Among the work featured in the exhibition Pop América, 1965–1975, running at Northwestern University’s Block Museum in the Chicago suburb of Evanston through December 8 is, above: Antonio Dias, “The Illustration of Art / Uncovering the Cover-Up,” 1973. Screen print and acrylic on canvas, 35.82 x 53.54 inches (91 x 136 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler, New York, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. © Antonio Dias. The Newsweek cover — dated May 28, 1973 — features “Senator Sam” Ervin, chair of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices then investigating the White House cover-up of the 1972 break-in of Democratic campaign offices in the Watergate Hotel, which hearings might have lead to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon had he not resigned. 20 years earlier, Ervin had been appointed by then vice president Nixon to a committee charged with investigating Senator Joseph McCarthy. For more on presidential impeachments — and McCarthy — click here.
by I.F. Stone
Copyright 1963 I.F. Stone
First published in I.F. Stone’s Weekly on December 21, 1953 with the headline “Bleak Landscape of the Resistance” and collected in Stone’s “The Haunted Fifties,” published in 1964 by the Merlin Press, Ltd., in the chapter “A Few Who Fought Back.” Above headline ours, as is the selection of the two citations below. Our publication dedicated to Lewis Campbell, who had his students, of whom PB-I was later one, performing Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 1975.
“‘It’s the worst witch-hunt in political history.”
— President Donald Trump, responding to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, San Francisco)’s announcement yesterday that the chamber would be launching a formal inquiry into the possibility of impeaching him.
“Have we learned so little?”
— I.F. Stone
CHICAGO — Walsh’s Hall at 104 Noble Street might have been the scene of the Hunky wedding in Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.” The hall lies in the Polish area, one of those incomparably dreary Chicago working-class districts which sprawl out across the bare plain, miles away from the opulence of Lakefront and Loop. The building is a three-story walk-up, on the top floor of which is the “hall,” a barn of a place, with a stage at one end and a small, faintly and grotesquely Moorish balcony at the other. High columns intended to be ornamental line the wall on either side; they appear to be ordinary cast-iron waterpipe stood on end by some plumber aspiring in his spare time to architecture. The windows are long and narrow. Through them, even under a cloudless sunny sky, the wintry Chicago landscape managed to look gray and bleak — row on row of ill-matched dirty brick and unpainted façades with gaps of dismal backyard in which stood a few forlorn trees.
The hall was freshly hung with blue and white banners — “The Bill of Rights Belongs to All,” “Stop Police State Terror Against Foreign Born Americans,” “Public Hearings on the Lehman-Celler Bill.” On the stage, against the faded green trees of what appeared to be a set left over from some forgotten performance of “As You Like it,” a big benevolent Brünhilde of a woman, six feet tall with gray hair, grandmotherly expression, and one of those round unmistakable Russian Jewish faces, was reading aloud Eisenhower’s campaign pledge to revise the McCarran-Walter [Immigration & Nationality] Act. The woman was Pearl Hart, a Chicago lawyer famous through the Midwest for a lifetime of devotion to the least lucrative and most oppressed kind of clients.
This was the opening session of a National Conference to Repeal the Walter-McCarran Law and Defend Its Victims, sponsored by the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, one of the last functioning Popular Front organizations.
At that early morning hour the seats beside the long wooden tables set up in the hall were but half filled. That such a meeting should be held at all was something of a miracle. The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born is on the Attorney General’s list. It is now involved in proceedings before the Subversive Activities Control Board to compel the Committee’s registration under the McCarran Act as a Communist-front organization. Its devoted executive secretary, Abner Green, a tall, lean man with the kind of long cavernous face El Greco painted, served six months in jail after refusing to hand over the organization’s records to a federal grand jury in July, 1951. The Secretary of the local Los Angeles committee, Rose Chernin, was unable to attend because she is under bond in denaturalization proceedings. The secretary of the Michigan committee, Saul Grossman, who was present in Chicago, goes on trial in Washington this week for contempt of Congress in refusing to hand his records over to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Despite this, about 300 delegates from 16 states had arrived, some from as far as Seattle and Los Angeles, and 150 more were to follow. They seemed, considering the circumstances, an extraordinarily cheerful lot. But looking at them during the day one was fascinated by several observations. The first was that the audience was a forest of gray heads, almost entirely made up of elderly folk — those who appeared young in that gathering were, when one looked at them more closely, seen to be middle-aged. This is unfortunately true of most radical meetings in America nowadays; it is as if those with their lives still ahead of them are too cautious or cowed to appear at such affairs. What struck one next about the gathering was the absence of foreign accents — with few exceptions one heard American speech indistinguishable from that of the native-born. Assimilation has done its work and relatively few new immigrants are coming in. One has also began to notice that though the deportation drive hits the labor unions hard, there were no labor union representatives present, other than men from a few so-called “progressive” locals. The left labor leaders were conspicuous by their absence; the Taft-Hartley oath made their appearance at the meeting of a blacklisted organization too hazardous.
Not so many weeks ago the case of an Air Force officer named Radulovich attracted national attention. He was about to be blacklisted as a security risk because his father and sister were supposed to have Communist views or connections. Edward Murrow put the case into a brilliant TV show and the Secretary for Air finally cleared Radulovich. But this comparative handful of elderly folk in Chicago were fighting a last-ditch battle for a thousand and one other Raduloviches arrested — as the elder Radulovich may be — for deportation. This Committee, just 21 years old, is the only one of its kind.
On the eve of the conference, the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born was given the treatment. The local Hearst paper published a smear attack and telephoned the Committee’s various sponsors and scheduled speakers in an effort to frighten them off. The campaign failed. Among those who spoke at the banquet in that same hall that night were Professor Louise Pettibone Smith, Professor Emeritus of Biblical History at Wellesley; Professor Robert Morss Lovett, and Professor Anton J. Carlson, the University of Chicago’s famous physiologist, who had not intended to speak but changed his mind after a call from the Hearst press. The sight of these three aged academic Gibraltars of liberalism was inspiring, but again it was sad to note that the distinguished speakers — like the audience — were elderly.
An amazingly large proportion of the victims, too, are elderly. In his comprehensive report, Abner Green pointed out that of 300 non-citizens arrested in deportation proceedings, almost one third — 93 in all — are over the age of 60 and have lived in this country an average of 40 to 50 years. The kind of sick and aged folk being hauled out of retirement for deportation as a political menace to this country would be ludicrous if it did not entail so much tragedy. Two cardiac patients, Refugio Roman Martinez and Norman Tallentire, died of heart attacks in deportation proceedings. The economist and writer, Lewis Corey, long an anti-Communist, died September 16 at the age of 61 in the midst of deportation proceedings begun against him because he was a Communist 30 years ago. In California, a Mrs. Mary Baumert of Elsinore, now 76 years old, was arrested last month for deportation although she had lived here 51 years. In Los Angeles on November 4, Mr. and Mrs. Lars Berg, 69 and 67 respectively, were locked up on Terminal Island for deportation to their native Sweden; they have been American residents since 1904. One Finn arrested for deportation has lived here since he was three months old!
As in the days of the Inquisition, the Immigration and Naturalization Service [the predecessor to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] and the FBI are engaged in using fear to recruit informers, even informers against their own kin. A striking case was that of Francesco Costa of Rochester, New York, arrested for deportation to Italy at the age of 83 because he refused to provide information to the Justice Department that could be used to deport his son, Leonard, to Italy. A triple squeeze play was brought to bear on Clarence Hathaway, once editor of the Daily Worker. When he declined to be used as an informer, denaturalization proceedings were brought against his wife, Vera. Her brother, William Sanders, 55, an artist who had never engaged in politics, was himself arrested after he refused to give testimony against his sister. Sophie Gerson, wife of Simon W. Gerson, one of those acquitted in the second Smith Act trial of New York Communist leaders, was arrested for denaturalization to punish her husband.
By a political Freudian slip, no mention was made at the conference of one of the worst cases of this kind. In the fall of 1952, Earl Browder and his wife were indicted for perjury in her original immigration proceedings and in February of this year Mrs. Browder was arrested for deportation. These punitive actions followed a warning from Bella Dodd to Earl Browder that he had better show some sign of “cooperation.” Though the ex-Communist leader in lonely poverty has withstood the temptations of the rewards which would be his were he to sell his “memoirs” to the FBI and the magazines, little consideration has been shown him. This reflects the savage unfairness with which the left treats its heretics, however honorably these heretics behave.
The deportations drive cuts across every basic liberty. 15 editors associated with the radical and foreign language press have been arrested for deportation or denaturalization, including Cedric Belfrage of the National Guardian, Al Richman of the West Coast People’s World, and John Steuben of The March of Labor. The foreign language editors arrested are elderly folk editing papers which are dying out as the process of assimilation steadily cuts into the number of Americans who still read the language of “the old country.” Almost one third of those arrested for deportation are trade union members or officials. Ever since the [labor leader Harry] Bridges cases began (the government shamelessly is about to launch a fourth try), the use of deportation as a weapon against labor militants has been overt and obvious. Cases are pending against James Matles and James Lustig of the United Electrical Workers and against the wife of William Senter, of St. Louis, another U.E. official, now up on Smith Act charges.
One of the leading victims of the current drive, Stanley Nowak, was present in Chicago. After 10 years as a Democratic member of the Michigan State Legislature, part of this time as floor leader, he is facing denaturalization proceedings. This Polish-born legislator played a role in the organization of the automobile industry and was first elected to the legislature in 1938 from the West Side area of Detroit, a Ford worker constituency. Similar charges 10 years ago (“Communist and anarchist sympathies”) were dismissed with an apology by then Attorney General Biddle but have been revived under the McCarran-Walter Act.
The most numerous and widespread abuses have occurred in the treatment of Mexican-Americans. Reports to the conference from Los Angeles pictured terror and lawlessness — the use of roadblocks and sudden raids on areas in which persons of Mexican origin live, the invasion of their homes without warrants, the exile to Mexico of native-born Americans of Mexican parentage. The Mexican-American community is kept steadily “churned up” to maintain it as a source of cheap labor in constant flux. Green reported that during the first six months of 1953 more than 483,000 persons were deported to Mexico — while almost half a million others were being brought in for low paid agricultural work.
The government is using “supervisory parole” to harass and intimidate radicals who cannot be deported because no other country will accept them. Three Communist leaders convicted under the Smith Act, Alexander Bittelman, Betty Gannett, and Claudia Jones, out on bail pending appeal, were summoned to Ellis Island recently. They were told that they were being put under supervisory parole, must report once a week, submit to physical and psychiatric examination, abandon all political activity and give information under oath as to their associations and activities. They are challenging the order in the courts.
Last March 17 Attorney General Brownell made a particularly vulgar St. Patrick’s Day speech to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick — their parents once the target of similar anti-alien hysteria. In this he announced that 10,000 citizens were being investigated for denaturalization and 12,000 aliens for deportation as “subversives.” Action on this scale would dwarf the notorious deportation raids of the early twenties.
The suffering in terms of broken families and disrupted lives is beyond the most sympathetic imagination. As serious is the moral degradation imposed by spreading terror. People are afraid to look lest they be tempted to help, and bring down suspicion on themselves. This is how good folk in Germany walked hurriedly by and shut their ears discreetly to telltale screams. The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born is fighting to keep America’s conscience alive.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’) sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of 2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books from around the world by 150 artist-critics, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)
What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)
On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.
By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2008, 2019 Omar Barghouti
To celebrate more than two decades of telling stories not told elsewhere , the DI has been revisiting its archives. Have conditions changed at all since Omar wrote this piece? For a Palestinian perspective, check Diana Butto’s recent article in The Nation, published ahead of last week’s Israeli parliamentary elections, and her post-election report on Democracy Now. To read our re-post of Aimee Ts’ao’s 2006 interview with Israeli-American choreographer Ohad Naharin, review of his Batsheva Dance Company, and lesson in his Gaga dance method, click here. To check Omar’s profile of Palestinian dancer Sharaf DarZaid, click here .
JERUSALEM — Israeli security officers at Tel-Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport Tuesday forced an African-American member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — by far the best-known touring company in the United States — to perform twice for them in order to prove he was a dancer before letting him enter the country with the company, the dancer told the Associated Press as reportred by MSNBC. But even after he complied, one of the officers suggested that Abdur-Rahim Jackson change his name. Jackson felt humiliated and “deeply saddened,” according to an Ailey spokesperson, particularly because his Arab/Muslim sounding first name, given to him by his Muslim father, was the reason that he was the only member of his company subjected to this typical Israeli ethnic profiling.
While still officially illegal in the U.S., ethnic profiling, described as “racist” by human rights groups, is widespread in Israel, at entrances to malls, public and private buildings, airports, etcetera. Israeli citizens and permanent residents with Arab names — or often just Arab accents — are commonly singled out for rough, intrusive and glaringly humiliating “security” checks. When I, an Israeli-ID holder, travel through the Tel Aviv airport, for instance, I always get stickers with the number “6” stamped on my passport, luggage and ticket. Israeli Jews, in comparison, get “1” or “2.” A “6” leads to the most thorough and degrading check of luggage and person. The smaller figures, in comparison, mean you get whisked through security with just an x-ray scan of your luggage. A couple of years ago, people like me used to get a bright red sticker, while Israeli Jews got light pink or similarly “benign” colors. Some astute Israeli officials must have been alerted that color-coding passengers according to their ethnicity and/or religion was too overtly apartheid-like, so they switched to the supposedly “nuanced” number coding. No wonder Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop and anti-Apartheid leader Desmond Tutu described Israeli practices as constituting a “worse” form of apartheid — it is far more sophisticated than the original version.
The Alvin Ailey troupe is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a multi-nation tour starting in Israel. Despite the above incident, the show was scheduled to go on as scheduled Thursday, and the company did nothing substantial to even protest this discriminatory policy to which one of its members was subjected, notwithstanding artistic director Judith Jamison’s statement to Haaretz newspaper that “We are here to irritate you, to make you think.” This only enhances Israel’s impunity. More crucially, by its very performance in Israel, regardless of whether one of its members was targeted by Israeli ethnic profiling or not, the group has violated the cultural boycott called for by Palestinian civil society since 2004 against Israel due to its persistent violation of international law and fundamental human rights.
Two years after that initial boycott call, a large majority of Palestinian artists and cultural workers appealed to all artists and filmmakers of good conscience around the world “to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel, to mobilize immediately and not allow the continuation of the Israeli offensive to breed complacency.” As with the boycott of South African cultural institutions during apartheid, international cultural workers and groups are urged by their Palestinian colleagues to “speak out against the current Israeli war crimes and atrocities.” Many internationally recognized artists and intellectuals heeded the Palestinian appeal for boycott; those included John Berger, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, the Irish artists union, Aosdana, and Belgian dance company Les Ballets C. de la B. The latter published a statement defending the cultural boycott as “a legitimate, unambiguous and nonviolent way of exerting additional pressure on those responsible.”
In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”
If one were to replace “Republic of South Africa” with the “State of Israel,” the rest should apply just as strongly. Israel today, 60 years after its establishment through what prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes as a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a large majority of the indigenous Palestinian population, still practices racial discrimination against its own “non-Jewish” citizens; it still maintains the longest military occupation in modern history; it still denies millions of Palestinian refugees their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and properties; and it still commits war crimes and violates basic human rights and tenets of international humanitarian law with utter impunity.
Some may argue that, from their viewpoint, art should transcend political division, unifying people in their common humanity. They forget, it seems, that masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I recall the wise words of Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Center Against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed on freedom of expression, saying: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms… to the African majority… should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”
Humanity — and above all human dignity — is at the core of many of the works of Alvin Ailey. His company, and indeed all other artists and cultural entities that care about human rights and realize that art and moral responsibility should not be divorced at any time, are called upon by their Palestinian colleagues and public at large not to perform in Israel until justice, freedom, equality and human rights are established for all, irrespective of ethnic, religious, gender or any other form of identity. This is what the arts and academic (Ailey co-directs a degree program at Fordham University) community did as their contribution to the struggle to end apartheid rule in South Africa. This is precisely what they can do to end injustice and colonial conflict in Palestine. Only then can dancers named Abdur-Rahim, Fatima, Paul or Nurit be viewed and treated equally, without any profiling.
Omar Barghouti is a freelance choreographer, cultural analyst and founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel .
By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2006, 2019 Aimee Ts’ao
From the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager Archives, first published on November 10, 2006. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, and books from around the world by 150 artist-critics, including Aimee Ts’ao, e-mail email@example.com . Pull-quote from Hendrix added by PB-I.
“Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion.”
— Ohad Naharin
“I used to live in a roomfull of mirrors.
All I could see was me.
Well I took my spirit and I crashed my mirrors
Now the whole world is there for me to see.”
— Jimi Hendrix, as sung by the Pretenders
SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes it is not just the performance of a choreographic piece that has an impact, but also the serendipitous events surrounding that performance that covertly conspire to reshape one’s perceptions of that first viewing. And so my recent experience with the Tel-Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company turned out to be far richer than I could have imagined before I walked into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater for the Thursday, October 26 performance of artistic director Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” The next day, both interviewing Naharin and participating in a company warmup gave me further insight into the performance and deepened my appreciation of these exceptional artists.
Granted, I had already been to YBCA the previous Tuesday night to see two films, “Israel Dancing,” a documentary by Czech television and “Boobies,” a dance choreographed by Inbal Pinto and performed by her company. The latter was so long and eclectic, or derivative, that you could use it as the sole visual aid to teach a course on the influence of every dance and theater style of the 20th century on current work. The former featured some interesting footage of various Israeli dance companies as well as interviews with choreographers. The one moment that lodged in my mind was Naharin saying, “Everybody should dance every day, for a few minutes at least.”
Now it’s Thursday night, as I take my seat after conversing with other critics, dancers, and a couple of my teachers in the lobby. It’s quite gratifying to see so many from the local dance community in attendance. “Three” runs 70 minutes, with no intermission. There are three sections (hence the name), which I later learn by searching online are called Bellus (beauty), Humus (earth) and Secus (‘otherwise’ or ‘to the contrary’ in the Latin legal definition; “this…not this” in Naharin’s more poetic rendering). They can be performed separately as well as together, I also read.
The opener, Bellus, is danced to a number of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” recorded by Glenn Gould. (I confess that I am a serious admirer of the late Canadian pianist.) Basically the dance begins with a solo section, then a second dancer enters and stands to the side. As the first dancer exits, the second continues with some of the same choreographic material as well as new phrases, while a third enters, then the second dancer exits and the third begins, and so on. There is a pas de deux and a section of ten dancers running and jumping in what I would call an imaginary primitive folk dance. In the final section the movement is both new and recycled from previous sections, but seamlessly woven together, befitting the nature of musical variations. For me, there is one exquisite section in which the dancers stand in a line across the stage facing the audience. Each performer gently raises his/her arms straight up, sometimes from the shoulder, sometimes only from the elbow, at varying times and at varying speeds. There is no readily obvious pattern, though the complexity increases; then they shift into new material that includes different gestures and epaulement (angling the shoulders), executed while they’re still in line. It is so utterly simple yet so profoundly deep and resonates with the spirit of Bach’s music in a mysterious way, visually reflecting its essence without being a slave to the notes, motifs or compositional form.
In Humus, to music by Brian Eno, nine women explore weight, balance and gravity, first in a very slow and purposeful manner then gaining momentum as they walk or run around the stage to another location for another exploration of the possibilities of their bodies.
It is the last part, Secus, that is the most substantial, both in length and choreography. Over the course of 35 minutes, to Ohad Fishof’s compilation of music (Chan Chan, Kid 606 and Rayon [mix: Stephan Ferry], AGF, Fennesz, Kaho Naa Pyar Hai, Seefeel, and The Beach Boys), the dancers go ever so gradually from the chaos of everyone doing something different to the entire ensemble moving in unison. One section has the performers in three groups. One dancer from each articulates a brief phrase or action, then goes to the end of the line while the next dancer does the step in his/her own personal way. Usually there are only two or three repetitions before the dancers move on to new movement phrases. At one point the women on the right turn their backs one at a time to the audience, jump straight up in the air and quickly pull their pants down and up, flashing ever so briefly their derrieres. The men in the middle also pull their pants down, again one by one, but facing the crowd while concealing their private parts between their legs, a la emasculated Ken dolls. In general, the choreography for Secus is brilliantly crafted, from the use of space, to the permutations and combinations of movement phrases and finally to the ominous ensemble marching around the stage, hunched over, grabbing the air and chanting the word “welcome” as the lights dim.
Rarely do I see such emotionally powerful dancers. They are not mere automatons replicating steps. They touch us in a profoundly human way because their movement is born from intensely personal depths.
Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” Gadi Dagon photo copyright Gadi Dagon and courtesy San Francisco Performances.
The next morning I meet Naharin at his hotel for an interview. We find a quiet corner in the atrium on the mezzanine and settle in. As we talk for more than half an hour, what follows are only a few main points of our conversation:
Aimee Ts’ao: You seem to resist being called an Israeli choreographer.
Ohad Naharin: It’s trivial information in terms of what I really do. Because [then] you put all the Israeli choreographers in one box. I think the community of choreographers shouldn’t have national, ethnic or religious connotations. I’m also an American citizen, by the way. So you can call me an American-Israeli choreographer. My grandparents were from Russia and Poland, so maybe you can call me a Russian-Polish-Israeli-American choreographer. Being Israeli is not even a race; being Israeli describes geographically where I’m from. It doesn’t tell anything about who I am or what I am.
AT: I’m reading a biography of Gertrude Bell called “Desert Queen.” She was a British woman who lived and worked in the Middle East from the 1890s through the 1920s. It’s all the same problems we still have today. Nothing has changed. It really reinforces for me that the world doesn’t really change that much in a very fundamental way.
ON: That’s reassuring too.
AT: But it’s sad on the other hand.
ON: Very sad, I agree.
(Later, responding to a follow-up question in which I ask his opinion on the Israeli occupation, the wall and Israel’s recent actions in Lebanon, he offers: “The current situation is not new, it shows ignorance on the part of our leaders and many people, and it is distorting the desire for peace. It is the same as what is going on with the current government in the USA. It is not stupidity, this ignorance is intelligent but a one-way one, in which our leaders react only to their own reflections while totally blind to what is really in front of them. It means that they are not in touch with reality — while possessing so much power they create innocent victims, unnecessary suffering, and a much less secure world.”)
AT: What made you start to dance?
ON: I don’t know exactly what you mean, but when I think of starting to dance, it’s starting to live. As long as I can remember I’m dancing. Not dancing in a classroom, but being very aware of my body, my weight, being aware of the pleasure and joy I got out of movement, of the extreme physicality and effort. I think a lot of how we dance today has to do not with just our training, it has a lot to do with how we grew up, our genes, and what we did since we were born, with our body development. Our weaknesses, our strengths, our sexuality, our intelligence, our awareness of the universe has a lot to do with how we dance.
AT: How did you arrive at developing Gaga [as Naharin calls the movement language he uses in daily company training]?
ON: In order to be able to talk about it, I have to decide to make it more systematic than it really is. I’ve decided to talk about two important points, or maybe three. The first point will be my back injury. More than 20 years ago I had a very serious back injury, where I shattered a disc and I was paralyzed in my left leg and I didn’t think I’d be able to dance. I had a serious operation, but I was already choreographing, so coming back from the injury I needed two things: to get my body to move a little bit and also to be able to give other people the keys to the way to move in my work. This process of finding keys for me and for my dancers brought me to deal with my weaknesses and efficiency of movement. I needed to be so efficient because I was so limited. I developed an awareness that had to do with finding where in my body I’m not hurting and where in my body I have unused muscles, unused movement. I discovered my explosive power, the efficiency of movement. I started to really be able to connect between pleasure and pain, and between effort and joy. At the same time I needed to articulate it because I needed to give it to myself and others. So it became a language and a method. That was one, then about ten years ago, almost as a joke I started meeting [with] a group of non-dancers, workers of Batsheva company who are not dancers [but] who wanted to dance. So I started meeting [with] a group of five people twice a week in the morning. Very quickly I realized in these meetings with non-dancers, I learned a lot about movement, movement habits, all the things I described before but in a new light because none of them had the ambition to be on stage. They just wanted to feel better, and to move better and to get stronger. So then Gaga became something that had nothing to do with performing arts, just had to do with the maintenance of your body. Healing your body, finding pleasure and joy in movement and nothing to do with ambitions to be on stage. That became a very serious thing in my life — working with non-dancers. Today we have a venue with hundreds of non-dancers who come to take Gaga classes.
AT: Is it possible for someone to start as a child and be completely trained as a dancer? Or do you need to supplement with other forms?
ON: Right now I think of Gaga as the higher education of dance. You do elementary school, high school and go to college. So Gaga is this part of your education. We do have schools which approach us to teach kids. I’m more interested [in working] with adults. This year we allowed Gaga to be in the curriculum of the performing arts school in Jerusalem. But that is for 17-year-olds and over, not for kids. All the people already have [dance] training. The important idea is to make people excel in the method they already know. It’s not to abolish or cancel or change their techniques. If someone wants to be a ballerina, then Gaga can help her to be a ballerina. You should come and take Gaga class with us. We do it before the show as a warmup.
AT: I wanted to ask you about your choreographic process. Is it something that evolved, that you started in one spot and then the more you did it, you got more ideas of how you work? Not the actual choreography, but your whole way of thinking about it.
ON: Evolved is the key word. It’s evolving. It’s a process that takes me to places I’ve never been before. Otherwise I would be bored with it. The sense of discovery is always there. I think it has a lot to do with how my relationship with my dancers evolved, too. They [have] become more and more meaningful contributors to the process, especially since we started doing Gaga as our training about four years ago.
AT: I wanted to ask about music, because it is obvious that it’s an important element for you.
ON: Yes, yes. There’s something about music and structure and order and mathematics. There is something particular about this Bach piece [“Goldberg Variations”] and the way that Glenn Gould is playing it that the beauty of it really comes from making the music very bare. It’s so beautiful without any decoration. You really feel how the structure of the piece and the rhythm and the logic of it actually can create all the emotions and transport you into this landscape. This music is also almost like the sound of a metronome. Something so clean and minimalistic about it. Somehow meditating with it brought me to create the system of lifting the arms [in the Bellus section], which is really different from the system of the music. But I still feel loyal to it somehow.
AT: You also have a sense of space.
ON: It’s space that gives me the reason I can dance. I consider the importance of space in my existence more than time. I feel time passes anyway. I have no control over time, but I have control over space. I can really change the space and create the space, but I cannot change time and I cannot create time. I’m aware of time, how long it takes to do something, and I make a decision how long I want to do something, but it’s more about how long it takes to go from one place to another and that has more to do with space than with time.
AT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
ON: Every interviewer asks me that. Yes. Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion. They have really stopped dance from developing as far as it could go without [them]. That’s for sure. Every time I come to a ballet company to choreograph, I cover the mirrors. At the beginning it is so difficult, but at the end of the process, the dancers are so grateful.
Much later the same day I arrive at the stage door of YBCA, wondering if trying to do the Gaga warmup is really such a good idea. Nearly two years ago, I was hit by a car while walking across a street. The whiplash from being thrown at least eight to ten feet still plagues me and I have had major setbacks from such minor events as picking up a flowerpot. The ballet classes I do every day are at least a known quantity and quality, but what am I really signing on for now?
On stage the company is getting notes from Naharin, and I watch the dancers run through several sections of “Three,” which I saw last night. Finally they get a 15-minute break before warmup and I continue my stretching even more as a prophylactic against re-injuring myself. I need not have worried. Gaga turns out to be very liberating. I can just tune into what my body is feeling and then figure out what it needs. I am listening deeply to what it is telling me about its limits, but it reminds me, too, that there are strengths. Watching Batsheva’s members doing Gaga also shows me why they are so powerful on stage, individually and as an ensemble. By the end of the warmup, my body feels looser and more fluid than it has for a long time. I am positively exhilarated. I’m a convert; I’m thinking about incorporating some of it into my daily routine. You might even say — I’m going ga-ga over Gaga.
Today’s publication of this excerpt is dedicated to the memory of Eileen Darby, who would have been 83 today. To read about Eileen’s extraordinary life as a Grande Dame of New York, click here. Eileen, you really hit the nail on the wall!
“The ideal is when one is able to die for one’s ideas. Politics is when one can live for them.”
— Charles Péguy, cited on frontispiece, “The Book of the Vanquished.”
“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not entirely slid into oblivion, because this book of your life exists.”
— Michel Ragon, Prologue, “The Book of the Vanquished.”
Part One: “The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon” (1899-1917)
“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make the thunder-claps work.”
— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”
“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”
–Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.
Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited below and in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures, notably Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), the Left Bank bookseller. Adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred later in “The Book of the Vanquished,” eventually broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. Raymond-la-Science, René Valet, and Octave Garnier were real members of the Bonnot Gang, the details of their denouement as recounted by Ragon accurate.
Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley flanking the Saint-Eustache church. Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, following the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before they’d debated over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his portion. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the odor of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the gathering rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.
On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.
“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”
Click here to read the rest of the excerpt, followed by a partial excerpt of the original French, on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction.