other survivors of war are represented, and heard by the audience, encouraging everyone to explore creating a culture of peace within themselves and the world around them. The veterans' powerful stories can help transform people's hearts and minds; as their stories are shared, the accurate transcription of what is in the heart creates community.

Initial performances of the work took place in October 2008 at Dance Mission in San Francisco, and in November 2008 at Dominican University in San Rafael.

Performers included actor Steve Ortiz; dancer David Garcia; ensemble dancers from the LINES Ballet/Dominican University BFA dance program; Wushu martial artists Ben Tang and Ryan Au; and Ms. Roszak herself, with original music performed live by Ron van Leeuwaarde and additional sound design by Phil Patiris. Virginia Reed was Consulting Director.

Following the San Francisco premiere there was a post-performance talk featuring Maxine Hong Kingston and author/veteran James Janko with Ms. Roszak and company members.

Renowned activist Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon Papers) gave a post-performance talk at the Dominican University event.

The production was funded in part by Fleishhacker Foundation; Puffin Foundation; Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation; San Francisco Foundation (Koshland); Zellerbach Family Foundation; and Friends of Danse Lumière.

Maxine Hong Kingston
Post-performance talk, Maxine Hong Kingston with Kathryn Roszak and performers, October 2008 

The following article was first published in

Danse Lumière: Reinventing Peace

by Jean Schiffman

Do we really want to hear the stories of Vietnam War veterans? That question faced Danse Lumière founder/artistic director Kathryn Roszak several years ago when she first began developing an hour-long dance-theater adaptation of writer Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace.

The award-winning Kingston, senior lecturer in creative writing at U.C. Berkeley and local peace activist, is known for such books as her surreal 1976 memoir The Woman Warrior as well as China Men, Tripmaster Monkey and others. She wrote The Fifth Book of Peace, published in 2003, after her original manuscript-in-progress was destroyed during the Oakland hills fire of 1991. As she faced the loss of her work, not to mention her house and all her possessions, a friend told her, "If a woman is going to write a Book of Peace, it is given to her to know devastation." Kingston began her rewrite with that line. The result is a four-part book ("Fire", "Paper", "Water", "Earth") combining fiction and non-fiction. "Earth" - the section upon which Roszak bases her adaptation - is structured around the writing workshops Kingston held, starting in the 1990s, for disaffected Vietnam vets.

When Roszak read The Fifth Book of Peace, she was, as she says, quite taken by it. "This is the war I grew up with," she explains. "The whole issue of war and peace and what's happening with vets now comes to the forefront. We all have different ideas of peace, and what's interesting to me is how can we express this onstage."

This is not the first work by Kingston that has been staged; in 1994 Berkeley Repertory Theatre world-premiered an epic adaptation of The Woman Warrior. Kingston says, via email, that she agreed to Roszak's proposal for re-imagining The Fifth Book of Peace because "dance is a totally different form - not literary at all. I was curious to see how she would transform stories and feeling into movement and music." The cast of Roszak's small, 13-year-old company (formerly known as Anima Mundi) consists of 12 dancers from the LINES Ballet B.F.A. program plus five others: actors and wushu artists (a Chinese martial art). An onstage musician (Ron van Leeuwaarde) plays an original score, on electric guitar, that incorporates Vietnamese folk music and American music from the period, and costumer Cassandra Carpenter and textile artist Kaibrina Sky Buck complete the team.

Roszak, an actor and dancer who has choreographed for American Conservatory Theater and danced for the San Francisco Opera Ballet, among other accomplishments, considers this project “an opportunity to combine grit with beauty.” She liked the idea of the archetypal journey of the soldier, which harkens back to ancient times, as in the journey of Odysseus. In her book, Kingston explores the whole issue of what happens to soldiers when they go to war, and what happens to our culture and society when soldiers go to war for us. So too does Roszak explore those issues, through movement, character and text. It's dark material, she says, but “that's where the dance can be brought in to move us to other realms. Dance can be mythological, poetic as well as representing violence. Dance embodies so many different things; it's chameleon-like, very theatrical.”

To turn the Vietnam vet stories into dance-theater, Roszak crafted a script using several sources in addition to The Fifth Book of Peace, namely, some of her own writings, bits of The Woman Warrior and text from Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, an anthology edited by Kingston. Included in Roszak's script are dialogue, monologues, letters between home and battlefield, voice-overs. Vietnam vets attended early rehearsals, and Roszak further prepared by going to one of Kingston's all-day writing workshops for vets.

The story follows a soldier's journey of going to war, homecoming and efforts to reintegrate into family and society. Other characters include his sister, his wife, a young radical woman and the ghost of a Vietcong girl he killed. The soldier himself is portrayed by both a dancer and an actor (as a younger and older man respectively), as is the character of a war widow. “The goal is a bit like Rashomon, to see the characters in multiple viewpoints,” explains Roszak. A compassionate Buddhist figure, Kwan Yin, moves throughout, witnessing all, and is represented by both a female dancer and a male martial artist. Wushu artists embody assorted characters. Writer James Janko, a former Vietnam combat vet who attended an early workshop version, commented afterward that the character of the soldier reveals “precisely what is ignored in most current discussions of war: the haunted consciousness of the man who kills.”

Fifth Book war widow
War widows 

The hardest part of converting Kingston's work to dance, continues Roszak, was in integrating all elements. “The world holds everything,” she observes, “from the most peaceful, beautiful moment to the darkest aspects of human nature.” To integrate the different arts disciplines, to blend the emotional trajectory with the other elements, to have all the components exist in the same theatrical world - those were her challenges.

As for Kingston, who watched a few early rehearsals “with a completely open mind,” she was content to leave the task of integration to Danse Lumière. “I feel that I've written the material in the only way I can,” she says. “It's up to others to find different words if necessary.” Her mantra of encouragement to Roszak: “Just keep going. Keep developing. Get to crescendo, resolution, reconciliation.”

Roszak notes that just as the soldier in her production struggles to tell his painful tales, so too do we, the audience, have difficulty in listening. Yet the piece constantly moves from the dark side into the light, to the beauty of life - seeking images that embody both the yin and the yang, as Roszak explains. “We need to grapple with what came before the Gulf War and Iraq to understand the stories,” she explains. “We need to witness before we can go on.” As Kingston writes at the end of The Fifth Book of Peace, “The reasons for peace, the definitions of peace, the very idea of peace have to be invented, and invented again.”

The following review originally appeared in the January 10, 2009 issue of

poetry flash

Poetry Flash
Literary Review & Calendar for the West

Books of Peace

a review by Sharon Coleman

Even if the troops were called back from the occupation of Iraq tomorrow, it would take a lifetime to insure no soldier, man or woman, is left behind. The psychological toll on soldiers changes with each war as new technologies and strategies render unexpected results, another version of "friendly fire." With the Vietnam War, soldiers were trained into "killing machines" as never before, and their target became civilians, more and more. Add to that chemical warfare and guerilla tactics and drug addiction and demoralization and then a Veterans Health Administration unprepared and sometimes unwilling to treat our mental casualties. A few veterans turned to writing. A noted example is the writing group of Vietnam vets facilitated by East Bay writer Maxine Hong Kingston, and which she describes in her memoir, The Fifth Book of Peace. Their work is anthologized in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, which she edited. As history repeats itself, their writings' value is self-evident.

This fall the poems and stories of this group escaped the bound pages of the book and transformed into a mixed- media performance of dance, theater, music, lighting, followed by discussion. Danse Lumière, directed by performer and choreographer Kathryn Roszak, is dedicated to mounting literary works into dance and theater productions. The Fifth Book of Peace is perhaps the company's most ambitious project, both in its current social context and in its multilayered, multifaceted production. It brings together a Bay Area panoply of artists and writers. LINES Ballet and Dominican University's program in dance provided talented young dancers able to well carry out the depth of acting demanded of the roles, which is rare in dancers so young. Ron van Leeuwaard, a composer originally from Suriname who has collaborated with a number of world music bands and theater companies, created a score based on electronic music, ambient sounds of helicopters, bullets and ocean waves, traditional Asian music, flute, percussion, and rifts of popular music of the time period. The script, adapted by Katherine Roszak, is based on the writings of Maxine Hong Kingston, on the stories of award-winning novelist James Janko and other participants of Kingston's Vietnam vet writing group, and on the written testimony of Pauline Laurent in Grief Denied, a Vietnam Widow's Story. Daniel Ellsberg, revealer of the "Pentagon Papers" and renowned nonfiction author, held a post-performance discussion at the November performance. And the list of those involved goes on.

On stage, The Fifth Book of Peace poetically narrates the journey "back home" of an "Old Vet." Played by actor Steve Ortiz, the Old Vet exists in a psychic no man's land and is guided to tell his story, to exorcise the memories, by the female and male incarnations of Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, whose twin aspects are played by Kathryn Roszak and martial artist Ben Tang. Tableaux of the Old Vet's flash backs are danced so that actors and dancers double the older and younger selves. Whether narrative, gesture, pure emotion, abstract movement or symbolic action, the dance with its poetic subtlety and range truly carries the performance. Add costumes silkscreened by Kaibrina Sky Buck that transform dancers into a forest or a ghost to the choreography (also by Roszak), and the visuals are enthralling. Perhaps the most captivating parts are when the ensemble dances the role of the jungle. They become an array of symmetrical and asymmetrical moves morphing from ballet to modern to animal-like steps, a place of unexpected lyrical motion and mortal danger.

The message and stories are clear: clear and, unfortunately, enduring.

Sharon Coleman is a poet who teaches at Berkeley City College. She is an editor of Poetry Flash.

"The Fifth Book of Peace", a fusion of dance, theater, and music presented by Danse Lumière, conceived and choreographed by Kathryn Roszak: October 24-26, 2008, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, California, and November 6, 2008, Dominican University, San Rafael, California. These productions were co-sponsored by Poetry Flash, and were adapted from and inspired by "The Fifth Book of Peace", a book by Maxine Hong Kingston.

the Sun King

© 2014 Kathryn Roszak   •   Danse Lumière   •   Dance on Center   •   (510) 233-5550   •   kdance@sonic.net

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