September 19, 2008

Dancing with racists

Alvin Ailey Dance Company went to Israel this last month, ignoring the Palestinian Boycott call. Sad as it is, the full ironies of this story are even sadder.

The dance company, founded in 1958, was Ailey's response to his own experience of white racism in the U.S. and Ailey's work has always been politically conscious. As Ailey said "If you live in the elite world of dance, you find yourself in a world rife with racism." But part of the contradictions of struggling against racism through cultural work is that success requires accommodations and finding ways to both challenge and serve racism at the same time. Ailey's company was for example one of the first group that toured South East Asia on State Department funds, thus helping U.S. imperialism in the very beginning of the U.S. engagement in Vietnam. It would be surprising if Ailey's mental illness, self-medication and premature
death were unconnected with the stress of dealing with racism and succeeding under its terms.

As if to answer the unvoiced (or at least unreported) question "why perform here?" Judith Jamison, Alvey's successor at the helm, told the Israeli press:

"We are artists and will always be in your face, no matter what....We are here to irritate you, to change your mind and make you think." (Haaretz, Sept. 17, 2008)

Unfortunately, this is an example of bad faith. The reason why the dance company is in Israel is because it pays. The transaction goes like this. The spectators pay the artist for mild provocations that make them "think," i.e. consider universal problems such as mortality, love, and even racism, but in "complex", "irresolvable" ways. The artist provides the audience an affirmation of the latter's class and cultural superiority which is evident in the latter's enlightened willingness to be so irritated, all the while allowing them not to think about all those "problems" whose improvement might require real sacrifice from them. Problems such as....the apartheid system that pays for these refined pleasures in Tel Aviv.

There are of course opportunities for artists to break the limits of these transactions. But these require some more serious thought than Jamison is ready to entertain. What, for example, would it mean to make the audience think, when the audience is composed of those most benefiting from Israeli Apartheid? At least, in order to change someone's mind one needs a specific intention. How can you change someone's mind when you can't even express what it is that you want to convey? Had she been serious, Jamison could have for example told the audience she'll perform in Tel Aviv when half of the people in the hall would be Palestinians from Nablus and Dheishe. Alas, that would provoke the kind of irritating thinking that audiences boo.

In a final twist of irony, a dancer from the company with a Muslim name was taken aside while checking to fly out of Ben-Gurion Airport. The security personnel thought nothing of asking the dancer to dance for them to prove his or her story. Take a moment to imagine this utterly offensive scene.

The officer wanted to know that the dancer was "really a dancer" and not the "security threat" reflected in the name and skin color. Had the security officer belonged to the same social class as Tel Aviv's dance afficionados, that extra dance at the airport would have been superfluous.

UPDATE: Omar Barghuoti knows more about the story than I and his article corrects a few factual errors in the post above.

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