Madison Ballet tries to bring dance and joy in visit to Fort McCoy

By: - December 23, 2021 7:00 am

Lily Edgar, rear, a dancer and instructor for Madison Ballet, shows Afghan evacuees ballet poses during a ballet class at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Dec. 10, 2021. Madison Ballet teachers visited Task Force McCoy to teach ballet classes to Afghan evacuees here through Operation Allies Welcome. The Department of Defense, through U.S. Northern Command, and in support of the Department of Homeland Security, is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening, and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees at suitable facilities, in permanent or temporary structures, as quickly as possible. This initiative provides Afghan evacuees essential support at secure locations outside Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment)

After a performance of the Nutcracker in a warehouse at Fort McCoy for hundreds of Afghan refugees who are staying there as they wait to be permanently resettled, an Afghan girl skipped up to a member of the Madison Ballet’s crew and said “today we are happy.” 

That moment is the reason Jonathan Solari, Madison Ballet’s CEO, set up the trip up to the military base currently housing thousands of Afghan refugees, where for a weekend from Dec. 10-11, the dancers taught classes to children and performed Act Two of the famous holiday show on a makeshift stage for raucous crowds of hundreds.

Dancers from Madison Ballet dance during a showing of ‘The Nutcracker’ held for Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Dec. 10, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment)

“There were just so many little exchanges like that, little things that on their own they made it worth it and then you put the total of them together and it is incomprehensible,” Solari says. “It was one moving experience after another and I think everybody left feeling inspired and full of emotion and trying to figure out what more needs to be done.”

The visit to Fort McCoy moved quickly from an idea of Solari’s into reality. Solari called his friend who works for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, who gave him the base’s public affairs phone number. The base staff, used to calls about where to send donations of winter coats, didn’t know what to do with it but ran it up the chain of command to the Department of Homeland Security. A day later, Solari got a call saying that three sites on base had been identified as potential spots where the ballet company could offer classes and hold performances. 

A month and a half later the dance company was on the base. 

“Oh no, now we have to do this,” Solari says. “I mean that that phone call happened a month and a half ago, a little less. I mean, this all came together, miraculously, in a very short amount of time, and it’s because of the commitment of my crew and the incredible work of the government.” 

Fort McCoy public affairs officer, Lt. Michael Miller, says the visit has left a lasting impression on the Afghans, who have continued to talk about the performances. He added that base staff enjoyed seeing how much joy the classes and shows brought.

“Our Afghan guests have been through a lot, and it it was heartwarming to see their enthusiastic response to the performances,” Miller says.

The dancers, who have been performing their whole lives, say the experience helped them see how important the arts can be for inspiring people and helping them experience a little bit of joy even in a traumatic period of their lives. 

“Sometimes in ballet you get lost in the technique, the work of it, and it’s easy to kind of lose sight of why you got into it at eight years old,” says Molly Groeschl, who played the main character Clara during one of the performances.

An Afghan evacuee stretches after a ballet class at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Dec. 10, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment)

“I saw these two little children out in the snow at a distance, they were like twirling around… they were jumping and leaping and kicking the snow,” she adds. “And you just could tell that they walked away with something and that’s why I do what I do. That’s why I perform, to not only take somebody from their world for two hours or however long the show is, and kind of remove them from whatever reality they’re in, but also to inspire and to say, ‘Look, yes, life can be hard. Yes, this training was hard, but look where I am, I’m performing for you. You can do it, too.’” 

Janel Hutchison (stage name Janel Meindersee), taught the classes for children one day and says she feels like they were “quenching a thirst” by allowing kids to be kids. The day was split into three hour-long classes, she says, but the kids were having so much fun that the students in the first class stayed the entire time, dancing until the last class ended. 

“Every single student expressed joy the entire time, and I’ve never seen that,” she says. “I’ve taught a lot of dance classes and it’s very rare to have an entire class, every single student the entire time just loving it. It really showed me just how powerful music, movement, feeling things in your body, and how healing that can be for people that are just experiencing a time of crisis and trauma.” 

Going into the trip, Solari was nervous about how it would go, wondering if his team would be able to bridge cultural divides, how the Afghans would react to dancers in tutus and if anyone would even show up. But by the end of the weekend all those worries were blown away. 

By the last performance, after word had spread across the base, people had to be turned away because the warehouse was at capacity and the crowds were like nothing they’d ever performed in front of before. 

Typically, the audience for a ballet performance is reserved and self-serious, Solari says.

An Afghan evacuee records part of a showing of ‘The Nutcracker’ put on by Madison Ballet at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Dec. 10, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment)

“I think that there’s just some decorum and I think that there are a lot of times people get a dirty look if their cell phone’s out in a crowd, or if they sneeze even,” he says. “Everyone’s really focused … showing how very serious they are.” 

But the crowds on the base were the opposite, cheering and whistling and applauding for every leap and twirl. 

“The performances themselves were amazing because of the responses of the audience that are so different from what I had expected,” he says. “You’d hear just ear-piercing whistling in the middle of a leap, there’s no restraint. This was just so different in the way that people were not willing and not able to contain their excitement about it. And they didn’t see any need.” 

After the shows the dancers said they need to bring this crowd to Madison’s Overture Center to liven up their typical audiences. 

“I felt so full, I’ve never felt so full after performing something,” Hutchison says. “And a lot of times as a dancer, [we] just get really excited to perform something that’s new or like a really meaningful role. In this situation, we’ve done the Nutcracker so many times, the Nutcracker is not a new thing for us. We all know the Nutcracker. The thing that was new was our audience and the energy that they brought to what I’ll call it a theater, even though it was really like a warehouse that we turned into a theater. It was actually quite impressive, the energy that they brought to that theater space really made it feel rich and full and rewarding in a way that I’ve never felt performance feel rewarding and it was actually quite emotional.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.