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Remembrance Day

Letters From the Front: A choreographer pays tribute to her grandparents’ wartime correspondence

The Young Company from Halifax Dance brings wartime letters to life

4 min read
caption Coffin and Seaward-Boone take notes at the dress rehearsal.
caption Sara Coffin and Gillian Seaward-Boone take notes at the dress rehearsal on Friday.

After Sara Coffin’s grandmother died, her family made an emotional discovery.

Tucked away in a back closet they found a collection of wartime letters that they never knew existed. The 30 letters, each more than eight pages in length, detailed the hardships of distance and the harshness of the Second World War.

“When my grandmother died, she said she wasn’t afraid. She was going to see her handsome soldier,” said Coffin.

The letters, sent back and forth from the front lines of Europe to Gottingen Street in Halifax, inspired Coffin to choreograph a selection of dances honouring her grandparents’ love and communication during that difficult time.

caption A few of the 30 letters that Coffin found.
Lauren Hazlewood

Letters From the Front: A Remembrance Day Performance is being held on Saturday at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The Young Company of Halifax Dance, where Coffin is co-artistic director, will perform the piece.

Gillian Seaward-Boone, the production director at the school, teamed up with Coffin to co-direct this special installation piece.

The emotional composition is being performed on an equally emotional day — Remembrance Day. The Young Company, which is comprised of some of the school’s most impressive teenage dancers, has been practising since September.

caption Halifax Dance begins part two of the performance.
Lauren Hazlewood

“This is a huge responsibility for a dancer. They are taking on material that has a narrative attached to it,” said Seaward-Boone.

Francis Clifford Coffin was 19 years old when he joined the army. He trained in Nova Scotia from 1939 to 1942 before being deployed to the U.K. and then on to Holland for the majority of the time he was overseas. He rode a motorcycle back and forth from the front line, delivering supplies and helping with restocks.

caption A photograph of the choreographer’s grandfather, Francis Clifford Coffin.
Lauren Hazlewood

“That’s what I know from the letters,” said Coffin.

Seaward-Boone says the best part about the project is seeing the effect on the dancers themselves. She won’t forget the day they first read the letters aloud together as a group.

The letters, which at first contained youthful excitement for the war, turned more sombre as time went on. Coffin and Seaward-Boone had several conversations with the dancers about it.

“They realized that this could’ve been them and their high school sweetheart,” said Seaward-Boone.

“There’s no way they’re going to look at Remembrance Day the same after having these conversations. It went from being a piece of history to something very tactile.”

caption Pier 21 acts as a stage for the dancers.
Lauren Hazlewood

Halifax Dance wants to showcase this piece of history from a unique perspective, while also executing it in a particularly emotional and personal way. Pier 21 is where many of the men who returned home first arrived back in Canada.

Groups of 25 people will be taken around the museum to watch the story of Francis Clifford Coffin and Dorothy Sears in four parts through four different rooms.

Excerpts from the letters will be on display and also read aloud during the performances. The museum helped to scan and document every letter from Coffin’s grandparents and blow them up on to large poster boards for the public to see.

caption Pier 21 blew up the collection of letters onto large poster boards for the public to see.
Lauren Hazlewood

“They have the resources here, as a place who does archiving and researching, to take a task like this and just blow it out of the water. It’s been a beautiful partnership,” said Seaward-Boone.

Hourly performances begin at 1 p.m.

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