Thursday, December 23, 2010

Last Man Standing

December 23, 2010

I start this at 9:07 local time in Algiers. Kafka is the muse of this little bit of legerdemain. The sleight of hand was getting everyone (but me) out of Algeria. The bit of Kafka was the “nothing you know is the truth” that our experience, and in particular our travel experience, has devolved into.

The genesis of this is the Contemporary Dance Festival of Algeria, which has been the subject of these many writings over the past few days. Stunning to realize we have been here less than 96 hours. The volume of events, the sheer shock of the place, would take, I think, many, many more than 96 hours to relate.

Sometimes life does not live in a one-to-one ratio with the time it takes to live it.  So often a day takes but five minutes to relate. Sometimes, as now, it takes many days to draw the portrait of the experience. Such is Algeria.

I have written often about the value and meaning of art and exchange, of festival and collaboration across borders. In so doing I’ve also tried to be judicious about criticizing the infrastructure of this Festival itself. The nearly endless challenges of putting a festival together, even in the best of circumstances, is not lost on me. New ones are fraught with the vastness of ambition and the oft-crippling lack of experience to stage that ambition. The vision-to-reality thing is, unfortunately, only something that can be accomplished by walking through it to the other side. 

You can’t foresee problems for which you have no frame of reference. Worse, that lack of experience can create a naiveté which is injurious, not from intent but from ignorance. Couple that with carelessness and you are in deep waters lashed by high winds in a shallow-draft boat made of timbers bound by reeds. And the people who perish in those scenarios are not the organizers. They’re the participants, pulled overboard from a failure to understand their surroundings and the capacity of the vessel to sustain and support them. That which looks stable is not. That which you have experienced before is illusory in its value, a frame-of-reference which fails you by giving you comfort that “you’ve seen all this before” when, in fact, you haven’t. 

Experience tells me that this Festival is possessed of all those flaws, and has them, not in a benign surrounding, but one of a deep fear of violence happening to foreigners on Algerian soil. That's a complex mix into which to put dancers from many countries, most if not all of whom are in their teens and early 20s. Its one thing for me, or for Christopher (our Rehearsal Director and Resident Choreographer) to see it for what it is and to appreciate that we are in fact safe within the perimeter created. It's another for people just emerging into this life on the road. 

I sit in this airport not because I’m of a mood and mind to just hang out here, but because its been made clear to me again and again that its unsafe for me to walk out the airport doors, hail a cab and go back into the Center. Having been in low-level conflict zones before that’s not completely unfamiliar, and in such situations I’ve just gone my own way before. But this one possesses a level of earnestness which dissuades one from undertaking that here. With the sole exception of the stage itself, our entire Algerian experience was (past-tense for everyone else now, fortunately) and for me is, washed in the blue hues of the motorcycle cops light and sound-tracked by the maddening “weeee-waaa – weeee-waaa” of their sirens. I’ve spent more time driving 80 miles an hour in the oncoming traffic lane in this trip than I have, cumulatively, in my entire life – and this trip lasted four days.  

There is that odd sense as you are stuck in the middle lane of a two lane road (that’s not a typo. Its how they get you though traffic here –by carving a third lane in the middle of the two demarked, and by a “parting of the waters” by green rain-suited cops who wave down, and away, traffic in a Sodebergh directed, Blake Edwards scripted update of Moses parting the waters) that maybe you’re less safe with a “foreign target of opportunity” banner strapped across your vehicle like you're in a Miss America pagent than you would be if you were just riding anonymously in a vehicle like everyone else. When you come to a halt, as you inevitably do in Algiers traffic, with all that ruckus happening around you people WILL stare at you. Like you’re a Zoo creature. And so, rather than disappearing you jump out in neon for all to see. It may well be that such security is both requisite and effective, but it is, undeniably, discomfiting. 

Yet, in the end, its all worth it -- at least to me. The world is what it is, and it's only through engaging it that you come to anything approaching an honest view of it. Books -- just like reading what I write here -- are nothing more than the musings of one person in one sequence in time coupled with whatever research has gone into prepping those words. Whatever a non-fiction writers skills, these writings are just what passed by my eyes. Kathryn, Maleek, Jason -- they saw something different. Yet the bottom-line is they saw it. They saw what was right about it and what was wrong about it. And in the end they took the stage as a company of six and shared their talent with 600 + total strangers, most of whom had never seen anything like what we danced. Modern -- or contemporary - is really just that here. Its brand spanking new. How often does that happen in life? Where can you step foot on stage and into people's consciousness where those moments are even possible, where there is a sense of inspiration, of life-changing, happening right in front of you, and for which you are the cause. 

That's the other side of the experience. And it boils, inevitably, down to balance. How much should you ask of your colleagues to put those possibilities in front of an audience bursting down the doors to see you. 

Looking back, I'm not sure how many people in the Company would sign on for what just happened. The fault of that lies in the hands of the Festival. They could, easily, have prevented 90% of what went wrong simply by listening. They didn't. We could have parted ways today with endless good-will. Instead we parted it with the most stressed out people I have ever seen, genuinely concerned they wouldn't be able to get out, to get home. People who have the grace and talent and goodness of spirit that this group has -- you pray for them to leave an experience with joy. 

The impact of a Festival extends far beyond its own shores. Americans know nothing of Algeria. This festival was a chance to change that in small but meaningful ways. And it did. But not in the way they would have wanted at the Ministry of Culture. For all the money they spent on our airfare they could have hired a staff-person who completely understood the States and could have guided the expense, the itinerary, the accommodations, the performances and the interactions and STILL have had money left over for our flights. That's what's so maddening. 

I called this Last Man Standing for many reasons. The obvious is that everyone else is on the ground, or within 60 minutes of being on the ground, in the States while I'm here in Algiers because I couldn't get on the plane I was promised I had a seat on. Were it not for grace and good luck we'd all still be here, with Christmas storming down on us and morale dropping faster than a guillotine blade during the French Terror. It could have sunk us on endless levels. It didn't because we fought to keep them outbound. But the Festival -- it was just a phone call to confirm our itinerary and tickets and none of today happens and I'm hanging with Aidan and Nathan tonight in the happy embrace of the 13 and 11 year old touch stones of my world. 

I'll get gone tomorrow. By booking my own ticket I'm confident of that -- and because the US Embassy here has been incredible. They have done so much more than rise to the occasion that I can't really state it adequately here. But they shouldn't have had to. 

I called it Last Man Standing because at the end of the day I probably have a higher tolerance for this stuff than anyone else. And that's not necessarily a good thing. My job is to protect Kathryn and Giselle and Noelle and Jason and Maleek and even Christopher, even though he's probably the most capable person I've ever travelled with. To have to focus on that, instead of on the art and possible, costs all of us. There's only so much air in the balloon as the saying goes. To have to focus on that diminishes the experience the Algerians had with us and we had with them.

It was preventable by a few phone calls. 

For me, at this moment, the experience makes the journey worth it -- but that's partly the writer talking. We made an impact and an impression and learned so much. At what price is always the counter-balance. 

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