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Chevalier de la Barre, 9-10: Not About 9/11 Column
Explaining the Unexplainable

"Yesterday around noon I biked down to the OK-Harris Gallery on West Broadway for a tech rehearsal, expecting it to be cancelled, as it was. City was very strange with almost no vehicular traffic, pedestrians crowding into the streets. Near NYU I saw a man covered with cement dust, stopped, said to him, 'You must have been close.' He replied, 'Three blocks,' told me he'd been taking pictures with his video camera when he heard a shudder, did not think to run until he saw a black cloud of cement dust billowing toward him. He seemed oddly detached, likely suffering from shock. Passersby gathered, trying to offer reassurance. I asked him his name. 'James.' 'God bless you, James,' someone said. They were still around him when I biked away. Things will be very different from now on, although just how they will be different no one can know."

-- Stuart Hodes, The Dance Insider, September 12, 2001

"We have become a much sadder, if not necessarily a much wiser nation."

-- Daniel Schorr, National Public Radio, September 7, 2002

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Whether in words or movement, artists reacting to the events of September 11 tread a delicate line between explaining and exploiting. In trying to account for 9/11 from the knowledge available to me and the emotions overcoming me in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I inevitably was also trying to convert readers to my world view. If I had been more articulate, I might have written, as John Edgar Wideman did in the March issue of Harper's:

"The destruction of the World Trade Center was a criminal act, the loss of life an unforgivable consequence, but it would be a crime of another order, with an even greater destructive potential, to allow the evocation of the word terror to descend like a veil over the event, to rob us of the opportunity to see ourselves as others see us."

And yet...would I really have been asking a question, or preparing to pounce on my readers with an answer I already 'knew' before September 11? In a word, would I have been 'exploiting' the worse mass murder ever on U.S. soil to, now that I had everyone's attention, make a point about the U.S.'s role in so many tragedies around the world? And in making this point, would I have been somehow saying: It's too bad about all these deaths, but really, we're to blame?

Would I be explaining a tragedy, or exploiting it?

Choreographers, I think, faced a much less existential dilemma in the wake of 9/11: Where was the line between responding as artists to the world around them -- and, for New York choreographers, the world that seemed to be collapsing on them -- and using the tragedy to sell a dance company and/or dance concert that otherwise might get little attention? (As did the obscure choreographer who sent me an e-mail with the subject line, "Dance about September 11.")

In both groups, I think we need to make some class distinctions. I know what lessons Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag are going to find in 9/11 -- and yet I need to read them because they express my thoughts much better than those originating from the moral reductiveness of George "You're either with us or against us" Bush. In the days immediately after 9/11, Americans gave Mr. Bush a lot of lee-way not because of who he was, but because the office his held made him, as a symbol, someone we needed to rally around and, even, protect and esteem. My symbols of unity, my rallying points, are also around Mr. Chomsky, Ms. Sontag, and members of our community like Bill Bragin (of Joe's Pub), who immediately began raising their voices against an immediate war-scale reprisal.

Among dance artists, when Michael Smuin and the Dance Theatre of Harlem announce that this Saturday at Historic Battery Park (4 p.m.) DTH will premiere "Stabat Mater," a dance inspired by 9/11 says the press release, I don't see it as exploitative because neither Mr. Smuin nor DTH need the extra selling point to attract an audience. Rather, I as a dance audient need to see how Mr. Smuin and the dancers of DTH respond to this event. I need it even more now because...well, Mr. Wideman talks of being a man "restless, worried, trying to fashion some tolerable response with words to a situation so collapsed, so asphyxiated by words, words, it's an abomination, an affront to dead people, to toss any more words on the ruins of what happened to them."

Amidst the mountain of words that have been tossed on the ruins, dance artists can provide a more localized response -- one of the limbs and veins. If it takes the tools of a Michael Smuin to ensure that response will resonate more than solipsistically, then it might just take a Hernando Cortez for us to believe the artist is not just shamelessly exploiting the events.

Here's how the press release for Cortez & Co. describes Cortez's "Two Hours that Shook the World," which premieres Thursday at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, through Dance Access:

"'Two Hours that Shook the World' is a haunting reflection on 9/11. A jagged installation of light, shadows, and metal by visual artist Edward Hillel surrounds the dancers. 'Two Hours' spotlights fleeing victims and stoic survivors in Hillel's sculptural landscape. The dance does not aim at simulation and identification, but at distance and reflection."

On reading this description, first I grimaced; then I thought, "Well, if anyone has the street cred to pull off a dance on 9/11, it's Hernando Cortez," the founding director of Dancers Responding to AIDS; finally I asked Cortez to explain himself. Here's what he had to say about the creation of this dance, the title for which, he points out, refers not to 9-11 but to Pearl Harbor:

"Like every other part of the city, New York's dance community was profoundly affected by the tragic events of September 11," writes Cortez. "In the one year since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, there has been time for reflection and healing. Many artists have created memorials, both physical and presentational, in hopes of honoring those lost and uniting those who remain.

"I started to craft this 'memorial' dance performance only weeks after the attacks -- though I didn't know it at the time. Like many New Yorkers, I had a personal connection to the tragedy: one of my dancers, Liz Flynn, lived only blocks from the WTC, and during the initial communication blackout we panicked for we weren't sure whether she was safe (she was). We were all so stunned at the time.

"If anything, I went out of my way to NOT do a September 11 piece. But as we went through our creative process, in the three first weeks of October, 2001, in our residency in Scranton, Pennsylvania, It became clear that something rooted in an emotional connection to the event would evolve. How could it not? When not in the studio, we were glued to the newspapers and television to update us about our homes, our city!

"I feel strongly that while the work will definitely resonate with New York audiences now, it's not necessarily intrinsically tied to the WTC terrorist attacks. 'Two Hours That Shook The World' is about how humanity handles a monumental catastrophe. It could be Pearl Harbor, or JFK's death -- or Martin Luther King's."

While it's yet to be seen whether Hernando Cortez has the choreographic chops of a Michael Smuin, it's unquestionable that his role as a leader of the dance community for a decade not only legitimizes his expression on this subject, but makes it one the dance community and audience want and need to hear and see.

I think in a broader sense this is also true: In the inundation of information that followed 9/11 -- or that follows most crises -- we look for something to cling to from those who usually give expression to what we are thinking or feeling. For me, more aid with this processing arrived yesterday when I picked up the French press review Courier International. Along with the German Die Zeit, Courier International is publishing, for the next three weeks, a series of comic strips by Art Spiegelman treating 9-11 and it's aftermath. (Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Maus" and cartoon editor of The New Yorker, lived just hundreds of yards from the WTC.) This week's starts with an old-style vignette set in the 1890s in which a tipsy Pogo-like character, getting ready for bed, kicks one boot off only to have it boomerang and bop him on the head. The last, circular, over-sized panel, in a more noir style, shows a crowd of New Yorkers fleeing from downtown, with a giant shoe descending upon them, and the over-caption in English and French: "Waiting for THAT OTHER SHOE to drop! En attendant LA DEUXIEME chaussure!" This image also graces the magazine's cover. (The same journal carries an advertisement for a movie called -- yes, called -- "September 11," involving 11 directors: Simira Makhmalbaf, Claude LeLouch, Youssef Chahine, Dais Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Ken Loach, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Amos Gitai, Mira Nair, Sean Penn, and Shohei Imamura.)

The other poignant image I've seen here is the photo that covers the front and back pages of a special section in the Paris daily Liberation. Nina Berman's black and white image shows commuters walking in the boulevards of Grand Central Station. We see them really only in silhouette, but we also see their shadows. In its place in our lives -- particularly those of New Yorkers, judging from my visit there last spring -- 9/11 seems to me as a shadow; we don't need to regard it, but it is always with us. Maybe that's a morbid metaphor because shadows haunt. But they also signify that we are alive and living in the light.

Note: As a focal point for this community, the Dance Insider published many words in the immediate and continuing aftermath of 9/11. Here are some, with links:

My initial editorial response, "An Answer to Hate," filed on the evening of September 11, can be read by clicking here .

Julie Lemberger's photographs of the view from Brooklyn on September 11 can be viewed by clicking here .

Our day after story, encompassing reports from the immediate NYC community and around the world, can be read by clicking here .

Darrah Carr's "Report from Ground Zero" can be read by clicking here .

At the urging of the Mayor, La Cuadra de Sevilla decided to go on as scheduled with its September 13 performance of "Carmen," throwing the City Center doors open to the public. And Susan Yung found the determination to go out and see and write about a performance. You can read the result by clicking here .

Veronica Dittman's moving Letter to the community, sent out from New York September 15, can be read by clicking here .

Allyson Green's "ABT to the Rescue," on the company's decision to go on with the show in San Diego and the moving performance that followed, can be read by clicking here .

David White's open letter to the community, explaining why the Bessies would go on as scheduled, can be read by clicking here .

And Maura Nguyen Donohue's haunting report on those ceremonies, an early snapshot of the health of the community, can be read by clicking here .

Elsewhere on the Web, check Blue Man Group's powerful yet simple video evocation of the events of September 11 by clicking here. It's a large download, but the less than four-minute video is worth the wait.

Thanks to Larry Bensky for the head's up on John Edgar Wideman's article, portions of which were read by actor Danny Glover on Bensky's Sunday Salon program this past Sunday, on radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California.

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