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
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."
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
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
"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