Elbert Watson Creates Tribute to Veterans Through Dance

When Dance Master Elbert Watson prepares a dance show, whether for students or his adult troupe, he dives into research about his theme. Whether the topic is Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, purple (as a color and a symbol), or civil rights leaders like James Baldwin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he reads methodically and prodigiously—books, articles, and websites—and he often conducts interviews with experts in the field.

It was no different for his show on Veterans Day, which was a tribute to veterans through dance. He has explored the roles of the Navajo code talkers and the Nisei in fighting for the nation, and the devastating impact on veterans of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide.

However, the title of this show came as a flash of insight. “It is Angels Watching Over Me, that is a black spiritual,” he said, and he began to sing. “All Night, all day, angels watching over me…

“For all the veterans who are here, they came back, and there were angels watching over them.”

The show is a signature Watson production—full of variety, with more than a dozen different dances, and all with the potential to educate the audience through the artistry. The performers are adults from around the community who train weekly with him and perform as The Elbert Watson Dance Company. Watson, who has taught at Norfolk Academy for more than two decades, was a principal dancer with the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

While Watson has done all of the choreography, the dancers have also contributed their own expressive voices. Two of the dancers will perform to letters that they themselves have written: One, entitled “A Spouse’s Response to Deployment,” will be performed by Dana McKenna, and a second piece, “A Letter to My Father,” will be performed by Aimée Long McElroy, who teaches dance at Norfolk Academy.

Watson also enticed a Norfolk Academy teacher who had never danced onstage before to participate in the show: Gregory Barton, who teaches studio art and art history at Norfolk Academy (and coaches football and lacrosse!), is making his debut as a dancer in “Saluting the Navajo Code Talkers.” (Read this article for more about his experience.)

Mr. Watson himself is dancing in three pieces: “I Have a Dream,” is a salute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose civil rights activism eventually involved him in the debate over Vietnam; “The Wounds Within (PTSD)” is a haunting exploration of the impact of PTSD on relationships; and “On the Ledge” is a response to a book about depression and suicide among veterans, which Watson will perform on a ladder.

Several NA students are participating in the production team: Nate Ternes ’21 and Averell Stith ’22 will operate the lights, and Hannah Marks ’21 and Elizabeth Taddeo ’21 will do the sound. Kedar Johnson-Smith ’20, usually the maestro of the sound panel, is offering a history of Veterans Day to start the program.

Watson hopes that this show will draw attention to the sacrifice made by many veterans, particularly among those groups often overlooked when society thinks about the military--Native Americans, African-Americans, and women. He also believes that art has the power to teach through unleashing an emotional response in the audience; he has performed the piece about PTSD in other venues, and it brought a strong reaction.

“Many people were moved on a visceral level,” he said. “Someone said to me, ‘I started crying. I didn’t know why I was crying.’”

Angels Watching Over Me: A Tribute to Veterans Through Dance was performed Sunday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. in the Samuel C. Johnson Theater at Norfolk Academy.