Most ballets are based on made-up stories, the dancers’ carefully choreographed steps weaving together beautiful but distant tales.
That is not the kind of ballet 14-year-old Joshua Dias will dance in this weekend.
The teenager will play the role of Colin Wolfe, a young man who was very much real and whose life his parallels in many ways. Both grew up in Prince William County, Virginia. Both were encouraged to dance by their parents. And both felt tugged early in life toward joining the military.
But Joshua, who will decide in four years whether to take that final step and enlist, knows something Colin didn’t.
He knows how the ballet ends.
Colin was 19 when his Marine unit hit a roadside bomb in Iraq, killing him. The ballet based on his life — and death — was choreographed by his mother, Amy Grant Wolfe, who is the artistic director at the Manassas Ballet Theatre. The two-hour production will feature this year for the first time three dancers who play Colin at different stages in his life.
In one scene, he is a boy tinkering with toy trucks. In another, he is a teenager being comforted by his mother.
And in yet another, he is gone, again — the sound of a single flute, which he played in life, filling the room.
“Every single time, he dies for me again, and that is very hard,” Wolfe said. People ask her if the work has been healing, but she said that is not the right word. “When you lose a child, and when you lose a child specifically to war, I would not say that you heal. I would say in some ways it becomes harder over time because there’s so much time and you miss them so much.”
I first spoke to the Wolfe family in 2006 on the same day two Marines showed up at their front door in Manassas to tell them Colin was gone. At the time, thousands of military members had died in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Colin stood out for his unusual background: He had worn ballet slippers before combat boots.
If we are lucky in life, we encounter people whose uniqueness makes us question our assumptions and re-evaluate how we categorize those around us. They are similar in that way to a yellow cardinal that was spotted in an Alabama back yard earlier this year. The bird would have been stunning on its own, but it was even more so against the backdrop of our expectations for its kind.
Few people will ever see a yellow cardinal.
Amy Wolfe has now seen two grow up in the same county.
On a recent evening, before a preview display of the ballet on a stage outside the Manassas Museum, Wolfe sat across a wooden picnic table from Joshua.
The rising eighth-grader from Woodbridge, who also dances tap and hip-hop, trained up to eight hours a week for the role of Colin, which he planned to perform for the first time in front of an audience that night. But as the two spoke, it was clear that Joshua had been working toward that moment much longer.
He and Colin had both started taking dance classes before kindergarten. Both had picked their own religions (Judaism for Colin and Catholicism for Joshua). Both were also well aware that boys are expected to play sports, and not do pirouettes.
“Colin got harassed a lot,” Wolfe said, sitting at the table.
“I do too, but it doesn’t bother me,” Joshua said. He usually shuts down the teasing with, “Can you lift a girl above your head?”
Wolfe said she asked Joshua, who had taken classes with the ballet academy, if he would play the role of 14-year-old Colin this year so that the audience could see how young her son was when he watched the twin towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, and decided to join the Marines.
Joshua, who turns 14 on Thursday, wasn’t yet born at that time but he said he understands well the urge to serve in the military. His mother and father are both Marines who met while preparing to deploy on the same ship, the USS Wasp. He has told them he either wants to be a professional dancer or, like them, join the Marine Corps.
His mother, Kristin Dias, said she and her husband will support whichever he decides. If he enlists, she said, “I’m sure we’d be worried in this day and age. But would we encourage it if that’s what he wanted to do? Absolutely.”
Because of his parents, Joshua said he knew even before stepping into Colin’s story that some Marines don’t make it home.
“My dad told me he would train day in and day out so something like that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “But he still had to write the letter to his family in case something did happen.”
“I still remember the first lines of Colin’s letter,” Wolfe said. “If you’re reading this letter, I’m so sorry.”
In the ballet, Joshua’s solo dance is titled “I will be a Marine.”
As he stepped onto the stage that night to perform it, two women watched him closely. Wolfe stood to the side of the stage. And Joshua’s mother sat in the center of a grassy field, a Marine lanyard dangling around her neck.
For all their similarities, one significant difference between Colin and Joshua made the performance both heartbreaking and hopeful.
Colin’s story had an ending. Joshua’s was still being written.
The ballet “Colin” starts May 18 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Virginia. Tickets are free for military members.