By Jean-Marie Bralley
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – Professional choreographer and military spouse Lorraine “Rainey” Jarrell acknowledges that art has the power to be transformative beyond the artist’s original intention. She has experienced this reality firsthand through her own choreography of a nostalgic and heartfelt World War II-era dance, which has touched the lives of numerous audience members and dancers.
When Jarrell is commissioned for a new project, she said that she likes to draw motivation for her work from what is most important in her life at the time.
In spring 2010, when Sara Clayborne and Emily Mott Hartka, co-directors of Charlottesville Ballet in Virginia, contacted Jarrell to work with their professional company of dancers, the most important things in Jarrell’s life were her marriage to Joshua Jarrell – then a staff sergeant in the Alabama National Guard – and his impending deployment.
Jarrell and Joshua married in August 2010, and a few months later, he left for nine months in Iraq – his second deployment, but their first as a married couple. Joshua was supposed to be overseas for their first anniversary, Jarrell said, but due to a knee injury he sustained on a mission, the deployment ended early and they were able to celebrate together.
The deployment had not come as a surprise. They had joked that their first year of marriage would be easy because they would barely see each other, said Jarrell.
Nevertheless, her work with Charlottesville Ballet was a means through which she could process her husband’s deployment. Practically speaking, it also helped her to boost her resume for graduate school, she explained.
Jarrell, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting from University of the Arts and a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance and choreography from Hollins University, has more than 20 years of experience in teaching and performing in dance and theater. She has performed in America and abroad.
“Arts [have] always been my expression of processing my life,” said Jarrell.
Women, War and the 1940s
She decided to research the topics of women and war and the relationship between the two.
“I was reflecting on the fact that I was newly married and that I had a husband who was getting ready to go to Iraq,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to express all of my feelings around becoming a new bride but also having to face war in the midst of that … that was the most important thing happening in my life and it was kicking me in my gut.”
Various circumstances led her to set her new work during the 1940s. The themes of World War II and Rosie the Riveter, which quickly rose to the surface of her exploration, satisfied her artistic side, she said. Her business side was appeased by the fact that she knew 1940s music would be well-received by an audience. Moreover, Charlottesville Ballet was a mostly female company, which suited a story focused on women and war.
The research and choreographic process took about six months, said Jarrell. She then had two weeks in fall 2010 to teach the choreography to the dancers. Jarrell said she loves choreographing because it immediately connects someone to other people, including dancers, artistic staff, a technical crew and an audience.
“Once you get into the rehearsal process, then you’re in the process of creating something with other people,” she said.
Jarrell’s work is a dance theater piece, a genre of dance that she describes as “a combination of modern [dance] and ballet technique supported by theatrical elements from the music [and] characterization.”
The piece, “Letter to My Love,” incorporates popular 1940s-era dances. The performers wear black, heeled dance shoes and vintage-style dresses, and the score is comprised of nostalgic hits, including “Sentimental Journey,” “Sway” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You.”
“It was specifically created for my husband as a way of communicating to him,” she said. “The piece was finished and performed while he was overseas.”
While Jarrell and her husband wrote letters to one another during his time in Iraq, she said, “[‘Letter to My Love’] was also my way of expressing my faithfulness, my yearning, my respect and love for my husband while he was overseas in a deeply and meaningful way through the dance.”
She explained that the title “Letter to My Love” is meant to honor the tremendous amount of written correspondence exchanged during World War II as well as to be a dedication to her love: her husband.
Joshua, now a master sergeant working in medical operations, recently returned from his latest deployment to South America. In an email, he wrote, “I was proud of her creativity and honored [by] the way she had incorporated my military service into her art. The piece, to me, was a very tangible expression of how she saw my service as a part of her life as well. That meant a lot to me.”
He explained that while they were dating, some of Jarrell’s artistic friends were surprised that her boyfriend was in the military, and even though she had always accepted and defended his service, he worried she might view it as baggage to be left behind once they were married.
“When she created that piece, it spoke of her acceptance of my service as a part of who I was, not just a commitment to me while secretly wanting me to hang it up and move on,” Joshua said.
Women at the Center
“Letter to My Love” centers around six women whose loved ones are away fighting in World War II. As with the title of the piece, the character development was both personally and historically-minded.
Rosie the Riveter stories, war docudramas and Hollywood’s interpretation of 1940s characters in the movie “A League of Their Own” contributed to her development of female archetypes of the era, Jarrell said.
“There is the faithful woman,” she said. “There is the woman who wants to be faithful, but ends up getting a slice on the side and cheating, but then has to come to recognize how her conscience feels about that. … There’s the woman that just is … the floozy. Those kind of archetypes that are held within our society.”
The only character with whom Jarrell herself truly identifies is the faithful wife, even though “each character reflects something of myself,” she said.
Charlottesville Ballet has performed “Letter to My Love” in three subsequent seasons since its premiere in early 2011.
Jarrell, now a mother of three young children, was asked to return to Charlottesville Ballet to re-stage her piece during two of those seasons, the latest time being the 2017-2018 ballet season.
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A ‘Special Work of Art’
I had the privilege of dancing the role with which Jarrell most identifies during the work’s most recent run. Performing this piece and having the blessing of befriending Jarrell have truly been godsends to me. To portray such a quietly strong and steadfast character, who so deeply loves and misses her husband, pushed me to find authentic expression in my acting and to plumb emotional depths in myself. It seemed like I was saying goodbye to a friend at the conclusion of the season. I have truly felt thrilled, humbled, honored and grateful to be part of this special work of art.
Charlottesville Ballet co-director, Emily Mott Hartka, who performed in the third and fourth staging of the piece, wrote in an email that even though her grandparents are deceased, she felt like she grew closer to them through being in “Letter to My Love.”
Hartka’s grandfathers, an Air Force pilot who passed away during the latest run of “Letter to My Love,” and a Navy captain, both served during World War II. Her grandfather Charles D. Mott’s P-40 plane was shot down over Thailand in January 1942, and the naval aviator was the first Allied pilot taken prisoner in Asia, she explained. He was missing in action for the remainder of the war and was released in August 1945. Even though she never knew her grandmothers, Hartka said she tried to embody her grandmother Emmie Mott when thinking about her character in “Letter to My Love.”
“Knowing the atrocities that [my grandparents] went through and the complexity of the emotional hardships they faced makes me feel so grateful for their sacrifice,” said Hartka.
The two seasons in which Jarrell restaged her work both coincided with deployments for her husband.
“That’s just God’s providence,” said Jarrell. “That’s just how He works in my life.”
Through teaching “Letter to My Love,” she can plunge her “artistic energy into working with people and creating a positive experience out of a time that’s very stressful,” Jarrell said.
When The Anthem Plays
A particularly poignant scene in “Letter to My Love” is when three of the characters receive telegrams informing them of harm or death to their loved ones while the “Star-Spangled Banner” plays. The telegrams the dancers open are copies of actual Western Union telegrams that women received during World War II. Prior to each performance of “Letter to My Love,” the audience is asked to stand during the National Anthem.
Charlottesville Ballet artist and company manager Caitlin Lennon is the only dancer who has danced in this work every time it has been performed. She wrote in an email about Jarrell’s “pure, raw emotion” during the National Anthem scene the first time she saw the whole piece in full costume during rehearsal.
Jarrell describes her feelings at that moment as a combination of an emotional release from the work’s completion and a sense of longing for and missing her husband.
This past fall, Jarrell only had three days to teach the choreography, but she prepared the dancers for performing this work through providing historical and emotional context. She showed an interview with a man who was a teenage Western Union delivery boy during World War II. Decades later, he still choked up when he remembered the death notices he delivered. The dancers also watched a video about workplace safety for Rosie the Riveters as well as a video of fleet-footed swing dancers.
Jarrell said she has been overwhelmed by the positive response to “Letter to My Love.”
“I know when I can satisfy that artistic side and that business side, for me, that I’ve made a good piece,” she said. “It’s got to be something that’s personal and truthful, but it’s got to be something that’s also got to connect with other people. … However, the ways that it has connected with people, I’m overwhelmed by.”
The Emotions are Real
One especially memorable moment occurred in the days following the premiere performance. A man gave Jarrell his silver wings he had received when he was a child from his brother-in-law who died during World War II, she said.
Lennon said, “For some of our older audience members, I think the music brings back memories. At many an outreach performance in retirement communities … it has been incredibly touching to hear the audience actually sing along as we dance.”
Lennon continued, “I think that Rainey was really able to tell a story with the work. … You’re wrapped up with the characters right from the beginning, and you care about what happens to them, and you truly live the emotions that they go through. It doesn’t feel at all fake or ‘performed.’ The emotions portrayed are real, and I think the audience feels that.”
Joshua was able to see his wife’s work performed live in fall 2011. He expressed similar sentiments to those of Lennon.
“When I finally saw the piece, I think what I remembered most was how invested the dancers clearly were in the performance,” he said. “I was really struck by the depth of the roles … and how the dancers uniquely created their own characters. I think that’s what contributed to it being so much more expressive and lifelike as opposed to simply memorized steps and sequences.”
Regarding the piece’s personal meaning for Jarrell, Charlottesville Ballet artist Feleacia Quezergue, who danced “Letter to My Love” this past season, wrote in an email, “What’s great about Rainey is that she puts so much into every step, which helps you as a dancer. It makes you want to always give more to the steps and to the character.”
Hartka said, “When I think about the sacrifice that [the Jarrells have] endured for our country, it makes me feel great privilege. I hope that in some way we can honor Josh and Rainey through our performances.”
Moved to Tears
After shows, we were invariably told by audience members that they had been moved to tears while watching the piece. We ourselves frequently became emotional while dancing.
In March 2018, “Letter to My Love” was performed at a memorial service for Keith Alan Sprouse, a Marine Corps veteran who worked as photographer for Charlottesville Ballet.
This was an especially emotional performance for Lennon.
“It was one of the hardest times for me to perform the piece – I was choking back [tears] from the opening scene,” she said. “It felt like the perfect way to say goodbye to Keith: performing the work one final time for him.”
“Letter to My Love” was also performed this past March at the Virginia Veterans Care Center in Roanoke, Virginia. Our show for the elderly veterans, some of whom had served during World War II, was a high point of the season.
Lennon recalled how one gentleman in the crowd continually called out that it was the best show he had seen in years.
Among the many memories of that afternoon, I remember the emotion of greeting the veterans following the show. My cheeks hurt from smiling and the warmth the veterans gave us was palpable.
A significant takeaway for Jarrell from the whole journey of “Letter to My Love” is how art can uplift everyone, she said.
“It uplifts the person making the art, being connected to the community,” Jarrell said. “It uplifts the performers performing the art and a sense of their connection with the audience and then with each other. It uplifts the audience and their way of connecting to the piece but then also connecting to a deeper sense of themselves. … And then also that it can be transformative, transcendental beyond what our intention is. … The thing that just deeply moves me is how then it was asked to be performed for someone’s memorial.”
In addition to having an artistic outlet, Jarrell said she has been able to handle her husband’s deployments with help from many people in her life, including her family and others with whom she has connected through her church.
She also expressed the importance of her faith in God when facing the challenge of a deployment.
“My faith gives me such meaning in the face of such suffering,” said Jarrell. “Art gives meaning to life, too.”
She said, “Every time we’ve been through a deployment, I am filled with a sense of gratitude for my husband. … It makes me appreciate all the things that he does do when he’s around because it takes so many people to fill in his void.”
–Jean-Marie Bralley is a freelance writer and a professional ballerina with Charlottesville Ballet in Charlottesville, Va.