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The Buzz, 3-12: The Horror and the Light
Art in the Time of Cholera

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in the Buzz are those of its author, and do not necessarily reflect those of others on the Dance Insider staff or among its advertisers.)

PARIS -- At a time when terror and fear battle for control of the human psyche, why even bother to make art? When the most dramatic (and, in the existentialist sense, meaningless) statements are issued by terrorists, can the tutu even bring light anymore, and can "release" even provide deliverance? On a day when bloodied and headless corpses dominate the media diet, when a sobbing father cradles his burned baby in his arms, will anyone even pay attention to what a choreographer and a dancer have to say with a living body?

Of all the images I digested over my noisette on this morning after Europe's deadliest terror attack in 15 years took nearly 200 lives in Madrid, the most poignant was the one with no blood at all. The photo, in today's Liberation, shows a group of mostly young people who assembled on the streets of Seville yesterday afternoon. Their expressions are almost serene -- it's the serenity that comes from a devout faith in peace. In what, according to Liberation, was a silent demonstration to call for an end to violence, they hold their arms aloft, their outstretched palms flattened and their fingers spread.

Images will matter in this time of terror and fear. They are already being manipulated. One of President Bush's new campaign ads, reports the Associated Press, "now has drawn the ire of the Arab-American Institute. James Zogby, the institute's president, suggested that Bush not run the commercial because it shows a picture of an olive-skinned man with bushy eyebrows above the phrase 'Weaken Fight Against Terrorists,'" an apparent allusion to what Bush implies would happen if John Kerry were elected president. "This is the very thing that the president warned against after 9-11," Zogby told the AP. "He was so wise to tell the country not to fall prey to the negative stereotypes that exploit fear. Now the president seems to be doing what he warned against."

How can artists respond to all this darkness? On September 11, 2001, in a column titled "An Answer to Hate," I wrote:

"You respond to hate with light, as my friend Dean might say. Will that light extinguish hate in every heart where it lurks? I don't know. Will it, tho, present an alternative? A different way? I think so. And will it empower you? I think so.

"We are blessed to be part of a community that creates light: Dance.... While it is easy and understandable to feel helpless in the face of this attack, you in fact, dance insider -- by your work whether you are a dancer or someone whose work supports the dance -- you are exercising the most valuable of responses, one which will probably be shouted (down) in the coming years: to answer hate with light. You can't 'fight' hate. But I think by your art, by our art we offer an alternative. A different way. Don't underestimate the strength of that vision -- nor your power to offer it."

Two-and-a-half years later, my confidence in the power of light to balance darkness has receded. But as the vortex of, on the one hand, psychopathic killers who would play on the resentment of the disenfranchised and, on the other, fearmongers threatens to drown us, I believe art still has a crucial, balancing role to play.

Yes, there's the balance that light provides to darkness, which you can continue to give in your art. But more specifically, as the Other (yesterday he had black skin, today it's olive) continues to be irresponsibly demonized by some in power who should know better, dance artists and presenters can play a counter-veiling role by featuring those from other cultures who create rather than destroy.

It will not be easy. As presenters of international work in the US already know, the reaction of retraction that has been deemed part of "Homeland Security" has made it tougher to bring international artists into the US.

Last summer, some thirty years after the official end of hostilities with their country, Ha Noi artists Le Vu Long and Luu Thi Thu Lan were detained and finger-printed on arrival in the US, where they planned to collaborate with Vietnamese-born US artist Maura Nguyen Donohue and her troupe, Maura Nguyen Donohue/inmixedcompany, "sabotaging a month of brainstorming and rehearsals in the US," Donohue explains.

In November, Cuban artists Dance Cuba had major visa problems en route to a season at the New Victory. Last Spring, as our colleague Suki John apprised us at the time, the Cuban company Compania de la Danza Narciso Medina also faced visa challenges. (This week, Suki tells us and the New York Times reports as well, a group of 70 American medical school professors, doctors, and other scientists say the US government prevented them from attending an international symposium on coma and death in Cuba. Suki's father, Dr. E. Roy John, director of New York University's Brain Research Laboratories, was scheduled to deliver two papers, and told the Times he had been particularly interested in sessions on bringing people out of comas.) The folks at the World Music Institute in New York regularly encounter visa problems bringing in artists from abroad.

In the case of Le Vu Long's ordeal in being detained and fingerprinted, he and Donohue "decided to use it," she reports. "We wanted to explode the historical enemy relationship between the US and Vietnam. We decided to draw on personal experiences to look at larger issues like America's newest way of identifying hostile parties." The result, "Enemy/Territory," opens March 17 at Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Schonberg Theater, and also plays March 18, 26, and 27.

In the piece, Donohue says, "two companies, creating work on separate continents, negotiate a shared space in performance in a contest of choreographic turf warfare. The dancers pit forces against various adversaries in a game of shifting spatial boundaries.... The rambunctious work surveys a bizarre range of hostile environments drawing from Vietnam war movies like 'Apocalypse Now' to 'Godzilla' to parenthood to international visa regulations....(It's) a series of solos and duets suffering the constant explosion of their environments..... Artists dance one another out of the space in duets. Overhead projectors create random boundaries for minute long movement studies, and the audience is subjected to the new immigration laws of performance traversing the bowels of DTW's Bessie Schonberg Theater as they are forced into random searches and fingerprinting."

Before you accuse me of exploiting an international tragedy to promote a performance involving a choreographer who's also a DI colleague, rest assured I was already planning on writing about this endeavor before yesterday's events. But if yesterday's carnage highlights the need for increased vigilance against genuine terrorist threats (we moved to Orange yesterday here in France, and are still reeling from a threat to plant 10 bombs along the French rails), the risk of intensified demagoguery it brings with it (the publisher of a right-wing Spanish paper called yesterday for "all the real Spaniards" to descend into the streets Saturday, Liberation reports) likewise emphasizes the need to counteract dangerous (at least one Arab-American lost his life in a post 9-11 racist attack) stereotyping. This is where artists come in.

PS: As the world today echoes Catalonian governor Pasqual Maragall in declaring, "We are all Madrilenes," I'm reminded of another gesture from Seville. On September 12, 2001, as recounted by my DI colleague Susan Yung in her review:

"Under the most difficult of circumstances Wednesday night, La Cuadra de Sevilla performed Salvador Tavora's version of 'Carmen,' at City Center to an appreciative audience. It was a day after unfathomable terrorist attacks obliterated the World Trade Center and an acrid burning odor hung in the theater as a constant reminder. In a large-hearted gesture, La Cuadra charged nothing for tickets as a gift to the city, giving us a brief respite from the horrible reality that had engulfed us. And although I had been lethargic about attending an event that at the time seemed laughably frivolous, the strength and purity of the performance managed to transcend the day as a keen reassurance of the power of art."

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