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.