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Flash Defense, 10-5: We are the World
"The United States: What Price Imperialism?"
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- That's the title of one
of the articles in the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, and before you
ejaculate, "There he goes again -- preaching politics to a dance list," please,
hear me out -- this one has everything to do with art, and why you, as artists
and art fans, put a lie to that statement.
This one has been fulminating in
me almost since September 11, but I have put off discussing it because my argument
includes adducing as one basis one of the three saddest known facts of this tragedy
as it effects us, the death of a member of our community, and at the point I was
first moved to rant, I didn't think you could take any more bad news. But that
article title, which I noticed last week, got me even more riled up and, related,
more proud of our community, and I feel it is now time to wave the flag of at
least that circle and point out how we present an image of the U.S. that is the
opposite of imperialist. We don't fuck the world; we embrace it.
When these attacks happened, to be
honest, I thought my colleagues here in Paris. where every other street corner
and even my local subway platform seems decorated by a garland of flowers to the
memory of a soldier who died liberating this city in August 1944, would say, "Well,
now you know what it's like" to be attacked at home. But their reaction was anything
but. The truth is, even here in Europe, the scale of the September attacks has
upset them almost as much as it has you in the U.S.. They are having nightmares.
They are walking around incredulous. They are agonizing over how to explain this
to their children, and pre-empt their nightmares. And they are sympathetic. This
is mostly because of the unprecedented scale of the attacks, but it is also because,
I think, the U.S. was the last bastion of innocence. Where tourists could go,
and foreigners could immigrate, and find not just safety, but an absence of the
security precautions they here in Europe barely shrug at anymore. (E.g., the vigi-pirate
plan here in France, initially activated in response to a series of bombings in
the '70s, has gone into effect again, and I seem the only one in my circle upset
by the sealed garbage cans and the closed sanitaires or porta-potties. Altho I
can't take the name seriously. I know they mean vigilance against pirates, but
I keep thinking veggie-pirate, or, sorry TH and SC in Australia, veggie-mite.)
So the I told you so, or the Now
you know what it's like, or the This is what you get for holding your head in
the sand and absenting yourself from the world response has not come from common
Parisians -- even the intellectuals -- but from the media and from some pundits,
French and American, whose response seems almost sickeningly smug. They are indeed
-- like Le Monde, which, actually, I'm told, is regarded here as a middle-of-the-road
journal -- saying this is what you get. This is the result, USA, of not concerning
yourself with the world except as it figures in your profit scheme.
I think there is a value -- once
justice and self-defense are assured -- to look at some of the deeper, if not
causes -- for evil of this scale can only be said to have been caused by a diabolical
evil-mastermind, working on minds and souls corrupted to evil -- conditions that,
say, have made the Middle East, if that's where these attacks are found to have
been originated, fertile ground for, if you will, terrorist chattel. Governmentally,
we do need to do a better job of considering the poverty of the world; governmentally,
human rights and the right to a decent living by the common people need to be
concerns on equal footing to that of clearing the way for high profits on cheap
labor and no regulations for our mutli-nationals.
That said, to take these attacks
as the result and proof of American imperialism is...well, it's stupid. And here's
In our community,after the lives
that have been lost, the most immediate damage was done EXACTLY to our efforts
to, if anything, respond to the US's interest in the world -- not for how it can
exploit it, but how its cultures can enrich ours. One of the three people in our
community whose lives, I'm aware, have been lost, is that of Michael Richards
-- a Jamaican artist who the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council brought here, and
who was staying on an upper floor of the WTC. (The LMCC's director, Liz Thompson,
managed somehow, thank G-d, to get out from a hundred-something floor with two
minutes to spare.) Now, by it's very mandate -- to act as a conduit for funds
directed to artists who directly affect the lives of New York communities -- the
LMCC might have been forgiven not employing any foreign artists. But to its mind,
Mr. Richards, regardless -- or maybe even because -- of his foreign origins, was
an artist whose impact on the NYC community would be felt.
And it doesn't stop there. Not just
in NYC, but around the country, the performances which have been most affected
by the fall-out from these attacks have, ironically been those of foreign artists,
whether those scheduled for the Quebec! NYC festival who have cancelled, or at
Butler University, or the Indian group scheduled for the Washington Performing
Arts Society, etcetera.
Speaking of Quebec!NY, did you know
that the director of one of the presenters, the Joyce's Linda Shelton, is a Chevalier,
having been awarded that rare French honor by the French government in recent
years? I'm not privy to the exact reasons for that, but I'm more than guessing
they include the commitment of the leading dance theater in the US to promoting,
and presenting, and committing funds to the presentation of, dance from France
and elsewhere abroad. I'm also guessing that the Joyce, which has to think of
its bottom line, is confident that it will be met with these artists because it
knows the interest of the NYC dance audience in artists like Maguy Marin, Angelin
Preljocaj, and their equivalents from all over the world.
Indeed in recent years, we've seen
city-wide festivals, involving all our major dance presenters, devoted to dance
from Europe, France particularly, Quebec, and Australia, to say nothing of the
regular portions of each season at the Joyce, Danspace Project, PS 122, the New
Victory, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and occasionally Dance Theater Workshop
(where Belgium's Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker made her first big splash) devoted
to artists from abroad. I am speaking of NYC because this is my most recent US
residence, but right before I debarked for the Big Apple, my hometown, under the
auspices of San Francisco Ballet hosted the United We Dance festival, in which
ballet companies from 10 count 'em ten countries brought mostly new pieces to
SF to help celebrate the founding of the United Nations there.
And indeed, tonight at the Philips
Center for the Performing Arts in Gainseville, Florida -- the very state where
these monsters trained to destroy us -- Lines Ballet of San Francisco premieres
"People of the Forest," a landmark collaboration between Alonzo King's Lines,
and Nzamba Lela, a 16-member ensemble of dancers and musicians from the BaAka,
of the Central African Republic, one of the world's last hunter-gatherer societies.
Ask Alonzo King, who began this collaboration with a journey up the Congo River
a couple of years ago, if the United States only sees the rest of the world as
markets for profits or labor. For that matter, ask the BaAka if they see us that
We are also committed to exporting
our artists on the terms of the host country -- witness Bagnolet, whose NYC platform
is hosted by Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church.
Indeed, at the risk of huffing and
puffing and sounding patronizing, what the fuck am I doing here? Not exporting
imperialist US culture, I assure you! I am here because my parents Eva and Ed
Winer, in San Francisco, brought me up to care about the world beyond our borders,
whether tugging 5-year-old me along on peace marches to protest the Vietnam war,
or sending me to a public alternative school where we spent a week with the (Mexican
immigrant) United Farm Workers of Cesar Chavez, or rearing me on "The Red Balloon"
and "Tin-Tin." I am here because all the NYC presenters mentioned above, far from
cloistered, exposed me, for the first time, to the Paris Opera Ballet, to Maguy
Marin, to Angelin Preljocaj, to Grace Ellen Barkey. They made me want to see more,
and the craze of NY audiences for these artists convinced me that New Yorkers
and other Americans wanted to hear more about artists from abroad. The US is me,
listening as I write this to Miles Davis, an American artist who almost single-handedly
brought jazz to Paris (a gift that still resonates daily), and his recording of
"Sketches of Spain."
Yes the United States includes corporations
who look at the world beyond its borders for how it can add to their profit margins.
Yes these corporations usually get together and -- in my opinion -- buy a presidency
with their contributions to political campaigns. But the United States is not
just these people. The United States is Liz Thompson, whose vision is broad enough
that it included bringing a young man from Jamaica here, only to see him slaughtered,
for all the wrong reasons, by terrorists who don't really see us, and what we
really, fully represent. The United States is Helgi Tomasson, a ballet dancer
from Iceland who rose to principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, was made
director of the San Francisco Ballet, and then spent considerable time and found
considerable money to bring artists from all over the world to SF. The United
States is Joe Melillo, who beams every time he is able to host countries from
abroad at BAM. The United States is Sonia Morales Puopolo, the former ballet dancer
who was on one of those doomed planes because she was headed to the Latin American
Music awards in L.A., because we care about Latin America, more than just as source
for cheap labor. Hell, the US is me, uprooting myself from the greatest city in
the world simply because of my innate curiosity -- and estimation of your curiosity
-- about what's beyond our borders, and typing this out on a computer which doesn't
speak English, because I see it as up to me to assimilate, and to learn.
The US has its problems, and cynicism
is certainly among them. But our outlook on the world -- especially in our immediate,
artistic community -- is anything but. On the contrary, it is wide-eyed and innocent.
If the attacks of September 11 are the price of anything, it is not of our imperialism,
but of our innocence -- our natural urge to see the world not as a haven for those
who hate us, nor as a source for our exploitation, but as a treasure box in which
we seek our expansion, to fulfill what is truly not an imperialist, but a world
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