A Hero in Dance
Exploring a family legacy & African American military history
Can researching the past help shape the future? Duane Cyrus thinks so.
Cyrus, an associate professor of dance, is exploring his uncle’s life-saving heroism in World War II as the basis for a short film and a dance production to be performed at UNCG in September 2017. “Comanche” examines the theme of rescue and, at the same time, showcases a new theory of artistic production.The dance is inspired by the sacrifice of Charles W. David Jr., who helped save nearly 100 drowning U.S. servicemen in the icy waters off Greenland in 1943. The servicemen were cast overboard when a German U-boat torpedoed their Army transport ship, the USS Dorchester. David was working as a steward’s mate in the kitchen of the nearby ship, the Comanche, a Coast Guard cutter that responded on the rescue mission. At the time, the military was segregated, so David, who was African-American, did not have to participate in the rescue, Cyrus says. But he volunteered. He was one of 12 service members who jumped in. They saved 93 men from the dark and frigid sea.
As the operation came to a close, David spotted one last man floundering in the frigid water. He dove in and saved the Comanche’s executive officer, Ensign Robert W. Anderson. Anderson had also been rescuing survivors, but he became overwhelmed by hypothermia and could not pull himself to safety. A few days later, David contracted pneumonia from the prolonged exposure and died.
The Coast Guard later commissioned a cutter in Key West, Fla., in David’s name. During the ceremony, Cyrus met Ensign Anderson’s family and was struck by the thought that many of them would not be alive without his uncle’s sacrifice.
“It hits very close to home for me,” Cyrus says. “I realize that, in my own family, there’s someone who made a personal sacrifice to define freedom. That freedom means that I can be a scholar and creative artist and work and travel and share that story with people. In some ways my uncle indirectly rescued me. I see his sacrifice as a symbolic rescue for all of us.”This theme of rescue as well as the importance of acknowledging contributions made by African Americans is especially relevant today, given increasing episodes of violence between police and African-American men, Cyrus says. “How do we heal and understand what rescue and protection really mean?” Cyrus asks. “Somewhere there’s been a wrong turn. This work is a creative exploration not just about men and people of color, but about the entire community.”
Through this artistic exploration of the past, Cyrus, who has nearly 35 years of dance experience, is also contributing to the future of his art form. A new production method he has developed called “Theatre of Movement” encourages collaboration among a group of contributing artists, rather than a more traditional division of labor among the choreographer, film director, dancers, and designers. Through this method, Cyrus and a team including students Jonathan Garris and Emmanuel Malette have also created a three-minute film on “Comanche.”
Cyrus’ quest has taken him to Cape Charles, Va., New York, and Washington, D.C. Over the course of his research, he has met with a Coast Guard historian and reviewed documents related to his uncle’s service. He has read about African Americans in the military, and he’s conducted interviews with family members and subject matter experts.
In one of those interviews, Cyrus spoke with dance historian John Perpener about the importance of sharing African-American histories. “As John said, ‘If it’s not told, then it doesn’t exist.’”
An in-progress showing of “Comanche” will take place at UNCG on April 5th, 2017. The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place at 7 p.m. at the UNCG Dance Theater.
The showing is part of “An Evening with the Creative Class,” a community series that features presentations on the arts and panels of local and guest artists. Cyrus developed the series to expand awareness about the talented people that help drive the artistic and creative sector of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region.