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Flash Open Letter, 9-18: Bessie at the Barricades
An Open Letter from David White

By David White
Executive Director
Dance Theater Workshop

This is the second introduction written for the 2001 New York Dance and Performance Awards, otherwise known as the BESSIES which will be held as scheduled at the Joyce Theater on September 21, 2001 at 7 p.m. The first, proofed and formatted, replete with ironic references to the retirement of Jesse Helms and a reflection upon the culture wars of the 1990s, was blown away on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Of course, it was not blown away like the souls at the World Trade Center, in five rings of the Pentagon, or in a field outside Pittsburgh. The BESSIES are about a certain kind of survival: There was in the original text an allusion to the independent artist as a "survivor" of a true-life cultural reality show. No more. On Tuesday, the notion of "reality show" took on a whole new meaning, in New York and around the world. When two people grasp hands and jump from the shattered windows of a molten tower, lit up by a hijacked jetliner, live and in color, all realities, not just cultural reality, are forever changed.

September 11, 2001. The view from Brooklyn. Photo by Julie Lemberger.

NIMBY -- this political acronym has long stood in the politics of social services, low-income housing, functionally integrated education and across amber waves of immigration, for Not In MY Backyard. It is also a luminously useful term for the glaring absence of experience and the immaturity of general consciousness of war and mass destruction visited at home in the United States, a void of empathy that has existed for well over a century. Over the same period, most of the world's people have suffered excruciating moments of sudden death, occupation, forcible displacement, and economic dismemberment, not to mention horrendous killing fields and mass graves. On Tuesday, not only did unimaginable catastrophe and havoc explode in America's backyard, it detonated in the middle of what we have quaintly thought of as America's artistic downtown.

Critic Lucy Lippard once wrote that American artists don't understand what it means for art to be dangerous. She didn't mean edgy and post-modern and inscrutable and unpopular or even endlessly monotonous; she meant politically and perhaps physically and claustrophobically dangerous to those who make it and to those who need it. Suddenly a visual artist, sleeping over in his studio workspace (provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) on a World Trade Center tower's 102nd floor is missing. Suddenly, the wide-open plaza stage, which had recently been home to LMCC's Evening Stars dance series, has been memorialized as a burial mound at Ground Zero. As numbingly tragic as all the losses continue to be, the fact is that art-making and its public engagement only now will become truly treacherous, a rubble beneath the feet of our community as we pick and choose, format and proof our private beliefs and our public expressions in the wake what is becoming an emotional state of emergency. What happens next in all of our downtowns, only God or time knows.

Over the 17-year history of the Bessies and this ceremony, the artists, writers, curators and producers on the BESSIES Committee have sought to revisit and underscore certain indelible traces of work, whether as an event or over time, inventively conceived and persuasively executed. This is not science, to be sure, but instead a provocation of memory, convictions, even ideologies that precipitate and sustain debate within our community. The BESSIES process ultimately embraces argument to remind us of all of the real achievements in our midst and perhaps of the shared challenges ahead.

For all the above reasons, and because of the impossibly painful circumstances of the past 10 days, we have decided to let the Bessies ceremony go forward, celebrating the award recipients and their accomplishments from the past year, of course -- but most urgently, using the occasion as a reaffirmation of our identity as a committed, interdependent community. We are rescue workers like everyone else, but our jobs lie in the reconstruction of the means and relevance of coherent public expression, and the primacy of free and creative spirit in that task.

The faces of the September 11th victims, are, in fact, the faces of the world. As much as the individuals those images capture, the world itself is a grievously harmed victim of Tuesday's extreme violence. The smell of war is in our air, and there are frightening micro-spasms of ethnic and religious persecution. And that's the old-wine-in-new-bottles that we go home to tonight, after the celebration and communion is over.

If Bessie Schonberg could be there on Friday, she would add to her resonant admonition to the artist audience of earlier Bessies evenings -- Be wild! -- to, now, Be Brave! And we would go further:

CREATE, as if your life depends on it;
ACT, as if the lives of others depend on it.

David R. White
Executive Director and Producer, Dance Theater Workshop
Founder and Producer, The BESSIES

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