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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 why.

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 way!

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 view.

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