Ever since I discovered dance as a young feminist and women's studies major at Beloit College, I have been trying to combine dancemaking with my passion for social inquiry. This is a challenging endeavor often plagued with failures in aesthetics, content or execution, but it is something I can't give up. I probably should have been a playwright, but dance was quite seductive with its synergy of mind and body and beautiful (inside and out) people. After over a decade of trying to marry these two passions, I have re-calibrated my expectations, aiming to raise questions and dialogue about important things -- to shed a little light on the darker elements of humanity. Seeing as I spend so much time and energy making dance, I use the choreographic process as vehicle through which to learn more about the world, to answer some burning questions.
Below I offer some background and resources for our 2011 work, In Whole or in Part, which we are performing in Chicago this weekend. As I tried to communicate in the program notes, the piece is not meant to be a historical account or representation of genocide, but rather an exploration of some critical themes -- political and social power, empathy, indifference and human violence. We are still processing the experience of making and performing this work and will do a follow-up blog entry later this fall.
I started research for In Whole a bit by accident in 2006. While teaching in the Pedagogy Department of the Hungarian Dance Academy in Budapest, I commuted daily to the Jewish Quarter. A gorgeous neighborhood steeped in history and heaviness, the Jewish Quarter is home to the largest synagogue in Europe and the ghosts of the 200,000 victims of the Budapest Ghetto during the Holocaust. After a historical walking tour of the Quarter a friend and I planned a trip to Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Although I was pleasantly charmed by the architecture, hot cider and pierogis of Krakow, our visit to the memorial and museum had a bigger impact -- a life-changing one actually. The museum and memorial should be experienced in person, but here is a virtual tour and photo gallery (I highly recommend the "Evidence of crimes" photo album). I have been processing my experience at the museum for six years now, and still can't wrap my head around it.
In 2007 one of my best friends was working in Rwanda doing HIV/AIDS education. I wanted to learn a little more about where she was living and picked up Philip Gourevitch's We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories From Rwanda, an account of the Rwandan Genocide. The facts of the Rwandan Genocide alone are staggering, but Gourevitch's book is, well, life-changing. I purchased it for the dancers in preparation for this rendition of In Whole. Here is a link to an interview wtih Gourevitch. Also, a reading response from KC&D dancer Emily Miller:
The images I recall of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, while listening to NPR in the car with my parents, were facts about of two warring factions, the Tutsis and the Hutus (no one in the West was admitting it was a “genocide” yet) who were equally destructive to each other for some unknown century-old hatred, some squabble over land or religion like the Jews and Palestinians; There was no blood in my images. I was 8. I had never seen someone killed, even on television. Now, at 26, after finishing We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch, I am more baffled than ever. I can imagine the killing now, though only cinematically, still never having seen someone take a final breath. The act of reading the book has presented a bit of a reality crisis for me. Here I am in comfort, belly full, clothed, roof over my head, reading a book about the systematic decimation of a people across the world less than ten years ago, something that really happened, and trying to relate… or at least to understand… any of it.
In this country, one can and is expected to logically comprehend genocide without emphasizing with it because things like that don’t happen to us directly. The often decades long mess of politics, limbs, foreign influences, innards, weapons, economics, families, religion, propaganda, viscera, categorization, and death after death after death is reduced to a neat and formal sentence for us, United Nation’s 1948 definition: “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group…” The first difficulty in relating for me is in the wording. White Americans especially are hesitant to consider themselves ethnic or racial. We are normal. It is best to remain uninvolved. But what group? Where are the parties responsible and implicit in these descriptions? My country to which I am accountable, is supposed to be the hegemon. This is my country’s responsibility. I am my country’s citizen. This is my responsibility. I think.
Gourevitch writes of visiting an uncovered mass grave and now memorial in Nyarubuye, Rwanda, “I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful…” In the wake of initial disappointment the US’s all too familiar inability do the right thing, the inevitable awe takes over. How did this happen? At least 800,000 Tustis were murdered by Hutus in cold blood in just 100 days. That’s an average of 5 people a minute… by machete. And yet it happens again and again in history. Even being of Jewish decent (if one can be descended from a religious group) I cannot relate in any substantial way. I can read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or any personal account uncomfortably, listen to a survivor’s story and be moved to tears as I did in Junior High School, visit Auschwitz or any Holocaust memorial, and I can sympathize, imagine, but I cannot empathize. I wasn’t there.
Films like John Madden’s “The Debt” give us a finite and glorified version of events, heroes and villains, and we are entertained. We pay money to be entertained by a distanced and distilled one-dimensional reality on a screen that we can walk away from. The oddest part about reading the book was being distracted by enjoying the writing. I enjoyed the words, the sentence structure, the way micro and macro were woven. I enjoyed reading about a different culture. I enjoyed reading this book, which is about the decimation of a people. I enjoyed reading about the decimation of people. I’m not sure how to feel about that. I should be horrified but I’m not positive I feel anything of substance because I can walk away from all of this if it’s too uncomfortable. I can close the book, which will end anyway whether I like it or not. I can put down the newspaper and turn off the TV. I can walk out of a movie. But the reality of genocide continues. As the recycled American consciousness moves exponentially faster and becomes ever shinier, I begin to wonder what a meaningful personal experience is.
In addition to reading We wish..., the dancers and I visited the Illiniois Holocaust Musuem & Education Center in Skokie, IL (IHMEC) as part of our research. This museum is an incredible resource just up the Edens Expressway from Chicago. I am particularly impressed by their genocide bibliography and their simple, articulate suggestions for awarenes and activism.
Quite obviously, this is not at all easy to talk about or relate to, particularly from my/our perspective of privilege (national, racial, economic). I feel as if I am just now scratching the surface with this research. My ultimate goal with In Whole or in Part is to generate questions and dialogue -- dialogue about the ways in which we operate in the world, about violence, coummunity, aggression and responsibility. Thank you for engaging with us. We recognize that the new Bourne movie would have been a lot more fun this weekend.