Thursday, April 30, 2009


Ramallah bound.

It's 6:45am here in Amman and around the hotel everyone is packing bags, checking closets and drawers and bundling the first round of memories. We are gathering in the lobby in a few moments to board transports (either buses or cabs) to the Jordanian/Israeli border and Ramallah, Jerusalem, Nazareth and the next wave of concerts and sounds, sights and experiences.

Amman, by every possible measure, has exceeded all our hopes, expectations and imaginings. Take all the best dreams and double them for each person. The people from the country, the staff from the embassy, the technicians from the theater and, most enduring, the 1,000+ children we've danced for in the past 72 hours have been warmer, more helpful, kind, enthusiastic and reaffirming than one could have ever dreamed.

Yesterday was a day of little ones, including 300+ orphans taking in Jungle Books.

The theater on Wednesday for the repertory concert was 700+ beyond capacity inside, with 200 turned away outside (that legend will grow and I'm sure the number turned away will exceed 500 by the time we get home, with the Royal family probably being among them.... : - ) )

On to Ramallah....

First video from Amman

This is a travelogue of the second day, May 27th. During the day two members of the company toured around the city, and the rest were a part of a daylong outreach program.

Filmed on location in Amman, Jordan, this is a part of the company's documentary work for its travels.

First thoughts (from the plane)

Looking backwards a few days....

This was written over the course of the all-night flight from JFK to Amman. Looking at it on Thursday just before 6pm, having been on the ground now for four days it seems already archaic, but the purpose of these writings is to share the experience, and this was a part of it.

4/26/09 (Sunday)
1:09am over the Atlantic.

The business day is starting in Amman while Washington’s late night lights are starting to go out. The business week in the Middle East is Sunday to Thursday, not Monday to Friday. On a day when practicing Christians are church-bound, I’ve been reading Darwish, the Palestinian poet whose writings have become a guide to me. I keep wondering how much I am missing in the translation, and worrying a bit how much that will be true of the entire time in the region. A colleague based in Jerusalem said to me on the phone a few days ago that “no matter how long she is based her she’ll always be the dumb American.” If that is true for her then I can only imagine how much I’ll miss of the nuance, the beauty, of the moments and events of the coming weeks.

Yet perhaps the metaphor, or example, of this lies, of all things, in photo voltaics. PV cells, the “active ingredient” in solar power, are inefficient. They capture 20 – 30% of available energy from sunlight. That’s one of the knocks on them. But that is that much more than they’d capture if they weren’t deployed at all, and the very fact of their use drives researchers to explore how to make them more efficient, less expensive and thus more widely utilized. If I capture only 20 – 30% of the available energy and information available to me in these next three weeks, that’s still that much more than I’d find were we not here at all.

The real question though is not in how much we take from this experience, but in how much we give back to it. How much, in the language of solar power, will we “give back to the grid?”
A tour is, or should be, different from a concert experience. In many ways, but one of them lies in this question of interactivity. We’ve worked hard not to have a “Holiday Inn” experience. Too often you hear travelers say, upon returning from an overseas (or domestic) experience, that they “went to the airport, got on a plane, spent X hours on a plane, got off a plane, went through customs, got in a charter bus, went to the (Holiday Inn) hotel, had meals in the hotel, meetings in the hotel, slept in the hotel, got back on the charter bus, returned to the airport, got on another plane and went home.” It all could have happened around the corner from home except for the expense, the jet lag, bad airline food and requirement that they spend much of their time in a airplane seat which could reasonably have been designed as a coercion device.
And with that I might as well try to coerce my body to sleep in said itty-bitty-teeny-tiny back row of the airplane seat. More to come.

6:07am. Over Italy.

My seat-mate, father of one with a second due in a month, works for the Jordanian government in non-proliferation. He is Jordanian/Brazillian and speaks English, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese. His home is 20 minutes from the Mountain from which Moses looked into Israel. “You’ll like Jordan” he said to me some hours ago. “The people are very kind.”

One of the first acts of kindness in that way came simply and directly from him. As I was staring out the window at the lights below (probably of Nova Scotia given how few they were and how quickly they simply gave way to blackness) he tapped me on the shoulder and said “you must tell them that this is something they cannot do in the Middle East. It is considered very rude.” I looked where he pointed and found a pair of pointed bare feet propped up on the headrest of another passenger (albeit one of ours) a row in front of them. The physics of figuring out how to get one’s feet from under the seat to above it without breaking bones aside, it was one of those “uh-oh” moments. Granted this would be rude any and everywhere, but it reminded me simply that we have a lot to learn and that there will be many mistakes along the way. I hope that we’ll have many seat-mates on the journey who will point out that which is obviously a mistake but also that which would seem appropriate at home but is not in another land and in another culture. The great danger is always that people say nothing, assuming that you are either A) rude, B) disrespectful or C) both. Guidance matters.

My seat-mate is returning from his own “Holiday Inn” experience in the States. Five days on the ground in meetings somewhere in the South that took him two days to get to. Amman – JFK – Atlanta Hartsfield – Tennessee and then bus to a hotel. But he, and his delegation, are doing something very important – building communication and cooperation government-to-government with the Obama Administration with the idea of stopping the flow of nuclear materials before they get across borders and out into the open ocean. That level of forward deployment makes great sense, and its not surprising to hear that the Jordanian Government, of which I hear day in and day out so many good things, is a factor in it. And, given the geography, it’s essential.

He reminds me that my name, Paul, is an ancient one. In Arabic it is Paulus. It is this in Latin as well, and that, in turn, reminds me that we are touching down soon in the most ancient lands, the most important lands to a Westerner, in the world. Yes, China and many other places scattered around the globe are equally old, or older, but none bear the power, the history, of the Middle East, the fertile crescent and the Holy Land. This is the land of legend, the geography which defines to this day three great monotheistic cultures, all of which share a common origin. What is it to live 20 minutes from where Moses gazed into the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert? (my seat-mate was equally astonished to learn that I work 10 minutes from the Obama White House) What is it to live in a city where the ruins of Roman civilization and occupation are around the corner or under your feet? Christopher (our rehearsal director and resident choreographer whose dances play the pivotal role in our success here) and I were sitting a few weeks back in an enormous Starbucks in the bowels of the Empire State Building talking about the uniqueness of New York, or its palpable energy and of that sense, from the moment the train pulls into Penn Station (the ruins of Penn Station) that you are someplace electrified, charged the way the air is charged when lightning is at play in the sky. I wonder if the air in Jerusalem will feel different from all other air that way.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, under the Monarchy of King Abdullah, son of the late King Hussein, is wedged in between Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Talk about a hot seat. If you’d like a recipe for a country which should be at the nexus of instability it would seem to be this one. But its not, and it reminds me that it’s possible to create stability out of all the ingredients that could, and often should, lead to chaos. Jordan has escaped Lebanon’s fate, survived an astonishing influx of refugees from Iraq (2.5 million by some estimates), made peace with Israel, kept its standing in the Arab world and managed, despite being one of the most water-poor nations in the world, to become a destination point on so many levels.

7:35am DC time. 2:35 Amman time. Over Albania.

I can see on the map projected above us, charting our destination, the city of Sarajevo. Of all the cities I have been in my life, that one lingers the most. While I might long to live in Venice, Sarajevo echoes through every day for me still, even two years after leaving it, and after only three days in it.

“You have no idea how many American boys died in Iraq,” my seat-mate said. “It has been terrible to watch this.” The War is still very much in the air, even on an airplane.

4:00pm Amman time.

Cyprus is in the distance, over the left wing and under a bank of clouds. Ahead, just at the horizon, is Israel. Passing the coastline you think of all the ships, all the caravans, all the people who have landed on those shores, or fallen short of landing on those shores, traversed those lands and sands, and the endless history that lies beneath the plane. We’re over Tel Aviv. It swirls around, less geometric than a typical American city. And then, in an instant, we’re above the West Bank. It’s impossible to describe how startling, and how sudden, the visual realization of how tiny a country is Israel. One moment you’re above the Mediterranean, and almost before you have taken in that you are above Israel you are out of it. And the landscape changes as suddenly, from flat to hilly, from marginally green to dusty brown. The Jordan Valley snakes into view, just slightly verdant, and the idea of crossing the Jordan comes back to mind. It seems a stream, not a river, tiny and trickling, not running. Great rivers in the States conjure up the Mississippi or the Snake, the pre-dammed (or damned) Colorado, even the Hudson. This is Rock Creek, yet it is a defining body in a defining region.

8 miles. There is a place where the Israel of 1947 is only 8 miles wide. In an airplane – a passenger jet flying at 500 miles an hour –¬ you pass over it in a minute. 60 seconds over an entire country. That’s the White House to Bethesda.

And then there is the desert.

From the first outreach show on Tuesday...


Despite being here now since Sunday, this is the first moment where a few seconds of downtime have coincided with access to the internet. So, briefly, we are waiting to head to the Childrens Museum (an incredible place) for a day of "Jungle Books." Sitting now in the van and getting ready to head out.....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The art of the tour (2)

The elegant poster from the US Embassy in Amman, Jordan highlighting CityDance's April 29 concert in Amman.

The art of the tour

The official Zakharef in Motion poster for the upcoming tour of Jordan. That's our own Giselle Alvarez in the main image....

70 hours

by Paul Gordon Emerson

We leave for Jordan in less than 70 hours.

The defining speech in American politics on the importance of the arts is on my mind in the days leading up to CityDance's departure for three weeks on tour in the Middle East. That speech, by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is one I quote often. I take it as inspiration, as motivation and as a sign and signal that the right President can redefine America at home as well as abroad by his words and by the deeds those words inspire in his countrymen. We have a man in the White House, which is three blocks from our office in downtown DC, and which I walk past several times a week, who seems to have a similar commitment to that of JFK. It's a propitious moment to be stepping onto an airplane as a cultural ambassador, particularly when the disembarkation point is in perhaps the most historic place on Earth -- the Middle East, and cities that echo down the ages -- Jerusalem, Nazareth and modern day capitals Amman, Ramallah and Abu Dhabi.

Mr. Kennedy's speech, a eulogy to Robert Frost delivered at Amherst College in 1963 less than a month before his assassination, provided a platform for the President to speak to the meaning of the arts, set out fundamental tennents that should, and must, guide us today.

He said this, "I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction."

(The full text of the President's speech can be found here.)

As we prepare to touch down in the Middle East, these words remind me that art can speak in ways that politics cannot, that citizens of a country can represent that country through their dance, their music, their language and transcend what is "official" with what is human. They remind me that the President's dream "of an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but or its civilization as well, is in our hands now to realize in a part of the world as deeply politicized as any.

Over these next weeks this blog, sometimes through text, sometimes through video and music, will recount the outcomes and imaginings of the CityDance tour. I hope it will prove to be of value.