Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bags - a last story on Algeria. And Christmas.

Washington, DC, December 25, 2010

Jet lag. 

Christmas Day is a day to treasure what you have, not what you don't have. Still, there's a story here.  We don't have our production bags from tour. Any of them. We took two, and Lucie (the mop). Here in DC, 6 days after leaving for Algiers, they've all gone missing. It's the hangover from this particular tour, a story of the perils of tight schedules, of airlines (Alitalia) not on top of their communication and, still, of perspective. 

Wednesday, December 22 was our concert day in Algiers. I traveled separately from the rest of the group on the 19th because I had booked my itinerary independently (fortunately). They had the two production bags. I had Lucie. Lucie made it. The bags didn't. The pursuit of them was constricted by the protocols of Algerian customs and baggage claim. Each person with a missing bag (and on the leg there were four, two production, two personal, neither of which made it either) had to fill out the forms, present their passport and so on and so on. It took 90 minutes at the Algiers Airport on the 20th. 

Monday finished. Tuesday came and went. No bags. "They've arrived" we were told. "They'll be here at midnight." "They'll be here for you tomorrow (Wednesday)." 

Wednesday (concert day) arrived and at breakfast there were no bags. "You have to go to the airport to get them." 


"They're here. You have to go to the airport to get them." This was at 10am. The concert, scheduled for 6pm, was 8 hours away. We were due at the theater for a two-hour tech and warm-up to get organized for a show in a theater we didn't know with languages we didn't speak. That part wasn't particularly daunting. We've done it many times before. But not, you know, naked. No costumes, no music, no production equipment (floor tape, glow tape, tape measures etc). 

We were missing four bags -- two personal and two production. It's impossible to describe the journey from our hotel on the shores of the Med to the Airport. At two AM, with a police escort, its 30 minutes. At mid-day, with the ubiquitous traffic that is the most common-thread in all our travels, in full-force, it could easily be an hour-and-a-half. 

As the only non-dancer in the gang (Chris was dancing "+1" because of a shortened cast) the logic was for me to go. So we called for transport -- a term redefined by this tour, thank you very much. That meant a car, at least one person as a personal escort. And a police escort. 20 minutes go by. 30. 40. 50. At 11:30, 6.5 hours before curtain, I'm still at the hotel. 

Finally the word is given. In a car small enough that, sitting in the back seat, with two very normal sized people in the front there is literally no place to put my legs, so I stretch out length-wise. The doors close and we start to move. Very, very fast. In the space before the main traffic and roads join we wind through back roads at insane speed. The blue flash of the motorcycle strobes bounce off the windshield of our car. Cars are not meant to be as agile as a motorcycle. But we keep up. 

Into traffic. Like a plow turning soil we do what is now familiar and knife into the center, between the two lanes of traffic. The sirens go on. The sound bounces around your head and the cabin. The driver turns up the music. Hamza, our guide, puts on his headphones and, amazingly, dozes off. Outside the window the chase is on. Its raining. The green-suited cop in the front weaves and bobs and we just try to keep up, in a stick-shift constantly changing gears and an engine in "test" mode. Left lane. Right. Then, for a few miles, flying down the berm lane on the left till its cut off and we are in the right lane, then the middle, then the right, then the left and suddenly at full stop before cutting to the right and down the berm again. The lead cop (there's one behind) turns around impatiently again and again, as though to say  "what the Hell are you doing back there. Keep up." I chew my gum harder. 

We blow into the airport in an hour. Its 12:30. 

The bureaucracy of the airport is matched with an opposing force -- Hamza has never done this before. He doesn't know where to go to find the luggage. So we dash about, looking for anyone who knows anything. 15 minutes go by. Then we go the opposite way through customs and immigration, drawing endless stares but no resistance. The Alitalia counter is in sight. "You're in the wrong place. You want terminal 2." "Oh," Sharif, the man at the counter says, "by the way, only two of your bags are here."

"Where are the other two? We were told they were all here. How did they get separated? 

"And which two are they?"

"Washington is here (personal bag). Pilkington is here (production bag). One's in Rome (Morgan)."

"When does it get here."

"Midnight." (curtain would have come down five hours before it arrived, and we're supposed to be outbound at 5:45am)

"Send it back to Washington."

"You don't need it?"

"Of course we need it. But not at midnight. Send it back to Washington."

"You're sure?"

"Yes.  -- Where's the other bag? (Alvarez - who has been wearing the same clothes for three days)"

He checks his terminal.




"As in Tunisia?"

"Yes. Seems they sent it to Tunis."


"God knows." 

"When does IT get here?" 

"5:45 today. Send someone to get it."



"Cause we're on stage 15 minutes after that."


"Can we just have it wait for us here and pick it up on departure?"


We dash for Terminal 2 to get the bags. The clock ticks. Hamza, doing his best, has no idea where to go. We ask more questions. We get more confusing answers. Then, suddenly, we're inside customs again. We grab the two bags."

"Where do we re-file the claim check for the other bags."

"Terminal One."

"Why didn't someone tell us that when we were there the first time?"

"God knows."

We head back down the corridor for Terminal One. Through security, past the metal detectors. A group has formed around Sharif and a colleague. A flight has come in and many bags have gone missing. 

A lone figure stands a bit off to the side. He was there before and very, very agitated. He is in an argument with the Alitalia agents, the language shifting back and forth between Arabic and French. 

There is a lot of frustration in all the faces. 

The clock is ticking. 

Hamza pushes through and we make a new plan for the luggage, trying to confirm that the two missing bags are going to make it to Algiers or to DC. 

Finally, we bound out of the airport and find the waiting car and cops. 

The lights go on. The sirens go on. We pull out.

My face is at this point bright red with frustration. 

As we head to the highway, Hamza turns to me from the front seat.

"You saw that man there, the one to the side?"


"He has been waiting three days for his father."

"At baggage claim?"



"He's missing."

"What do you mean he's missing?"

"They can't find him."

"Well, not at baggage claim, no."

"You don't understand."

"What don't I understand. He's not going to turn up at baggage claim."

"No. This man, he's waiting for the coffin. He's waiting for the body of his father. They have lost it. They have lost the coffin. They have lost the body of his father. He has been waiting at the airport for three days for the body of his father."

Christmas is about what you have, not what you don't have. We have each other. We have our health and our loved ones. On this morning we open our presents and share our love and live our lives. My first wish this morning, as the sun came up, was that this man has found his father. 

We have, even when we think we don't, everything. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

El Din: An Answer

December 23, 2010          

Closing night in Algiers. Screwed up travel (documented all-too-well already here) leads to being at the closing night after all. The National Theater, a surprisingly charming place set deep in Colonial Algiers, built by the French, occupied by a powerful sense of national pride, embedded with the security protocols that are standard here, is the scene.

Throughout the four days of the Festival we’ve seen or been a part of there’s been a sense of earnest amateurism, of a complement of artists not entirely well chosen for their sense of what it means to be fully professional. As a two-year-old festival in its first year as one bringing artists from beyond North Africa that’s easy to excuse. It hasn’t felt particularly well-curated, a perception reinforced by the presentation of the first group on the closing night ceremony, which appears to be out of the National Ballet. The work is clichéd and an inelegant attempt to fuse ballet and Hip Hop, accomplishing neither and leaving the cast looking less than it probably really is. Your expectations diminish further.

All that has the effect of leaving you completely unprepared for the sheer power, grace, complexity and completeness of El Din, the work by French choreographer Hervé Koubi. El Din blows you right out of your seat. An all-male cast comprised of men who look like they never leave the gym for more than a few hours at a time takes its place in black. The white floor, and their white pants and fabric like an open skirt draping those pants, reveal them in the dimmest light. Something is afoot here – can it possibly redeem the perception that this is a well-intentioned yet amateurish program?

The lights begin to glow,  staged entirely in the backlit, upstage down-light that we all love to use to silhouette and make mysterious the moment. Music rises and bodies begin to bend, to meld, to stretch and to undulate. The men are bare-chested, their skin reflecting the back-light and the bounce from the floor. They face away, leaving well-toned skin and musculature as the welcome to the audience.

Your mind snaps back into place after drifting for an hour and a half. Minutes go by and the physical power of slow, liquid movements begins to lull you. And then, from nowhere, a body explodes outward, spinning on his head a dancer goes round and round at breathtaking speed.  Another leaps seemingly a dozen feet into the air, back arched and at once upside down. There is a fusion, a rare, stunningly effective fushion of the great moves of Hip Hop with the emotional embrace of modern.

This is a choreographer who knows what he’s doing and a cast of dancers who have the ability to give it to him. Their feet don’t point and you don’t care. Their lines aren’t clean and you don’t care. That’s a fixable. But the athleticism, the training in gymnastics and in the most daring of Hip Hop techniques keeps bursting out of the pack. At one moment someone is spinning 2 dozen times on his head as another leaps across the space in summersault after summersault and another executes a lift you swear you have, somehow, never seen before. Where has this guy come from?

From Company Thor in part. From a sense of invention and daring that captures a hint of Rubber Band Dance but is not about it. The North African mysticism underpinning it gives it a power and freshness and a sheer force, an elementalism, that is deeply internal. Every now and again something feels false, but then it resolves right back into the oozing/exploding force that gives it its foundation.

It’s incredibly difficult to show off the kind of moves these dancers possesses without devolving the choreography into tricks encased in a shell of “integrity.” Koubi and his dancers pull it off.

The music changes and Koubi takes the risk of using the Kronos Quartet’s “Waterwheel” from “Pieces of Africa.” Its tricky because its music which has been used to often in contemporary choreography. It risks that same cliché he has thus far eschewed.  But again he pulls it off.

The dancers are focused to the point where you have a sense that the audience does not exist for them; that they are in a mysterious box sheltered from the world inhabiting it in ways both elemental and sensual.  I know I have never seen Algerian dancers who can do what Mr. Koubi sees in his head.  These guys can.

A few nights earlier we’d been sitting on the bus together – I had no idea of him or his work, but what he described was intriguing – of coming to Algeria in search of his roots and creating a collaboration between himself and these artists.  I keep thinking “ I didn’t know they had dancers like this in Algeria.”

Koubi is on to something, and it needs to keep growing and expanding. They could be for Algeria what the great companies are for other countries.

Suddenly the reasons there’s a festival in Algeria comes into focus. The future of the scene, beyond imitation and surpassing the limits of the new field here, one obsessed with Hip Hop it seems, starts to emerge. This choreographer has an identity with these artists. Its not perfect, but you don’t care. With time and nutrients it can own the Opera Houses of the world and wake people up to Algeria.

Seeing it made all the challenges and aggravations of Algeria melt away in a moment, and leave you with that glow which great art imparts – that golden hour of light that we photographers grab up in the hour before sunset, when the world is transformed.

There’s video of Koubi’s project by a film-maker, Gaster, on Vimeo. Nice as it is it doesn’t compare to the power of the live stage, but its worth a look for a glimpse of what they’re about.  Its called Body Concrete

Koubi's website is multi-lingual and the English link is here

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. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Throughout the Middle East there is a debate raging about Western engagement. For the most part it’s not about economic engagement, but about cultural engagement. What, if anything, from the West is in the interest of the people of – and often most importantly – the government of, each of the nations which make up the muslim Middle East? How should that culture, those values and the questions they pose, be introduced to the region, city-by-city, person-by-person? What is enough and where are the questions viral and where systematically introduced?

How does art play into this?

I think of art as a given – a take-it-or-leave-it because its ubiquitous in the States. People make what they want to make – or at least they think they do.  How many times have I written about the failure of our own artists to stand up for what they believe and, instead, pander to what they “think people want” dumbing down their art and their ideas for fear of challenging viewers, for fear of being rejected in that expression, or, as is too often the case of Federal, State and Local funding, being put out there and then yanked when some Congressman raises a stink about art he or she finds “offensive.” At the end of the day art has to be about courage. 

Otherwise its wallpaper. 

When you think about the Middle East and North Africa do you think about modern dance? About Hip-Hop? You should. There's a remarkable, startling and inspiring critical mass developing in the Arab/muslim world (they're not the same thing) that centers around the courage of dance, the discovery of dance. Not folk and traditional. Modern, jazz and most of all Hip-Hop. In the past 48 hours I've seen a company from the Ivory Coast talk about the legacy of colonialism, a group from Georgia busting out youthful yet sincere Hip-Hop, a Tunisian company dancing to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings," and so much more. Whether the art is mature or not -- and for the most part its not -- is not the point. What is meaningful is that its emerging at all, and doing so with force and vibrance and courage to say what young people want to say -- and that they're being allowed to say it. It comes in the face of so many doubts and so much of it flies in the face of what we think is going on here. We're wrong. These festivals are the proof of that on endless levels. Its not black and white and its not easy. But the bottom line is its happening. 

And that's not wallpaper. Its life. And its astonishing to be a part of. 

This trip has been challenge after challenge after challenge. Right now, sitting in the lobby after our show, with photographs of the company being snapped everywhere around me, you can feel it. I can, and will, write about the insanity of this trip -- and it goes beyond anything imaginable -- but this moment is profound and loud and lovely.

They're turning off the lights. 

Time to go. 

December 21 - Algiers

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

68 degrees (farenheit) and the air is light and moist on December 21.  The sun has just faded over the western Mediterranean. The coast is about 100 yards in front of me, with palms and a coastal highway alongside and above the electrified rail system that spans the length of the country from East to West. Downtown Algiers looks so much like Marseilles that its startling. The blue and white buildings of Colonial-era France, each four or five stories tall with the classic wooden shutters that in the set-to-broil of a North African summer let in the breeze from the sea but keep out the sun. The full-length blue exterior curtains, especially on the balconies, that perform the same function but, in extending beyond the portal, also allow a sense of openness to the interior.

And, in Algiers, laundry.

Everywhere. In every window of every apartment more than a story off the ground level. Its like a Christmas tree where the trimmers went a little nuts and trimmed it with so many instruments you’re not exactly sure where the baubles stop and the tree begins. There are air conditioning units carved into the walls on many apartments, but what there clearly are not are dryers. And that’s not a bad thing.

The hanging laundry isn’t ugly – its just there. And there’s something charming and intimate in a way that everything is just “hanging out to dry.” In a country with so little a dryer, and its income drain, not to mention the insane electrical draw, is a luxury. Especially when the temperature most of the year is about the same as the interior of a dryer. I suspect you get things drier and fluffier faster letting nature do it than letting GE do it – at least here. And, of course, the first thing I think of is the power NOT consumed, and the coal and oil NOT burned in place of what the earth – and the sun – do better than anything we could possibly invent.  Dryers are the single most intense source of power consumption in the home – many, many times more than anything else. The Fridge comes next. Here, when the summers are 110 degrees, I suspect the AC takes that primacy. But the point is that dryers have become a strange requirement in the West. In the States entire communities have it written into policy, into code – no laundry can be hung out – it’s ugly.

Except it’s not (well, at least to me. I suspect there’s room for a boatload of debate about this). It’s been hanging in back yards and front windows as long as people have worn clothes and lived in shelters. Strange that sense of “tidiness and propriety” that emerges.

Old Algiers is startling on so many levels. The first of those being how green it is. From a satellite image of North Africa it’s very easy to forget that there’s a fairly deep band of green land surrounding the Med, particularly at its Western side. The desert doesn’t just make sea-fall the way it does when you go further east to Egypt, Gaza, and southern Israel.  Here it’s a lush green – a healthy green if you will. The foliage is different than in the West – in the States. Palms you expect, but not necessarily pine trees. And a whole assortment of other bushes, shrubs, trees and ground-cover.  At the hotel, at the beach, the sand and the flora mix as you’d expect, except that the tree cover runs right up to the shore, sprouting out of the dunes in ways it doesn’t in the US Coast. There’s no apparent soil, but the plants grow there – and grow tall – anyway. It’s really very beautiful and surprising, something akin to the way the buttes of Wadi Rum shoot straight up into the sky out of sand.

The second surprise is the mountains. Ignorantly I had imagined it to be flat here. But it’s anything but that. Not as extreme as Jerusalem and Amman (and definitely not as hilly as Ramallah, which is the roller coaster geography of all time for me --  insane), but very hilly, and Algiers itself is carved into the hills. You wind around them and down them as you approach the coast-line, and the buildings are hard-by and so the slopes feel even more extreme. Stairs – ancient stairs – dot the hills.

Its clear, as you come into downtown, that people have been living here a very long time. In fact, along the Algerian coast archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation dating back 200,000 years. That’s the dawn of modern humans according to the anthropological record; from the very beginning. That’s hard to imagine, really.  Habitation of that age goes back to an Africa climatologically utterly different than the one we know.

The cave painting of 10,000 years ago are of a verdant landscape with elephants and hippos and the famous paintings that run through so many caves of swimmers. The last rains fell in the Sahara somewhere between 8,500 and 7,000 years ago. Or, put another way, 95% of the way from the first habitation by modern humans to the one in place now. Imagine the changes they have seen in the earth.  Standing at the shore, looking at the soft coastline of a quiet Med, its not difficult to imagine 10,000 generations looking at the seas and understanding them to be the end of the world.  You went as far into the water as you could swim.  I wonder at the first boat to make its way into someone’s mind, that first time an nascent sailor slipped over the curve of the earth to lose all sight of land. What must that have been like?

The sheer idea that a wobble in the earth, and the height of the Himalayas, caused an entire fertile landscape stretching unimaginably far to vanish into sand is hard to comprehend. Now the Algerians have some of the great natural beauty of the world in the deep deserts of their country – the second largest geographically on the continent as I have learned while here.

I think of myself as at least modestly aware of the world. Yet coming here I am reminded that I know nothing, really, of it.  A week ago I could have found Algeria on the map easily, and could have told you it was a former French colony with a challenged history. I could have told you it was a country dominated by Islam. It had oil. Beyond that, there’s nothing.

Here, they call the last 10 years “the Black Decade.”

(more to follow)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Motorcade.....

December 21, 2010

Lets start with the obvious --- nothing, and I mean nothing, about coming to, or being in, Algiers bears any resemblance to anything any of us have done before. Forget that everyone but me just set foot on the African continent for the first time. Forget the disconnect of staying in a seaside resort with a private balcony of the Mediterranean where, within the first 10 minutes Jason was naming the cockroaches (of an apparently very, very impressive size). Forget the currency -- where 1500 dinars is $20 and where I just found a Christmas present  -- a copper bracelet -- for $2.00. Those stories go on and on and on and are really a part of so much travel in the third world. Forget, for a moment, how kind everyone is in the face of chaos that transcends any we've ever experienced regardless of what country we've gone to -- to say the festival here in Algiers is a fly-by the seat of your pants would be like saying its cold in the arctic in January. 

What starts it all over is the motorcade. The one with the motorcycle escort, and that ubiquitous European siren blaring above the endless roar of even more endless traffic jams. Try driving in a secured perimeter where the seas of vehicles part whether they want to or not and where driving in the lane of traffic flowing in the wrong direction is not anything startling. That's the part that takes you by, you know, surprise. 

Coming yesterday from the airport, where we went waiting for a loooong time for luggage that will get here sometime tonight or tomorrow (the show is tomorrow) we bolted out of the airport and you thought, perhaps, for just a moment that if you looked in the front seat you'd see Vin Diesel driving, or the dude in the Transporter movies in the escort/chase car, or any of that (right now, sitting on the front steps of the National Theater of Algeria, where the kids from the Republic of Georgia who did a hip hop show last night are b-boying on the stairs for the various cameras) -- {I'm working on the longest sentence in the english language right now, I realize}. And honestly, I've never gone that fast in a van in my life. Didn't think it was possible, really, without, you know, tipping over. 

Turns out that's the way foreigners roll here. 

On the plaza now there are people from a dozen countries who have come together for the Second International Contemporary Dance Festival of Algiers. To my left a djembe is being pounded with a rhythm somewhere between Middle Eastern and African. And the musician is a Georgian teenager who, chances are, learned it about 24 hours ago. Last night the dance company from the Ivory Coast roused the crowed with an opening celebrating the solidarity of two countries who had thrown off French rule and who, to this day, struggle with its legacy. 

We've been here a day....

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Glance

Tel Aviv
December 9, 2010

What do you seek in an artist? Why one dancer and not another? There was a magic moment today during the Kibbutz Dance Company performance at Dellal which captured that question for me. I don't know that to a non-dancer it will quite resonate, but its worth a try. 

The new work from Kibbutz is a classic example of exhaustion bringing out the artist in the technician. The dance is long, the dancers rarely rest. While it wouldn't make sense to say any one of the exceptionally talented people on stage was "better" than another, it was still true that one above all the others caught my eye. She danced outside all the physical boundaries of her choreography. Her body was, if you will, inside out. Everything exposed. 

But that's not, oddly perhaps, what I'm writing about. 

30 or 40 minutes into the dance she was, finally, at rest. Seated stage right on a stool at the edge of the stage she, and all the women in the company, were facing in. Hands on thighs, watching the men in a cataclysm of movement. It seemed clear that the choreographic note for the women was to be impassive, staring directly ahead as though not involved. She couldn't do it. Still though her head was, her eyes were absolutely burning as she followed then entire dance in front of her. She was IN it. And it wasn't simply that she was watching. It was that she was in love with it -- and with the power of each individual dancing. If someone can be cheered on simply by the way their eyes glitter, then she was cheering for them as we all do for each other in a studio in a rehearsal. She followed everything. 

And, despite herself, she smiled at one point. Something challenging in the choreography, something that must have given the men trouble at some point, went just right. And it was a celebration in her eyes and a small, subtle smile.

As the section broke up, and the men went to their own chairs, she said something to the man who took his place closest to her. It was a cheer, a congratulations, an encouragement. 

Whatever the power of the dance, or the strength of the choreography or the message in the movement, days and weeks and months from now, when I remember little of the details of that dance, this woman, her chest heaving and her bangs glued to her forehead from sweat and effort, will still be with me. I think I could, and always will, be able to draw her eyes, and and write in my thoughts that smile. 

When I think of what captivates me about a dancer, from today on, she will always be a reference point.

A moment later she was gone, hurled into the dance again.

But her glance remained. 


Tel Aviv
December 9, 2010

Some months ago an Israeli official said to me "culture is our window to the world to make people understand we are not just what appears about us in the news." The power of those words of course resonates for any artist who travels the way we do. I think all governments give lip service to the idea of using their culture, their art and artists as their ambassadors. I think none do it with the power, vision, determination and focus of the Israelis. 

The proof of that is all around me on a 75 degree December afternoon in the courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Center here in TA. Surrounded by languages from 39 different countries, in the mix of 200 different presenters who have come from, it seems, every time zone on the planet where there is land, electricity and theater, I am reminded of the sheer power of art if and when there is the weight of a country's will behind it. Dance in Israel is unique. There is, as we say, "something in the water," here that generates a volume of talent and breadth of work you find nowhere else in such concentration -- not in New York or London or Berlin. The closest I can think of is Rio, or perhaps, in a completely different way, Tokyo. But each of those cities are cultural capitals of enormous countries. Israel -- its tiny. Until you've been here there's no way to understand how tiny.  Postage stamp tiny. But in dance, its enormous. 

And here, instead of doing as we so often do in the States, and see that talent as something independent, the Israelis embrace it. Its no accident that the Festival of Dance which brings me here, "International Exposure," is under the umbrella, not of the Ministry of Culture, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Think about that for a moment. Dance as a part of an entire country's engagement with the world. A tool and technique of foreign policy. A statement of national identity. 

The sheer cost of International Exposure is hard to take in. Five days of dance, featuring a custom selected, curated list of artists who are seen to be the best in the nation, under the roof of one of the truly great centers of dance I have ever seen, the Suzanne Dellal Center. When I think about what Washington needs, what I wish our home at Strathmore could find its way to being if it grew beyond its current campus, is this Center. I imagine Dance Place, under Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley, morphing into the Dellal Center. A campus, a place where people are drawn to spend not a few minutes before and after class or performance, but the entire day. Fountains and water coursing throughout the campus in a way which soothes and settles. And energy. That part is hard to describe -- its one of those "see it to believe it," things. You just feel the vibrance of the art, in the bodies of countless dancers, in the crackle of the day. 

An Israeli friend and colleague, Rachel Erdos, who staged her dance "Alma" for us last year, speaks of the push of excellence here. Of the seemingly endless amount of talent driving each artist to be better because in the "sink or swim" of any art you have to find the new idea and the strength to push it through if you are to succeed here. In this way its difference from Washington its startling. We measure ourselves against ourselves in DC, and with rare exceptions the simple reality is we don't measure up. The challenge is to see yourself in an international context -- as a Capital City -- and to say "how do we do in DC what they have done in Tel Aviv?" I refuse to believe its impossible. 

Last night the Second Company of Batsheva, the Dance Ensemble, opened International Exposure with two classic Ohad Naharin works. Would that most companies had a first company which danced as well as Batsheva's second company. 

The afternoon is getting away -- a workshop with Ohad (one of those "only needs one name" folks) calls.