COURTESY PAK HANDerek Harris appears in Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s world-premiere piece “Private Life.”

Deborah Slater Dance Theater premiere a military exercise

Writers are taught: “write about what you know.” But choreographer Deborah Slater has found her clearest creative voice by exploring, and trying to makes sense of, what she doesn’t know.

Her latest work “Private Life,” opening this week at ODC Theater in San Francisco, offers a thoughtful and deeply personal view of a world that had been foreign to her: the lives of those in military service.

The world-premiere piece started as a solo for one of her dancers who joined the military at 17 and began dancing at 18. He calls himself Private Freeman. “It came up in passing that he had been in the military the whole time he had been a dancer. That was inconceivable to me,” says Slater. “As we talked, I realized that I had a whole bunch of great left-wing biases. He’s an artist – a great human being who has a very real center – and grew up in a family where he felt military service was his moral obligation in the world.”

The solo became a starting point for five short pieces that feature Freeman only in a video. (He has since joined a Colorado-based dance company.) Slater describes the work as a meditation on survival. “It asks questions about life after war,” she says. “These people went to war and now many are completely ill-prepared to reenter,” she says. “And the VA is profoundly unprepared for PTSD.”

To better understand the subject, Slater studied everything she could get her hands on about military life, including Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” and the late Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm’s “Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution,” as well as art and poetry based websites from veterans.

One “Private Life” performer is Paul Finocchiaro, an actor and veteran. Spoken text is by poet Deborah Crooks, and music is by composer and neuroscientist Bruno Louchouarn, whom Slater says “has a remarkable way of understanding all kinds of environments. I told him what the emotional situations were and he created a very meaningful score.”

Although Slater still grapples with the moral dilemma of war and the toll it takes on all sides, she is extremely respectful of those in military service, and she found some interesting common ground with them.

“In both dance and the military the days are regimented,” she says. “You have a very rigid, set schedule. There are things to learn and you do them every day.”

IF YOU GO

Deborah Slater Dance Theater

Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Dec 11-13, 2 p.m. Dec 14

Tickets: $15 to $30

Contact: (415) 863-9834, www.odcdance.org

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