Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wishes of the Sailor (a beginning)

November 7, 2009
Washington, DC

Art has a relationship to society on every level. It comments on it. It draws from it. It challenges it and on occasion confronts it. Performing art does this very differently than fine art or literature because its in the moment. The impact has to be drawn from the viewer then and there, with a resonance that is both immediate and, if there is enough to the work, expansive over time.

CityDance this week embarked on the creative journey of a subject at once simple and overwhelming. The subject, in the present tense, is the condition of the Iraqi refugee community. In the past and future, it is the condition of humanity which creates refugee situations, the consequences to those refugees of displacement, and the impact on societies around the world of absorbing, denying, interning or attacking those communities.

To comment on something so immense is humbling, daunting, inspiring. It asks you to be at your best while at the same time demands that you not be consumed by the scope and the pressure of saying something worth the saying. So often in choreography that challenge is the hardest.

Over the next month this will be a journal about the experience of making a work called "The Wishes of the Sailor." The title comes from a proverb shared with us in a hotel in Amman, Jordan by one of the many, many refugees Kathryn and I met in our two weeks in the Middle East at the beginning of October with a group of artists put together by Intersections International, an interfaith group out of New York which had the courage to ask art to speak to humanity and to politics in the deep wish that we might be able to bring attention to a subject lost to the media and to America.

"Wishes" is a collaboration on many, many levels. Its not a work of mine. It could be, but I didn't want that. Kathryn came to the Middle East as a part of that delegation because I needed another voice, another dancer, I trusted to take in these experiences and to create. That duet has become a undectet (first time I ever heard that term, which means a group of 11) with the entire company,our rehearsal director and choreographer in residence Christopher K. Morgan and in Israeli dancer, Ayelet Yakutiel, stepping in to contribute. Sharing with them the experiences which generate "Wishes" has been a journey in and of itself, something we began on Tuesday with singer/songwriter Amikaeyla Gaston (who was with us in the Middle East) sharing experience and setting a tone and a context.

This is simply an introduction. Much more to come.

There are older posts here if you are interested which were written while Kathryn and I were away which can bring you into the journey.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The young girl and the apple

I love the conundrums of titles for dances. Should they mean something or not? "What's in a name" and all that. Good titles are like clues to a choreographer's intent, and great titles are like double entendres -- they give you not just one, but multiple clues to the idea of a dance, and take you places you would not otherwise necessarily be able to get just by watching.

For the concert just completed at the John F. Kennedy Center the best example -- witty, imaginative and insightful -- is Rachel Erdos's "Alma."

Some words -- or some phonetic constructions -- just flow, having that way of working that cuts across many languages, and so play across meaning. Coming from a part of the world where so many languages live side-by-side, and where they have influenced each other for thousands of years of exchange, occupation, and the simple co-mingling of culture, they adopt multiple meanings. "Alma" is a great case-in-point.

In Turkish and Hungarian "alma" means "apple." Should the dance be performed in those countries, then the title is, literally "apple." The fact that the stage is littered with apples, and where they are, as one critic said today "the third cast member of a duet," consumed, placed, tossed, makes the meaning obvious on a superficial level, but belies the many subtleties of their use.

The fun lies, for me, in this -- in hebrew "Alma" means "young girl" and therein rests the elegance of "Alma." All the twists and turns of knowledge that come with the symbolic meaning of the apple in liturgical context ties into the idea of the innocence of a young. Lots of possibilities, but you have to know all the variants of the sound that makes up the different words, and the different meanings of the word in the different languages. If you're taking in the dance in Israel, or know hebrew but not Turkic or Hungarian meanings, its about a young girl. If you're taking it in where the meaning is "apple" then its apparently obvious -- except its not. But if you know both, then you get another side. And "Erdos" is Hungarian in origin. So you have an English-Israeli choreographer of Hungarian descent (and the obvious consequences of being descended from European Jews) who knows the word in both Hungarian and Hebrew. The etymology is as much about the choreographer as about the meaning of the word and the dance. Were she not of the lineage she is, the word might not have come to mind for her, and the dance as well might either not have come to being or have taken different meaning.

Its a case where the pictures of the dance might be worth a thousand words, but the word itself is worth an elegant dance.

The images are from "Alma." Its danced by Jason Garcia Ignacio and Giselle Alvarez (and I took them)...

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Rachel Erdos is British/Israeli, having grown up in the UK and moved to Tel Aviv some years ago. Her work was a clear favorite of the panel judging the "Next Generation" choreography commission. In fact, two of her works were favorites. We chose "Alma" in the end. Videographer Francisco Campos-Lopez has created two micro-documentaries (micro-docs) for "Alma," which has its US premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts tonight here in Washington. His "commercial" for "Alma" is first, then both documentaries.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pathways: a video

As CityDance gets into the full swing of the season, Videographer Francisco Campos-Lopez has been generating some exceptional videos of the new works. "Pathways," by Brazilian choreographer Alex Neoral, debuts at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, October 29. Below is Mr. Campos-Lopez's promotional video for "Pathways."

Monday, October 19, 2009


The Old City
October 19th

One really cannot set foot inside the Old City without being inundated with the sense of devotion that drives this tiny patch of land. So much in common, so much apart, these practitioners. There is an odd thing that happens as you walk the paving stones of history, from the Christian Quarter to the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish to the Armenian. You can tell in a heartbeat where you are by the way people are dressed to represent their faith, and somehow as you cross over that difference is immediately apparent. Except you can't quite figure out what happened to the Muslim who three steps ago was walking West or the Jew who a moment earlier was walking south. They just seem to vanish, as though they walked into a fade out. Sounds crazy, I know.

On Saturday evening I spent an hour inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Lit a candle in honor of a dear friend who I thought would do so for herself were she here, but other than that simply watched, and listened, to the gentle murmur of faith. Its not like any other human sound. Reverent is inadequate to a place where Christians believe Christ was laid. The air swirls from the motion of the worshipers and the curious, the light of candles at the crypt is unlike any other, and the smoke stained walls absorb it as it passes past the faces of those who light them in devotion or memory. To stand, lens in hand, and watch this is a powerful thing. Such a counterpoint to the pain of the past two weeks, where looking into people's faces was wrenching. It is faith, in so many ways, ripping Iraq apart, yet here, distilled down to its purest form of reverence, it generates not anger, but peace.

These are images from that time of light.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Amphitheater

The Old City, Jerusalem
Sunday, October 18th

Sitting here in the Old City in the Gloria hotel, on a warm October night, a few steps from the Damascus Gate, surrounded by a half dozen languages (one of them "cat" from some forlorn young one down the way), the warmth of the day still coming off the paving stones, the sense of the forever of a place is irresistible.

Except compared to where we were on Thursday, this part of this place is, you know, new.

Enter Bosra, Syria.

An online guide says this: that Bosra was mentioned in the journals of Tutmose the III in the 14th century BC. It was the first Nabataean city a mere 2,200 years ago. And it was a prominent place in the journey of the Prophet Mohammed, where a mosque stands in a place believed to be where he took his rest. Such places live and endure in ways I really cannot articulate. Yet we found ourselves there, and encamped in one of the most glorious Roman Amphitheaters still standing, ten Americans and eight young men and women who had fled Iraq and, often, death. Common ground on the ground walked by every faith, and every regional power, for more than 3,000 years.

Amphitheaters are the universal language of art in ancient and contemporary times. Gathering points for community and for the celebration of words, of music and, on this particular day, of dance. The sun shone intensely overhead, the heat more of summer than fall, but shortly after lunch the sounds of an American singer from Washington by way of California, and the sights of an American dancers from North Carolina by way of Washington, restored the meaning and purpose of the craftsmen of 1,900 years ago. From the very highest seat of the 1,500 in the Amphitheater Amikaeyla Gaston's voice could be heard from the whisper to the deepest, most resonant note. It filled the half bowl, bringing other tourists to a standstill, pulling them to take seats themselves, to clear the stage and linger in the shadows, and to celebrate the eternal power of the human voice.

It was Kathryn, our Kathryn, who captivated with her improvisation to Ami's voice, turning, spinning, bending and doing what only she can do. From the floor of the theater her footfalls echoed around the theater, and she found for our Iraqi friends, and for the random visitors, the universality of dance.

We've been in extraordinary places in our travels over the years, but none more so than an afternoon a few kilometers from the Jordanian border.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Acts of kindness

Sunday, October 11

As the scale and scope of the barbarity of life on the ground in Iraq, and the desperation for so many of life on the ground in the countries to which people leaving that Hell have fled continues to unfold, case by case, story by story, life by life, there is something underneath it which feels like the first light in a black sky. It's the light borne of kindness. As we ask the question of "what next" for these people, for their forsaken country, the ability of simple acts to transform is hard to capture in words. Perhaps it is nothing more than the belief, the hope, from people who have lost everything on so many levels that someone, somewhere cares. The steady gaze into someone's eyes. The handshake which takes on so much more significance than a greeting. The interest in a life. The smile truly meant to a child who has seen more in 10 years than I have in a lifetime. Simple acts.

I have no prescription of the survival of 2 million people. No enduring wisdom to lead a country out of an inferno. But across the barriers of language and culture the idea that someone actually cares is an astonishing medicine. We are not meant to be alone. We have evolved as a species in community, and in community is safety and in safety is possibility and in possibility hope. As a dancer, as a choreographer, the tale I tell must live without language. So it is here. We make it more complicated because we want the details of a life. But before the detail is trust, and trust is in the eye, in the heart, in the hand given freely and the embrace. We are capable of understanding the truth, but day by day, story by story, I am reminded that we feel truth. It is not empirical in the human condition. It is emotional. And as deeply as we treasure intellectual gifts and clinical accomplishment, in this place the destruction of safety and the debilitation of our humanity heals, in part, by touch, by contact and care.

The stories that accompany that thought have so much tragedy in them that they are for another moment. In this one at least there is hope. Hope that, in caring, we carve a path through the rock built, layer by layer, of one act of barbarity after another.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The motorcycle's echo

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Certain days challenge the ability of a writer, singer, choreographer to make sense of. They are few, and in this instance mercifully so.

Today was about torture.

Severed and dismembered, blinded, burned, beaten. Told in the first person. Those are moments that ask you the most fundamental questions – who are we, how do we descend into Hell and what is the path back? Is there a path back from acts which seethe inside a victim and bubble up in despair and in violence? If I thought that I could take it in and not take it on, I was wrong. Its right there – a stone in my stomach.

And then I’m sitting in an airplane at 25,000 feet over the Bekaa Valley, entering Syrian airspace and seeing the glittering nightscape of Damascus out the window. I’m teasing Alyssa and grumbling that there’s not enough time to finish a Corona before heading through security. Those are my problems. Below me somewhere someone is atop the back of a motorcycle, strapped to a smuggler and speeding over dirt roads in the night, pursued or haunted by security forces from countries which live in some ways barely out of legend for Americans. What do we know of Syria? What do we know of Lebanon? Yet the worst they can throw at this man, this refugee, is better than the best prospects for him if he sets foot in Iraq again.

“They took our lives. They took our laughter. Then they took parts of our bodies,” he said at the far end of the table. Restart is an NGO whose mission is counseling, of finding the psychic keys to reboot someone’s deepest soul. He rocked back and forth as he sat, and through the small separation in the table you could see his feet beating time like a frantic drummer racing to catch up with the band. Much of his left hand was missing, and he cradled it in his right even as he twirled a cell phone like a baton. Eye contact was difficult, and inside his eyes was a whirlwind, a dust storm of memory and terror at the cost of being the wrong person in the wrong moment in the wrong time, the wrong sect or the wrong minority.

“There are only women left in my family in Iraq now.” The men had fled or died.

“If you show this video on television and people see it in Iraq I could be killed. My family could be attacked and killed. But I don’t care. I am already dead. They can’t kill me more than once and people have to know the truth.”

There is a sense of guilt that accompanies hearing these stories, and these dismembered lives, and then getting in an SUV and going back to the air conditioned hotel and the espresso that I don't understand how to reconcile. Perhaps its the responsibility of making something worth the faith that these people put in you to "tell our story honestly, fairly and with care."

Banking over Damascus in the dead of night I think about the roar of a motorcycle engine in the cedars of Lebanon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beirut: 12 floors up

Beirut, Lebanon
October 5, 2009

Lebanon. Few countries evoke more of a sense of the tragedy of geography. Caught between so many opposing tides it has been ripped apart internally and externally so often in the past 34 years that it would take an historians talent to tell it here in a way which makes sense of the politics and outcomes of it. Caught between Syria and Israel, infused with dislocated populations and embedded with one of the world's great and most ancient cultures it was, for me, a symbol of what could go wrong when tolerance was overwhelmed by geopolitics playing the religion card. In so many ways like Sarajevo, Beirut was rent by forces beyond any reasonable control, and once those spiraled the passion and the violence, fed by outside powers and interests, leveled a city long known as the Paris of the Mediterranean.

The Civil War itself ran a 15 year course, ending in 1990. And Beirut began to rebuild. For me, in the time-warp of news of a generation ago, to come here today and sit on a balcony 12 floors above a city on a building tear is startling and overwhelming. From where I write this, 12 stories above the city, the sound of building cranes still operating permeate the traffic, echoing off the seemingly endless cranes and the flat and dusty landscape leading to the Mediterranean about 1/4 mile from where I sit now in the evening's cool breeze. Going on 11pm the construction is unabated. Instead of being irritating, its inspiring.

Kathryn and I walked the neighborhood at dusk, down to the Marina. We curved around the closed streets by the in-progress Grand Hyatt. Cut down Park Avenue to Rodeo Drive, arcing around the Rolls Royce dealership and past the Porsche showroom. The glint of suites of the Four Seasons, their chandeliers swaying in the sea breeze was offset only by the omnipresent security, the machine guns and fatigue draped security forces. No one here could doubt that the Lebanese mean to protect their guests.

Two years from now this neighborhood will be unrecognizable. The Ramada in which we stay, with my unobstructed view of the horn of Beirut, of the farthest eastern tides of the Mediterranean, tides which pulled to shore the Romans and the Greeks, which saw the passing of history in the most profound moments of history, will soon be only an average hotel with a view of other hotels, not of the shore.
The boom is running at that pace. What was devastated landscape and shattered buildings and lives is rising as a glittering downtown area that calls the most expensive names in Western consumption home. Its stunning and beautiful and brand spanking new.

But its only a small part of the web of Beirut. Clearing the aiport today our driver, sent to pick us up by Eduardo Vargas, the sharp, caring and never-miss-anything manager of this time in the Middle East, said simply that it was his job to be sure we didn't get lost. "Over there," he said, not 200 yards from the airport, "that's Hezobollah territory. You don't want to go in there." A name that reverberates around CNN was a wrong turn away. Yet here, in the center, the cranes work in the dark night, the cement pours, the workers change to shift three and the sky fills with buildings.

Below, at the front entrance, the Harley Davidsons are stacking up as much as the buildings. At a light dinner Kathryn and I shared the elegant cafe with the Harley Davidson club of the United Arab Emirates. Hell's Angels UAE style. Nicest people you could ever meet, but such a strange sight in their leather, chains, tattoos and chaps, sipping tea and talking in Arabic.

In the morning, when the sun emerges and illuminates the ancient waters and endless history, Kathryn and I head with an exceptional group of people to spend a day -- our first, their third -- with a devastated community of Iraqis, a tide still flowing out of the Fertile Crescent and into this city with with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of courage and chaos, its wide boulevards and multi-million dollar yachts, its still shattered buildings and refugees living side by side with 2,000 years of the thick paste which is the Middle East.

Tonight is for the cranes.

Last Look (10.2.09)

Velocity DC, October 2, 2009

The sheer power of Paul Taylor's "Last Look" is really not easily described in words. It's one of those dances you really do have to see. But there are three reactions worth sharing. 10 days or so ago the wife of the Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan came to watch rehearsal. She and her husband were in the States with the the majority of the senior government and she had time in her schedule to spend a few hours with us. We opted to show her a number of pieces.

It was hard to tell how she saw it. The last number was "Last Look." I remember thinking "well, this is either going to go really well or be a total disaster." The work is one of the most intense in all the dance field, and enormously disturbing.

It's also 22 minutes long. At the end of the run, which was also the end of our performance to her, I stepped out to thank her for coming and to ask her if she would take a picture with us. Through her interpreter she said she was not ready, that she needed a minute to take herself out of the dance. I realized she was in tears. On Saturday there were several young people in the audience. One, a young friend named Eric, is 4. Halfway through, his favorite member of CityDance, Jason, is lying on the floor for an extended period of time. Jason, who plays Mowgli in our Jungle Books show, is Eric's favorite. He stood up in the middle of the run and said "Mowgli, its time to get up from your nap!" Totally great.

A friend who knows us well came up at intermission to say that, had she not had to get out of her chair for her order at the cafe she would not have been able to stand after LL.

2,000,000: A Journey begins

How do you begin to wrap your arms around a number like 2,000,000? It’s a luxury house. It’s what Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics earns in about 10 games of an NBA season (playoffs excluded, because those come with an extra financial kicker). It’s 1/10th the rough estimate of the number of people who died in World War II. It’s almost four times the number of people who live in the District of Columbia.

It’s an enormous number. Two million of anything is hard to comprehend physically. When you consider that Yankee Stadium filled to capacity is about 45,000 you have to stand 45 of them side by side at playoff capacity to get to 2,000,000 people.

It’s the rough number of refugees from Iraq. 45 Yankee Stadiums, sold out. It upends the mind. And it doesn’t even consider the 3,000,000 still inside Iraq who are displaced; 20% of the pre-2003 war population uprooted.

In the chaos and cacophony of the Iraq war; in the bombings and body bags, in the shattered helicopters and dismembered children its an aspect of the trauma of Iraq that is lost to the ear, to the eye, to the weariness of a world that didn’t support the invasion to begin with, it’s a silent calamity. Devoid to the images of starvation in the desert, of the emaciated infant in a dead mother’s arms with the vulture atop the wrecked car it’s a disaster visually in waiting. The refugee camps, the endless tents, the lines snaking through the shanty towns are missing. The hook is missing. The visuals are missing. It’s too subtle, too intermingled inside the already opaque cultures of the Arab world for Western eyes to easily see. Not that we’re looking.

The displaced of Iraq, the dislocated and disenfranchised, the hopeless and the harrowed, are quietly slipping into obscurity. After six years the country is falling from the front page of the paper as it mercifully stabilizes. But the cancer of shattered lives being lived largely in the neighboring nations of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iran remains. It festers. The children of this diaspora are no less in need of stability and school, nutrition and nurture than those of the other man-made calamities in the world around us.

The idea that art can speak to this is at once wholly logical and utterly remarkable in its novelty. Art of this nature emerges organically from the people living that life. The power, and often the brutality and the grace of it, emanates from the authenticity of it. The painting of the powerless has power because of that condition, when it is equally work of artistic vitality it resonates because its been lived in. For me, for all of us traveling this journey into the lives of the refugee community, into the current of their tales, a deep question, and a dangerous one, rises from the fact that it is not our lives, not our stories. We are raconteurs not autobiographers.

High above the Atlantic in the silence that lies between the imagining of the journey and the reality of it these are the questions which occupy the mind. How can you hurl yourself forward into these lives with respect and equally with the invasion of what is most deeply personal without doing violence to the pain and power of these stories? If you are going with the purpose of telling those tales, of using the very skills which led you to be selected for the journey to begin with, then you have to be unafraid of the questions you must ask. A journalist will approach this one way. How so a choreographer and a dancer? What lies in the non-verbal, in the marriage with music and language, film and portrait, that speaks to the essence of a story, or a life? And how do you tell it?

Understanding that you cannot walk into these experiences with the answers written, the art fore-ordained its perhaps the most vital thing. Don’t arrive with the end in mind.

9:21 Sunday, October 4, 2009, eastbound.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tom Friedman's "The New Sputnik"

In yesterday's NYT (Saturday 9/26) Tom Friedman had a great column about China and the how and why of what he called "the 18 months that turned Red China into Green China."

I've excerpted the first paragraph here, and the link to the full column is below.

"Most people would assume that 20 years from now when historians look back at 2008-09, they will conclude that the most important thing to happen in this period was the Great Recession. I’d hold off on that. If we can continue stumbling out of this economic crisis, I believe future historians may well conclude that the most important thing to happen in the last 18 months was that Red China decided to become Green China."

The rest of the column can be found here.

It's worth the read.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Last Look: The promo

"Last Look," Paul Taylor's masterpiece which Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times called "this darkest and most haunting of Taylor's works" comes into the CityDance repertory with its company premiere on Friday October 2nd and Saturday, October 3rd at the first VelocityDC Dance Festival in downtown Washington, DC.

Our resident videographer, Francsico Campos-Lopez has made a startling and elegant spot for it.....

...Going to the Zoo

Usually that's just a phrase for losing your mind. Sometimes it actually involves a trip to a place where great creatures are in the best pens we can devise on limited real estate. Sometimes its both. That would be the case in our case...

The chance to do Jungle Books, which had so much of its inspiration and where so much of its research was done, on the grounds of the National Zoo was a many year wish in the making. It didn't seem possible because there didn't seem to be a connection.

But serendipity being what it is, Betsy Lundgren, our Marketing Director, turned out to be friends with someone in the Development Office of FONZ (the Friends of the National Zoo), and in a very short period of time JB at the NZ went from a "wouldn't it be fun" to a reality. That reality took shape over three performances by CityDance2 this week. The audiences, while small, were wonderful, and the dream -- to go now as a guest and be invited back as a paid part of the program, took a step forward. It was, of course, insane. That's the way it goes around here -- as Tiffany Frost used to say "ain't no party like a CityDance party." We opted for full make-up, which meant that our main characters, Shere Khan (Sydney Ignacio), Baloo (Alana Allende) and Kaa (alternately Mariel Miller and Kaitlin Madzelan) had to get in two hours ahead of showtime and go "all-in." We talk often about authenticity and entertainment living side-by-side.

The chance to honor the Kipling tale, and to prompt young people to go and see the real creatures, moving as only they can, was a motivation for going. The kindness of the staff and crew, the clear possibility of building an enduring program on the grounds of the Zoo, are reasons for going back.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mr McCourt

From Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Angela's Ashes." Mr. McCourt died yesterday. He was, in addition to being an author, a teacher for many years in the New York City school system. His third book, devoted to his years as a teacher, talked about a particular moment of inspiration that's worth sharing....

This is quoted from today's New York Times....

A Career as a Teacher

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Mr. McCourt won admission to New York University, where he earned a degree in English education in 1957. A year later he began teaching at McKee Vocational High School on Staten Island, an eye-opening experience that he recalled, in often hilarious detail, in his third volume of memoirs, “Teacher Man.”

In his first week, an unruly student threw a homemade sandwich on the floor, an act that astonished Mr. McCourt not so much for its brazenness as for the waste of good food. After appraising the sandwich with a connoisseur’s eye, he picked it up and ate it.

Mr. McCourt developed an idiosyncratic teaching style that found a somewhat more receptive audience at the elite Stuyvesant High School, where he taught creative writing after earning a master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College in 1967. He had students sing Irish songs to break down their resistance to poetry. After discovering a sheaf of written excuses from past years, he recognized an unexplored literary genre and asked students to write, say, an excuse letter from Adam or Eve to God, explaining why he or she should not be punished for eating the apple.

He even had students test themselves. “When they wrote their own tests, they asked questions they wanted answers to and then they answered them,” Mr. McCourt told the journal Instructor. “It was grand.”

Friday, July 17, 2009


We were capable of this 40 years ago, but, as Buzz Aldrin wrote in yesterday's NYT, not today.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


A great story in today's New York Times so clearly illustrates the value of nature in economic restoration. Here's an example that takes you right back to the realization that, when given a choice, we almost always seek water, green spaces over that which "civilization" and industrialization tell us we want.

It's a story about the restoration of a stream, entombed in concrete under a highway for 60 years, in Seoul, Korea, and the societal, economic and political benefits which have flowed both literally and figuratively from its restoration.

Here's the link:"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Yeah, OK, so how exactly did 20 days go by between the last words and these?

Back in DC its still somehow spring. Given that in Chile its winter and in the Middle East its about 400 degrees I suppose that's fine, but we're in the middle of the Professional SUMMER Intensive.

This is year one for an intensive like this. It was essentially Christopher's idea (our rehearsal director and choreographer in residence) and he was spot on about doing it. We really had no idea how or who would come in, but the quality of the dancers (all 30 of them) and, more, their grace, openness, kindness and interest has the four of us teaching (Christopher, Kathryn, Jason and me) completely motivated to make it the best possible experience for them.

How one does that is the interesting part. CKM has a lot of depth in this area, and he's done a great job of facilitating the things needed to make it work. Right mood, right approach, right challenges (at least from my vantage point). And Kathryn and Jason are great choices to come in as teachers. Their spirit is always infectious and it rubs off.

To make a CDE experience you have to have range, so in the section I'm doing, which is essentially choreography/rep today was about incorporating the styles and movement of two additional choreographers, Karen Reedy and Jason himself, into the process so that, in one work -- one stage experience -- the dancers in the Intensive would have to change personalities as artists many times. Given that the concept is emerging as a streetscape that makes sense -- and is very CityDance.

Great fun. Great video blog from Francisco from Day One and another for Day Two on the way.

Its on Vimeo:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The warm-up

62 minutes from Curtain. The room, 150 years old, is named after Claudio Arrau. “He’s better known outside Chile than in,” the woman said to me. Hard to imagine one of the great pianist of the 20th century not being celebrated in his homeland, but then that seems to be what it is to be an artist these days. You have to leave home to go home.

This afternoon the Director of the Teatro Municipal, in which we perform tonight in the Sala Arrau (capacity about 225 as opposed to the exquisite Opera House of 2,500 next door) told me that for our concert tomorrow night we have so much press coming that they don’t know where to put them all. “We never can get this much press for our own productions and companies.” He was clearly a bit irritated. Talk about preaching to the Choir. Why does one have to be a curiosity to garner the attention, and hopefully the respect, of one’s hometown?

If you were to imagine one of the great salons of 19th Century France, or Vienna or Florence, you would understand what it is to be in this room tonight. A 35 foot arched ceiling adorned with plaster bas relief and busts of the great 19th and 18th century composers, red velvet curtains masking the windows which open in classic French door style to a covered patio used only for the Theater Director. Think “Breakfast in the Loggia” by John Singer Sargent.

The Company is on stage warming up. The elegance of the room permeates everything, and is in sharp contrasts to 24 hours ago, when we stood in a converted sports complex imagined in less than those 24 hours from a basketball court into a theater, with trusses built and winched up into place, 800 people in the audience of stadium seats, including the Mayor of Santiago, the US Ambassador and his family and an entire class of Military Cadets. The air was achingly cold, blowers of propane and flame forcing heat onto the stage to little effect. Here it is insular and warm with the aging smell of a great hall.

It would be hard to offer greater contrast. Last night a performance for the people of Santiago who have the least but who would do the most for you of any people you have ever met. Tonight a private sold-out performance for the Foreign Ministry, arranged by the Minister himself, with a house of Ambassadors and dignitaries and the people who make the foreign world real for Chile.

Curtain in 38 minutes.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Santiago; notes from the back seat of a taxi

Tuesday, June 2

On the streets, in a cab, in Santiago. Riding in the backseat. Laptop open. Eyes wide open.

Cabbies here are crazy. Not the crazy of Amman, where EVERYONE drives crazy but everyone drives the same and you never feel like you’re a heartbeat away from an accident. Here there are so many distractions, so much traffic, so much noise coming out of the stereo and drivers typically with headphones in both ears that you definitely have the Disney’s California Adventure thing going through your head as you drive. On the other hand we always get where we’re going.

And in now almost five weeks on the road I’ve actually never seen an accident on the road. In DC you see them it feels like every day.

The weather is picture perfect. You get 10 of these days a year in DC and it seems like they happen here most days. Along the streets, looking out the cab window, the buildings are flushed with color. Its like San Francisco color (ala Haight Ashbury) but classic European architecture. The park to the left is flush with green and the light here, which is completely unlike the light in the northern hemisphere, hues everything in amber.

You are surrounded by mountains. They rise up at the end of city streets and over the tops of the towers. White caps in the Andes. Dirt brown slopes along the lower perimeter in which Santiago is placed. One moment it feels like lower Manhattan. The next like Denver with the Rockies in the distance.

In the front seat last night driving back from a site visit to the Penalonen, a sports center in which we are performing tonight, Chris took to making a “ding, ding, ding” sound everytime we passed a Chinese restaurant or carryout. It was like a constant bell. Never seen so many Chinese restaurants in my life.

The driver stops at a light and hails a street vendor to buy a pack of gum. Trucks laden with water tanks crosses in front. There is water in such abundance all around.

Its about 65 degrees. Things move at a pace that is neither weekday nor weekend.

Yesterday a wonderful woman stepping in to help host us and I were walking the streets between a lunch and stop at the Teatro Municipal. She was talking about (the driver just took out one headphone to talk on his cell while changing gears in his clutch/manual transmission auto. We’re going about 45 miles an hour, changing lanes and passing an ambulance on the way to the hospital with an emergency passenger inside) how different Chileans are from other Latin Americans. She’s Argentine (before us the mountains rise at an incredible slope, filling the sky) and has lived in many lands before coming here to settle for the second time. As we walked past the Presidential palace she took a breath. It was the breath of memory. “In Allende this is where the military bombed the palace. Theere were planes in the air, and rockets fired from this plaza. It was the start of Pinochet.” “1973, yes?”

“Yes, September 11, 1973.”

“September 11?”

“September 11.”

“It was the start of all the changes,” she said. “There was a curfew for years. No one could be out on the streets after 6pm. Can you imagine? People were very afraid. They couldn’t trust anyone so they turned to family. They became insular, quiet. It’s the thing they live with now. Then the curfew went to 8 or 10. Then to 2. The Dictator years. They haven’t come out of that yet.”
It was hard to imagine this in a thriving street filled with people passing through. Chileans are kind, gracious, elegant and so filled with hospitality. They go out of their way for you as easily as they draw breath. Its hard to picture this city empty at night. Yet it is quiet. It’s a subtle thing, but you can feel it. I thought it had to do with being, as they like to say, “at the end of the world.”

But its more than that.

We drive past a shanty shop in the poorest part of Santiago. A man is making an incredible and elegantly detailed door, hand carving the wood. He is bathed in sunlight in the cusp of the mountains growing ever larger before us. The buildings are low to the ground, not too far from shacks and yet clearly cared for. It isn’t poor in the way it is at home. There is small industry, handcrafting art everywhere in is seems every doorway. And then someone is selling tires out of a garage beside a fresh vegetables stand where the colors are so deep that you realize at home you don’t even know what fresh is.

Pulling into the stadium now (yes, stadium – more on that later)…..

Saturday, May 30, 2009

(Lots of) Falling Water

Chile is a constant surprise. I wrote in an earlier entry about my Dad telling me that to come to Chile, and to go from the north to the south, would show me every climate the world has to offer.

He forgot to mention the water.

On the road from Talca to Temuco, a road which doesn't bend (can someone say I-80 in Iowa?), Isabel turned from her front seat vantage point in the bus and said that the driver asked if we wanted to see an extraordinary waterfall along the way. I asked how far off the road it was, and how far away it would take us. I thought an hour perhaps. She looked at me strangely and said, "it's Chile. About 5 minutes." The point being that in a country 5,000 miles long and 5 miles wide its not really possible to go too far east or west.

So I said sure, lets stop.

We pulled off the Pan American, which is a toll road in this part of the world, and drove to the waterfall. About, oh, 1/2 a mile. Now, spectacular nature isn't supposed to exist within spitting distance of the major highway in the country, but there it was. The falls themselves were all the you could imagine and hope for. The strange proximity of a hotel, with a dozen back porch sliding glass doors just about 50 yards from them, and the empty swimming pool, with its inevitable, unearthly green/blue paint, threw the bucolic nature of a stunning cascade of water hurling over the lip of the earth off. So did the 50 gallon drum upended on the north bank. But the falls themselves were exquisite.

The contrast in those falls, where so much water falls from the sky throughout the drainage basin for just this one river, to that of the arid Middle East, where the dominant talk is of Amman, Jordan (and much of the country itself) running out of water in 30 years is startling. From desert to deluge in four weeks time on tour -- at about 8,500 miles distance. I honestly doubt as much water flows through the Jordan River in an entire year as flows over just these falls alone in a single day.

And it wouldn't have surprised me if someone went F.L. Wright one better and built a house over these one day. (that's not an endorsement in any way of that idea). Call it "madly falling water."

Butterflies in concert

The cornerstone of our concerts here in Chile is "Revolution of the Butterflies," the dance about the impact of human society on the natural world. Isabel Croxatto, the Chilean artist who made the work and who organized this tour for us, has made something remarkable that we are only now finally being able to see in its full light and texture as it goes onto major stages here in her home country. Its an amazing thing to watch as an American dance company inhabits the artistry of a Chilean in her native land. Humbling as so much of these international experiences have been.

These are shots from the opening night concert in Talca.

Temuco, Chile

Look on a map of the world. Any map will do. Find South America and then find Australia. Go to the place where South America reaches below Australia -- heading towards the southern most place on the earth. That's where we are right now. There is only one place on the planet farther south where there is a greater human population and its another Chilean city down the Pan American highway.

Crazy. And great.

Temuco has an exquisite theater in which we dance today (two shows) for what will end up being about 2,000 people -- that's two sold out houses. The reception we have
received in Chile has been startling in its graciousness and care. I thought it would be difficult at best to live up to the hospitality of the Middle East, but this has been every bit as remarkable.

And talk about publicity...

There are posters and billboards everywhere. Yesterday was a press conference with the Director of the Theater and the Mayor of Temuco.

The theater is enormous, and that presents a different set of challenges. The way the proscenium is designed the audience is far from the stage even in the first row, and so even though the house is smaller than the one in Talca it feels less intimate, and that means adjusting lighting and stage spacing in order to keep the intimacy of the works. This show, with the exception possibly of "Scorched" by Kate Weare, is very much an initmate program. It's success lies in making the audience feel that they are "with you" on stage, and that's harder to achieve in a venue this deep. We're adjusting by making what seem subtle changes -- taking out the white cyke that lines most backwalls in a theater and going instead to an all black space (an enormous black box), adjusting lighting so that it feels closer and a bit more "closed in."

Those are the kinds of changes which are key to success, but the timetable is very short. We got into the theater at about 3 yesterday, with David Whitlock, our Technical Director for the tour and I arriving first to see what we had before us. Dancers arrived around 7 to walk through the dances as David worked. Tech today for David and I starts in a few minutes as we leave the hotel for the theater, with the company coming at 2 for a 4pm matinee. Its such a long day for them that we are opting to bring them in late and keep them safe. But it makes for a bit of an adventure in lighting.

Nonetheless, great fun.

Oh, and talk about pressure -- the language on the posters says "the best dance in the world" Yikes.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The dog that wasn't there

In Jerusalem there are cats. Everywhere. In the Old City they are in the shops, on the streets, in the houses, alleys, corners, shops. Everywhere. Same in Amman. Same in Ramallah. And people talk about them all the time. "Damn cats. Howled to the point all night where I couldn't sleep." That sort of thing.

In Chile, its dogs. Sort of.

During our four days in Talca, Chile, from the 27th of May to the 30th, I went back and forth from the Hotel Marcos Gamero to the Teatro Regionale about 20 times. They're close by, separated by only about 5 blocks. As with any place you walk that often in that short a period of time, you start to get to know that one tiny stretch of a place. You see the street art, you see the vendors (and the most unusual of which is the little "ID" place right on the corner, where you can get your photo taken, your information printed/imprinted, you ID put to paper and laminated all out there on the corner {though my favorite so far is the little "to go" coffee stand I saw today in Temuco that was built right out of the garage of someone's home -- now THAT's for me{).

But what I really got to know were the dogs.

In Chile, at least in the parts of Chile we have been, there are dogs everywhere. Mostly they are feral. They either don't now or never did belong to anyone. In the States a stray dog is rare, and when you see on it's usually frantic. Not here. There dogs are no only mellow, they are quiet, friendly, walk up to you or more often just ignore you. And they commute.


They commute. Walk past the bodega during business hours and the same two dogs are sleeping (which is their most common occupation) in the same area throughout the day. Walk past after or before hours, and they're gone.

People pay them no notice at all. They just wander around. They cross the street (generally with the light -- which, given they are color blind makes no sense to me at all). They sit at the same spots -- my favorite being the three that sit, statuesque, in front of the Ministry of Agriculture alongside, but not with, the guards. They just -- well -- they just are. They're part of the fabric of the town. And sweet. Gentle.

And commuting.

Watching from my hotel window the other morning to try and take in a bit about the town, I saw the usual things you see in any city or town around 8:30 in the morning -- people going to work. Only here its not just the people. Watch for a few minutes and you realize the dogs are going to work, too. They walk on the same side of the street as the people going one way or another. They wait at the light (I'm not kidding). They pass people, they defer to people. They just, well, commute.

And, as I say, they seem to get along just fine. People step around them, or they around people. They are healthy (in the main), seem well fed (must be good jobs here), and just sort of inhabit their own separate world. The challenge for us is not to take them home with us. They're adorable, sweet and very willing to please. They don't much beg, but if you give them the slightest encouragement its clear they would love your affection (and your lunch, I would imagine).

The dogs of Talca are their own city of inabitants. They sort of have their separate universe from the people. It sounds strange, but its completely charming.

They're the dogs who aren't there. And they commute.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Return to a revolution

"My butterflies have flown to Chile."

The trip to Chile began in earnest a bit over a year ago. Its genesis was the inspired work of Isabel Croxatto, who has since become a trusted friend as well as a respected colleague. Her work, "Revolution of the Butterflies," had its premiere with us in March of 2008 at the CityDance "tan box" theater at our home at the Music Center at Strathmore. A part of our work on climate change, "Revolution" quickly became a favorite of all who saw it (far to small a number as it was a studio show). It needed to come back to the repertory, and it needed time with Isabel to make it work.

Our first rehearsal with her was this morning here in Talca. It was a "get acquainted" rehearsal, and there are the first few images from that rehearsal.

As we go through the next few days there will be time with her both on video tape and in images. This is a start down that road.

We need this here

The jump-off point for our two week tour of Chile is the city of Talca. Its a great place for a beginning.

We have two main tasks at hand here in the administrative capital of the Maule region south of Santiago. The first is underway as of today. A three-day workshop for 32 students who have come from north and south (its not particularly challenging to come from east and west as the country only takes about two hours to go from the Andean border with Argentina and the Pacific).

"We need this here," Isabel Croxatto, our Tour Director and the choreographer of our work, "Revolution of the Butterflies," said to me, Chris Morgan and Jason Ignacio in the cafe adjacent to the Teatro Regional del Maule this evening just after the first workshop wrapped up. "People are hungry for this, and there is no one to offer it." It sounded exactly like the words we had heard just a few weeks ago 8,300 miles away in Amman, in Ramallah, in Nazareth (that's not a number I made up, it really is that far away from where I write this).

When I think about the challenges we face in the States every day, for audience, for the dancers who can do the work and the choreographers who can create dances which last, I am constantly frustrated. Yet to step outside the States, to the countries we have been and the one in which we are now, is to realize we also have an extraordinary number of resources and advantages. It is so often just a matter of circumstances and perspective.

To be here, in Chile, and to have the opportunities we have here is both an honor and humbling. To see the anticipation, and the excitement, on the faces of the dancers who came into the theater today for the workshop was inspiring. Christopher has opted to do a three day workshop centered around his dance "Thirst." Using a similar process to the one he employed in the original creation of the work, he's got the students exploring, through movement and writing, the questions of "what they thirst for." Its an elegant process, and it inspires the students to both create and absorb.

The images in the previous post (just below this one) are from today's workshop.

The second part of our time here is devoted to two performances on Thursday at the theater, which is one of the most elegant and beautiful we've ever danced in. Its reminiscent, as Alicia mentioned today, in some ways of the Concert Hall at Strathmore. Not quite as large a house, but close and with an exceptionally fine stage. Isabel mentions its one of the finest in Chile and I can believe it. We're looking forward to Thursday's shows.

More in a bit.

Talca: Workshops on Day One

A few shots from the first day of a three-day workshop in the Chilean city of Talca, about 250km south of Santiago.

Along the Pan American

A few shots, heading south out of Santiago to Talca.