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There was always a shadow hanging over Joe Coleman, something from the past that couldn't be spoken about or even named. All his children grew up aware of it, without ever knowing what it was.

Ten years ago, he finally began to talk about it, a half-century after the events that had scarred his life. He told a fractured tale of terror and betrayal, of ships exploding and days spent floating in Arctic waters in an open lifeboat.

Coleman, who is now 78, is a survivor of PQ-17, a Second World War supply convoy whose disastrous voyage to Russia was described by Winston Churchill as "one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war." Coleman's story is the focus of a remarkable Russian-Canadian co-production of a new dance oratorio by his son, dancer-choreographer Bill Coleman, and Christopher Butterfield, composer-in-residence of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

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The first performance of the work, entitled Requiem for Convoy PQ-17, is the centrepiece of a four-day celebration in St. Petersburg of the Arctic convoys, the first of which reached the Russian coast 60 years ago this month. The Aug. 31 premiere, in one of the city's grand old czarist theatres, is being brought about largely through the efforts of Russian naval veterans, for whom the Allied convoys are the stuff of legend.

"Convoy 17 is like folklore in Russia," said Bill Coleman. "People were starving, the Germans were attacking. The Russians couldn't believe these sailors were coming all this way to bring supplies." And suffering terrible losses for doing so: German U-boats and fighter planes sank 24 of the 33 ships, killing 157 men and injuring many more.

Merchant marine convoys were a vital part of the Allied war effort, and a major focus of the naval campaign. The Canadian navy alone escorted 180 million tons of equipment and raw materials across the Atlantic, mostly from Halifax.

The convoy to Russia, loaded with enough tanks, planes and other military gear to equip an army of 50,000, set sail from Iceland with a strong Anglo-American military escort. But PQ-17 was still hundreds of nautical miles from the Russian coast when the Admiralty in London ordered the escort to withdraw, and the heavily loaded ships to scatter.

The merchant sailors had neither the equipment nor the training to defend themselves against the German forces that quickly gathered for the kill. Coleman's British freighter, the Bolton Castle, went down with 11 other vessels on July 5, 1942. It was bombed and strafed so heavily that to those on board an American ship it seemed to disintegrate all at once, and vanished in a mere five minutes.

Coleman escaped in one of two lifeboats. Another freighter in the convoy offered to take the men on board but they refused, because they believed -- correctly as it turned out -- that that ship was also doomed.

"Everyone had to look out for themselves," he said from his home in Eastbourne, England. "Many people were just left there in their boats."

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Coleman and his shipmates were on the freezing water for a week, trying to skirt the continuing destruction and cross the Bering Sea to the Russian port of Archangel. All of the hungry men were in varying degrees of shock, from the sinking, the fear, and the unreality of their surroundings.

"After a while, in the open boat and the subzero weather, in a strange continent with the sun shining day and night, you got a bit indifferent to it," said Joe Coleman, who was 19 at the time. "It's a mass of dreams now, or rather nightmares."

Three years ago, his son Bill began thinking of a dance work related to that nightmare. It was a project very much in line with his distinctive past works, which have often taken off from personal or family history.

"It was just something I wanted to do, from a pretty humble idea, and I didn't think about who might be interested in it," he said. "And suddenly my wanting to make a dance become very important to these veterans in Russia."

A chance scan of the Internet by Bill Coleman's wife, the dancer Laurence Lemieux, had turned up a site related to the celebrations being planned for St. Petersburg. An e-mail to one of the veterans organizing the event brought the first of a series of eager responses.

"They were sending these heroic e-mails, about talking over the project with Governor This and Governor That," Coleman said. "They kept wanting more information about the piece, getting more and more serious about it. It was really hard to tell what was happening, so I just decided to go and find out."

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He was met at St. Petersburg airport by a pair of sturdy old sailors, who took him on a feverish round of meetings with producers and tours of theatres. Nothing was too grand for the veterans' vision -- a major theatre, a full symphony orchestra and chorus were the minimum -- and they argued the case passionately everywhere they went.

A meeting with one prominent director took place at Coleman's hotel, where the only VCR available for a five-minute video sampler of the choreography was in the hotel bar. The machine could only be made to work after the bartender cleaned the heads with vodka.

In the end, Coleman had a choice of two venues, and settled on the Alexandrinsky, a jewel-box theatre from the early 19th century. A full chorus and resident orchestra were put at his disposal.

Much of the creative brainstorming, however, took place in the unlikely setting of Las Vegas. Coleman, who like most Canadian dancers is used to working with little money, had realized that the cheapest way for a Montreal choreographer to meet face-to-face with a Victoria composer and a Toronto music director (Plunderphonic originator John Oswald, who is providing sound effects) was for all three to buy discount tickets to the gambling capital of North America.

Their particular gamble involved finding the means to tell a story too vast in scope to fit on any stage. At the same time, they knew that the heart of the drama lay not in the one-sided battle but in the plight of sailors floating helplessly on the sea, waiting to die or be saved.

"Wartime in the minds of most people [who have experienced it]is typified by enormous stretches of boredom, punctuated by brief periods of blinding terror," said Butterfield, whose father was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean in 1942 when his merchant-marine freighter was attacked by a Japanese submarine.

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Coleman decided to put all but one of the four dancers (who include Coleman, Lemieux and a partially disabled American military vet) in a boat-like set (designed and built by two of Coleman's brothers), and surround them with a chorus and orchestra that could represent both the sea and the sailors who never made it into a lifeboat.

"It's like a war sculpture that comes to life," Coleman said. "The dance is like something from kabuki opera."

Butterfield, whose opera Zurich 1916 (with choreography by Coleman) included roles for Lenin and Dada pioneer Hugo Ball, realized he had to have some musical touchstones that would suggest the very different time and milieu of Coleman's dance drama. He also needed something for the chorus to sing.

"I asked my dad what song typified 1942, and without any hesitation he said Roll Out the Barrel," said Butterfield. "I asked the Russians, and they sent me a song about Russian sailors and British sailors exchanging cigarettes, called Russian and British Smoke."

Butterfield also adapted words and music from an old marching song, and wrote a setting of a Latin prayer to avert storms, to be sung at very slow speed in the intervals between German attacks. After the wreck, the choir sings the whole of Jonah's prayer from the belly of the whale, again in Latin.

The premiere was nearly shipwrecked last week, when Russian customs officials decided that shipping papers sent with the Canadian-built set weren't in order. The problem, said Coleman, may have been related to recent Russian diplomatic protests over manslaughter charges brought in Halifax against three Russian sailors involved in a collision at sea. In any case, the papers were made right by the application of hard currency -- $300 (U.S.)

The whole project will cost about $100,000, with funding from three levels of Canadian government in Quebec and Ontario, and the War Amps. The Russians are mostly absorbing the costs of the theatre, the orchestra and the chorus.

"There's not a lot of money changing hands," said Coleman. "The only kinds of exchanges have been gifts and things. And that's so right. It's all just happening because there's a need, and a desire."

The 65-minute piece will have its Canadian premiere at the University of Victoria Centre on Nov. 10, with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra and the Capriccio Singers. Coleman is convinced the Canadian experience of the piece will be very different than that of the Russians, for whom the convoys are a revered chapter in the saga of the Great Patriot War.

"In Russia, they can taste it," he said, not least because the Russian media are absorbed in the current efforts to raise the submarine Kursk, which sank with all hands a year ago in the same waters that claimed much of Convoy PQ-17. "Here, nobody has any idea, except among sailors or in Halifax."

The fate of the merchant marines who served in the war was not generally a happy one. They were often ridiculed on land for not wearing a military uniform, though there were many more deaths among merchant marine casualties than in the regular Allied navies.

The survivors of PQ-17 had perhaps the most bitter experience of all. The disaster was scarcely reported in Britain, because it was considered bad for morale, and shed no glory on the Admiralty. The order to withdraw the military escort and scatter the convoy was "a mistake," as Churchill later admitted, based on the erroneous belief that the awesome German battleship Tirpitz was about to intercept the convoy. But the Tirpitz never left the vicinity of its Norwegian port.

The Germans were delighted to find that the mere threat of its presence was enough to scare the Admiralty into abandoning the convoy to the U-boats. They took copious photos of the ruined ships and sent them around the world to prove Germany's mastery of the seas.

In 1968, the historian David Irving, now notorious for his sympathetic view of the Nazis, took up the tale, details of which had been trickling out slowly for years. His book The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17 laid some of the blame on a commander of the military escort, who sued Irving and won one of the largest libel settlements in British history.

A more recent study of the whole convoy system suggested that PQ-17 need never have sailed, and that its primary purpose was political, not military. Churchill hints at the same conclusion in The Hinge of Fate, in which he describes at length Stalin's angry reaction when the British decided to suspend convoys to Russia after the debacle.

None of this controversy has helped settle the anger and frustration of the veterans, including Joe Coleman, whose return trip to Britain in the fall of 1942 was as unlucky as the outbound voyage. His boat struck a mine, and he was shipwrecked again.

"We were in the water a long time, and things were burning, and after that my mind pretty much shut down," he said. "I think I would have held out much better, if it hadn't happened again on the way back. I was unstable for many years after that, physically and mentally."

A speech therapist, brought in to cure a post-traumatic stutter, gave Coleman an interest in theatre, and he subsequently studied at the Royal Academy. He was a stage and television performer for many years in Britain and in Canada, entertaining strangers while hiding the source of his deep unease from his wife and family.

With Bill Coleman's piece, and the return to Russia (Joe Coleman will be there for the premiere), some kind of ragged circle has been closed. It's been a long voyage, and a terrible one, but the creative outcome is perhaps a fitting tribute to those who served, with fortitude if without renown, and to those whose voyage ended in smoke and confusion in 1942. Requiem for Convoy PQ-17 will have its Canadian premiere at the University of Victoria Centre on Nov. 10.

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