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.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The world is round (with apologies to Tom Friedman)

Saturday, May 23, 2009
9:35pm. Over South Carolina.

The week in the States lasted at least twice that long. If travel is tiring planning, meeting and getting next year figured out is exhausting. It’s good to be at 40,000 feet and heading south with the cell in Airplane mode for the next two weeks.

South. To Chile via Miami. To a land I am learning of outside the guidebooks. To a long thin strip of a country I have dwelled upon since my father first said “in your lifetime, if you travel nowhere else, you must go all the way from the top of Chile to the bottom. In one continuous stretch of one endless land you’ll experience every environment known to the planet. You can stay on one road, starting at the top in the North at the border to Peru and finish almost in sight of Antarctica, and never leave Chile."

My Father had a way of making the most mad journey romantic. As a child I had a map of the world in my bedroom, and on that map I populated the planet with stickpins representing the places he traveled to. I remember them today more as living things consuming the visible space of the land masses than as green tipped plastic and pin-prick steel. In so many ways it was the closest I got to my Father. Those pins possessed that strange telekinetic power inherent to lonely children, that power that enabled them to see into the fog of absence and find within it the hug missing at bedtime or the words lost to a failed and frayed cable lying on the seabed between two people of one blood but two disconnected lives. Chile is inextricably interlaced with those inextinguishable strands of childhood.

In the long night (or night-long) flight ahead there is also the mystery of what lies beneath. Once Miami is behind us the journey is both magical and invisible. An all night arc around the Earth, never leaving Eastern Standard time yet traveling the same number of miles as from Washington to Amman. The cognitive dissonance associated with this is tied intimately to the European mentality from which I come. We are East-West travelers, travelers who expect that as the miles accumulate the hours will be lost or gained. The anchor to the experience is jet lag. Exhaustion at noon and midday exhilaration at 3 in the morning. That was what it was to journey into the heart of the Middle East, to stand toe-to-toe with the Al Aksa Mosque and the Wailing Wall. That seven-hour time difference made it real, made it tangible. We knew we were somewhere else not simply because of the language, but because of the discord between our 3pm and our families 3pm on the other side of the world. When you hit Dubai the time difference becomes 8 hours between DC and you, and the business day is completely out of sync. That’s how you know how far away you are.

But that’s not how it works going North to South. On this airplane, at this moment, its 10:05. In DC its 10:05. In Miami its 10:05 and in Santiago its 10:05. It’s on the other side of the world, but its 10:05. And you’re on the WEST coast of South America. My 8th grade Latin Studies teacher would be proud. When he gave us a day-one pop quiz to draw the Americas I put Rio de Janeiro in line with Los Angeles. I knew all the European Capitals and the rough geography of a then divided continent from the Urals to the Atlantic, but I couldn’t begin to tell you where anything was below Mexico. The Panama Canal might as well have been in Hawaii.

There’s a point to this rambling.

There is an episode of The West Wing, the television show I’ve more or less memorized in the last 5 years, with its fictional White House and public servants who make you think of what the best of politics can be, in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry “throws open the doors to people we could care less about, day (in the words of Toby Ziegler)” There were two episodes with this idea at their center, called “big block of cheese” days (for the uber curious, Google Andrew Jackson and cheese or, better, take in the second season of WW – or call Betsy in our office) In the second CJ and Josh sit down with a group called “Cartographers for Social Equality.” CJ asks “where’s the inequality in cartography.”

Turns out its right in front of all of us. The world as we know it, as we’re taught it, was drawn by a European named Merkatur. It’s his map we study, its his map that tells us where everything is and how big it is and what bounds it. It’s our indispensible framework for making sense of the world. Except it’s wrong. Very wrong. It reflects not size as it exists in the physical world but size as it existed in the political world of the time, and that time has extended onto the walls of schools, the pages of books and the minds of all of us ever since.

The issue of Europe being physically several times smaller than shown on that map is just one issue. Another is the disparity between how things really are in relative size in the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern. The map adjusts size to make a round world flat (there’s an irony), and in so doing, and in so overstating the importance of Europe and all things Northern it marginalizes Africa and South America. That North-South attitude carries forward to today. It’s top and bottom.

Imagine, as they do in that episode of West Wing, if you did two simple things – turn the world upside down and redraw the map to scale. It’s been done in the Peters Projection Map. And its jarring. It makes all the important things you thought you understood less so. Size matters. “You can’t do that,” CJ says. “Why?” replies Hewk.

“Because you’re freaking me out.”

South America on the horizon. Somewhere my Dad is smiling.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cultural diplomacy

When its all said and done, when the bills are paid, the flights flown, the audiences come and gone, the classes held and the thank you's written, what is it that three weeks in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, means?


This past January I wrote a draft of an Op Ed which I decided to table until we'd been on out on the road in both the tour just finished and the one which begins in a few days. It was about the need for a culture offensive -- a renaissance of America not in its military or even in its industrial presence, but in its culture, out in the world.

How often have we heard "we like Americans regardless of whether we like your government or your policies." That was echoed, and then reinforced in remarkable ways, in Ramallah, a city which, if you were looking for a place you would anticipate anger at Americans to surface, would be high on the list. That anger was nowhere to be found. There was, instead, a grace, an appreciation, a kindness and and openness to what a group of American artists had to offer, to say, to teach and to share that we should be so lucky as to find here within our own borders.

We are not known around the world. Let me say that again: we are not known around the world. Yes, of course American television is known everywhere. Is that America? Yes, of course our soldiers and our tanks and our guns and our incredible power are known everywhere. That power has the ability to do remarkable good, but is also inevitably, overwhelmingly controversial. And while, yes, that is America, is that the only America? Is that the only presence we want to have on the ground?

We are not known around the world. Images on television are not America. They are two dimensional. They are 1s and 0s and they are utterly controlled by the people who put them there. Nothing, nothing replaces a handshake, an embrace, an afternoon together in a classroom where smiles are shared, lessons are learned and Americans, in their warmth, grace and talent, are present and involved.

What America do we seek? Who do we want to be and how do we want to be known? You do actually change lives on the road. You change them one at a time, and in the end, person to person, that's the way the world changes.

At a time of profound debate about how and where to spend our money, of obsession about American visibility, American stability and American security, the investment in the exchange of Americans and people from other lands is both inexpensive and yields breathtaking results.

Culture is not a hand out. It's not a bag that says "a gift of the United States (as important as those gifts are)." Its an exchange -- and that's the key term. We learn with each other, from each other. It empowers the people you meet as much as it empowers you. It teaches the teacher as much as the student. It inspires the performer as much as the people for whom performances are held. We learn. Together.

I am constantly reminded of the phrase "he who saves a single life saves the whole world." It can be adapted so subtly: "he who changes a single life changes the whole world." I have watched, in these past weeks, that power up close. Young people who were unclear of how to say what they felt, express what they had bottled up, dream in non-verbal ways of the people they want to be, inspired to move and empowered by it.

In Abu Dhabi I had a teacher come up to me and say this: "I'm just a PE teacher here (as it that needed an apology), but I want you to know that I think this performance you just did, this 45 minutes, is worth more than two full months in a classroom."

In Ramallah I was asked to help create the infrastructure, the curriculum, the core, of dance in the West Bank for the future. Its a mission for my own life now -- an honor and an extraordinary idea.

In Amman we watched young people en masse leap to their feet to join in learning a dance with three CityDance monkeys in Jungle Books. Boys. Girls. Everyone.

The United States needs to decide how it wants to be known to the world.

Throughout the region I met a small group of people, Cultural and Public Affairs Officers with the US Department of State, who spend each and every day trying to make possible what we just did. They do it well. They do it with passion. They do it with commitment and determination and they do it often feeling like they are banging their heads against the wall with their own government. But they do it. And they don't give up. And they make a difference and, a person at a time, they change the world and the way America is seen. What more can you ask than to have a chance to work with people like that?

We are visible in the world. That's our choice and our blessing and our curse.

How we choose to embrace that visibility is everything. But that's what art does. And it does it in ways away from home we fail to understand here at home. Leave our shores and find out that people know nothing of America, but that they very much WANT to know about America -- from Americans, and that art is a way they love to take us in.

The Federal budget for cultural exchange should be 30 time larger than it is. Artists should be everywhere. Everywhere. Teaching. Speaking. Dancing. Singing. Acting. Painting.


Its how we can make a difference.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


May 13, 2009 in the desert between Abu Dhabi and Dubai

He said, “If a man dies in the desert, it doesn’t smell.” I was holding a rib bone in my left hand.

“Same with the camels.”
At my feet, in the compact sand, the forlorn and full skeleton of a ship of the desert lay, bones bleaching in the sun, drying and already weathering in the heat, in the sun and under the relentless pressure blasting of fine sand whipped by the thick desert wind coming in off the Red Sea and over this landscape of shifting and often airborne sand (reminds me of Michael Ondantjee’s elegant descriptions of the Aajej, a wind in the Moroccan desert). The sun had slipped below the horizon 20 minutes earlier, while we had been sitting upon the dunes a mile or so north, but it was yet light, the twilight that comes when there is enough matter in the air to sprinkle the sky with color reflecting off the landscape.

There was still fur and flesh on small parts of this dead beast. The sand brown hair, course, deep-pile carpet thick, still felt just as the hair of the camel I had ridden in Wadi Rum, a few thousand miles and an eternity away. Bits of flesh and tiny traces of sinew still connected to bone at the hind legs, desiccated and mummy-like. The edge of the sand was slipping slowly over the remains, a blanket that will soon enshroud it as the desert has all things throughout the eternity of the struggle between life and death in the desert that the desert inevitably wins. How many bones lay beneath this surface? How much of the dust that gathers on your clothing, slips inside your collar, tickles your nostrils, was once part of something living before being finely ground into powder?

The skeleton was complete until my driver and I disturbed it. The long, elegant neck revealed bone-by-bone, the head, perfectly upright, looking out, as it had in the moment it closed its eyes for the last time, staring ahead – at a six lane superhighway in the desert. The super-transport of the (recent) past had seen in its last, solitary moment the super-transports of today. Less than a generation separated them in this part of the world, in the long, long empty sands that stretch between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

That highway lay no more than 200 yards from the camel’s open grave. At dusk it bristled with lights, moving like a video game show, the low rumble of all those diesel trucks causing a near constant pulse in the ground, a low hum that you could tangibly feel in your soles. There were few passenger vehicles, and those that you could see were on a “beat the autobahn” mission to Mars. Their Testarossa’s and Maserrati’s, BMW’s and Bentley’s shot back and forth across the long straight strip of cement and tar, like a tether pulled taught, in the seemingly endless money of these two tiny Emirates which have captured the world’s imagination and the insatiable desire for oil by a simple twist of geographic fate. This is what the camel saw in its last moments.

In the sand hard by the highway, which is raised above ground level on a long stretched mound to prevent the sweeping sands from doing to it what it was doing to the camel, enormous sections of pipe sat out in the open, stacked carelessly, stretching all the way in either direction of the highway.

“Oil?” I asked.

“Water.” He replied. “Much more precious than oil.”

“20% of all oil revenue goes to making water.” Making water? My driver was born in the South of India, but had grown up in Abu Dhabi. He moved with his family when he was just a child. But he is still Indian, not Emirati. I recalled another driver saying to me in the morning that “he hated the taste of the water here – all processed water, not like my water, not like Pakistani water. That’s real water, water from the mountains.” But he was not in the mountains (which this day is probably good for extending his life-expectancy in Pakistan). He, a cab-driver, like my Indian guide, was in the UAE. Both came for the money. “I hate it here – the heat. But the money…”

There is an irony in the endless oil-bought wealth of the UAE. All that oil, all that mashed up life from bygone millions of years, is fueling an economic boom in a country with virtually no population that is allowing them to do what only alchemists have dreamed of in all the ages of all the world: to make gardens out of the desert.

Drive in Abu Dhabi, in the endless, thick moisture that is the air and you see green EVERYWHERE. Along the highway, that same spit between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the world is being transformed. But unlike almost everywhere else in the world, where the desert is encroaching on what had been fertile pasture or semi-arid land, in the UAE the desert is in hard retreat. There are fields and fields and fields of trees, and endless acres of that most notorious water-thief, lawn grass. Step outside the City onto the Emir’s road and you see entire farms of green – not sheep farms or cattle farms – plant farms. And snaking through each and every carefully planted mound and tree is a tiny black hose, connected, after endless miles, to a water/irrigation system. It’s drip agriculture, dispensing water with great efficiency, little waste and astonishing results. Forests in the desert.

“I think you are another of those desert loving English,” Prince Faisal (who went on to become King of Jordan) said to T.E. Lawrence during one of their first meetings. “While I,” he said. “I long for the gardens of Cordoba.” Those legendary hanging gardens in Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But they are as much legend as archaeology (though more traces of them have been found). To make a paradise in the desert is so utterly far fetched as to become legend. It can’t be done. Except that it can. And the force behind it is oil. The next time you get into your car consider that some percentage of the money you hand to the gas station will find its way back to governments and people using it to make these lush gardens in the desert.

And here’s one – Abu Dhabi, an utterly desert-based country, has, according to a press release by Siemens announcing another desalination plant, “Abu Dhabi has the world's third-highest per capita drinking-water consumption. And according to the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA), daily water consumption is set to increase to 3.57 million cubic meters by 2015.” Longing for the gardens of Cordoba.

It was getting dark, finally. The camel had lost two bones now; that rib bone and now a vertebra. We put the rib bone back.

The vertebra has moved to Washington.

Friday, May 15, 2009


These are from the last evening of the tour in Abu Dhabi, and are taken en route to, and during a company gathering in the desert.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Back across

On May 8th the company jumped back across the Israeli/Jordanian border. These are moments in the trip from the Rosary Sisters Convent (where we stayed) to the doors of King's Academy. Mostly shot through the window, they also find a few images of our now legendary cab driver, who made sure to show his affection for Shannon....

A few images from the performance in Nazareth

These are shots from the Company's May 6th performance in Nazareth, Israel.