Saturday, August 4, 2012

On the Afghan Border: July 11, 2012

July 11, 2012

All that separates us from Afghanistan is a rushing, frantic river; 30 yards of water and the pitch dark of a moonless night. Including the one emanating from my screen I can count 16 lights, single 60 to 100 watt incandescent bulbs in my entire field of vision. All are on the Tajik side. Afghanistan, so close, is utterly black.  When we arrived there were no lights at all. Electricity is a capricious thing in this hamlet, appearing when if feels like it and vanishing with equal impishness. The river’s rush is a constant companion, along with the trills of night birds and amphibians, insects and mammals.
I know Afghanistan to be there because I saw it all afternoon across that one wicked body of water – wicked because it separates us from setting foot in Afghanistan, a lunatic desire our hosts at the US Embassy have tried deeply to dissuade me from realizing. “You have a single entry visa, so, good luck getting back in if you figure out how to go across,” has been the common source of discouragement. More effective: “we had someone determined to set foot in Afghanistan earlier this year. He walked across the bridge from Tajikistan to Afghanistan. The Afghans turned him away. When he went to come back to Tajikistan they wouldn't let him in because he’d used up his single entry visa. Took six hours, the Tajik KGB, the Afghan Foreign Ministry and the head of Consular Affairs in Dushanbe to get him admitted again to Tajikistan. All that time he stood in the middle of the bridge, the river running under him, with nowhere to go. He could have been there a month.”

I seem to have settled on getting within 30 yards and no closer. I like bridges, but…

We knew we had reached the point where Afghanistan sat on the shore to our right not because of a sign, or a designation. No, we knew it to be there because it was our first sighting of entire villages of mud brick – villages completely and totally abandoned. No one in the fields. No one on the banks. Empty. Tiny towns of mud-brick, with glassless openings for windows and not a soul in sight.  


An occasional donkey foraged, yet if it had anyone tending it, it was at distance. The domesticated animals had been left to their own devices, solitary beasts of burden munching on pale green grass as though they were the last inhabitants of earth. You wondered, when winter came, would anybody return to claim them, to shelter them, to feed them in the dead cold and deep snow of the high mountains?

At points a good throw of a solid stone would have landed on its shores. 90 feet away.
Overhead the Milky Way shines deep, a band across the night sky I have seen perhaps six times in my life. Such it is to grow up in the era of electricity and the thick haze of burnt fossils, and to be from Manhattan, where a cloudy night produces an orange sky more like a blanket than a void. To see the Milky Way stops you in the careful walk along the dirt road running through the village in which our guest house lies. That road is the often one lane path between Dushanbe and the South along the Afghan border.

Its name is the Pamir Highway. It is high, to be sure. And it is the only way to get where we’re going by land. Beyond that any resemblance to the word as we understand it in the States is purely coincidental.
The Pamir Highway runs, for much of its length, along the Tajik bank of the river, the river separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan here in the Tajik southwest. A map shows it to be in the panhandle of Afghanistan – the part which juts out east in a sliver of land, separated from the chaos of the heart of the country by deep cut mountains and, its seems, but spirit.

The river funs with such force it sounds like a strong steady wind through thick forests, even 100 yards from its banks. Cars pass by perhaps every 15 minutes. Other than that, at 10:30 at night, the sounds are solely those of creatures of the night and of the river.

Earlier, along the first mountains in the climb from Dushanbe to here, the landscape was easily the most tortured I had ever seen. Tortured not by man. By nature. Mountains folded in on themselves as though rolled – like slices of cheese you bend. Deep folds and 45 to 90 degree thrusts – a geologic wonder that is almost impossible to describe. 

The sheer geologic power of the Indian Subcontinent slamming into the Eurasian land mass, bending the flat earth into thick folds which reveal layer upon layer of sediment, at one time buried under the sea floor, now bent like so many slices and hurled up thousands of feet into the sky. In places volcanic rock, magma which had poured out millions of years ago, lay dolloped on top of the sedimentary rock, so much topping on the land.

Driving that landscape, dwarfed by it and at any moment tumbling down into it if the road gave way (which seemed all-too likely), the sense of being small within the geologic combat yet going on in these mountains, was everywhere. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tel Aviv Journal: The Real Opening Night

Ben Gurion Airport
Tel Aviv
May 15, 2012

Waiting for the call for UA85 to Newark, with a precious few hours of sleep, its almost possible to take in what the last few days have offered.

A dance company less than a year old doesn't get the chance to dance Paul Taylor, Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar in front of a sold-out 800+ seat theater for its opening night in Israel. On top of that, it never gets the chance to dance in that same theater for four nights consecutively, all sold-out. In all of CityDance's life we had only one four-night engagement ever, at DC's Dance Place, capacity 160. And we couldn't fill it. 

Killer Pig by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar
Here, Company E took a step we could never manage at CityDance, with work which is simply a dream, and the Company took home on the bus to the hotel the love of an entire auditorium. Amazing. 

As always, it seems, the craziest challenge was in the program order. Call it the curse of a repertory Company-- what piece goes next to what other, and where does intermission lie. We were still "talking" about it 90 minutes before curtain. 

But we got it right.

Not in too many places could you open with a work like "Last Look." At home we never could, but here, the audience comes in ready and they absorb the full impact of it right from the start. And to see if come alive with this cast was rewarding in indescribable ways. Milan, taking the final solo, is finding the soul of it, and you can feel it in the audience as he does it that they are moving with him. And it will only get better. 

For our presenter, the Bimot Agency, to take a chance on a complete unknown, and to give it nine concerts in six cities, and to have those houses full, is really simply a dream. 

I head home for two days for an engagement at the Department of State's training institute, the Foreign Service Institute, and Don Quixote programming meetings, and then head almost immediately back to Minsk. The Company stays in Israel, dancing and absorbing an amazing experience. 

Doesn't get better than this. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tel Aviv Journal: "Opening Night" (almost)

Tel Aviv
May 14, 2012

Tonight was supposed to be a quiet dress rehearsal evening as we prepared for opening night at the sold-out 800 seat Herzliya Performing Arts Center just north of Tel Aviv Monday night. But when the chance to let "a few" people from the northern Israeli community of Carmel by the Sea see the Company E program presented itself we said, "sure." The house seats 600 and at least 500 of those seats were filled for that "informal" dress rehearsal. 

Killer Pig by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar
The program of Paul Taylor's "Last Look," Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar's "Killer Pig," Kate Weare's "Scorched" and my "Falling" were all Israel premieres -- or "almost-premieres." And to have the audience keep applauding the audience to more and more bows was an amazing, amazing moment. 

Presenting Mr. Taylor's "Last Look" in a country that knows him so well, and to be the company that premieres it here is an honor that's hard to describe. And this is an audience that knows its dance. 

The entire company was ready tonight. Fantastic to watch from the back of the house and also fantastic to realize that, less than a year after the Company's founding, we're here in Israel on a nine-concert, six city tour through the first private presenter ever to pick up either CityDance or Company E. And that's after a two-week tour in Switzerland and Germany that ended just a few days ago. Kathryn and Alicia have done a great terrific job leading the company. 

More on the real opening night tomorrow, but what a great, great beginning.