Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

Sol Sokheun in costume at "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia"
 In 2001 I had a job that I loved. I worked for a performing arts presenter in Southern California. I was so happy working there that it didn't matter that my theatre was located in Long Beach - some forty miles away from my home in Topanga Canyon.

Our theatre presented a season of dance, music, and theatre performances between September and June, and our first presentation of September, 2001 was a really significant performance.

"Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia" was a touring company of classical dancers from the Royal University of Arts in Phnom Penh. They were on a 12-city tour of the US, the first American appearance of dancers from Cambodia since an ill-fated tour in 1990.

In 1975-76, the regime of Pol Pot killed, along with other intellectuals and scholars - so many of Cambodia's dancers that few were left alive to even remember the dances, disciplines, legends and techniques. Records, photographs, recorded choreography - all were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

But by 2001, a few surviving dancers, artists and ex-patriots had been able to rebuild the program at the Royal University  - amazingly, it was through oral history alone, since so much had been lost. With help of benefactors in the US, a tour showcasing the performers and the art of Cambodian dance was organized.

We booked the company for a 2-day residency of performances and dance workshops. It was perfect programming - Long Beach, California is home to the largest Cambodian immigrant community in the United States. Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 they would begin rehearsing for a performance on the 12th.

I woke up Tuesday morning a little before 6:00 am, as usual. My son was in middle school, and took the school bus from the stop at Topanga elementary school. We carpooled with five other kids, and it was my turn to drive.

As I made coffee, I turned on NPR, like always, and I heard a report that a small plane had collided with the World Trade Center.

One of my great shames is that I don't know how to work our television remote. I just can't figure it out. So I listen to the radio. But this report felt significant. So I woke up [The Man I Love] and asked him to turn on the TV because something was going on.

He turned it on just in time for us to see the second plane hit the South Tower.

But the carpool was waiting. And work. Looking back, I am surprised that I was so detached. It was a bit unreal. The kids were waiting on the corner where I always picked them up. Before everyone was buckled in, one of the moms rushed out into the road in her nightgown and robe and ran to my car window. "Will they be all right? Should we even let them go to school?" she asked.

It hadn't even occurred to me not to take them. "I don't think anything is going on here in LA," I said. "I'll be careful." And she let me go - she was probably soothed by my numb calm.

I had the radio on as we drove. NPR had switched to a CNN feed. After I the kids got out of the car, I turned the station wagon around in the cul-de-sac and pulled to the curb. I remember hearing a woman's voice wailing, "People are jumping outta the windows!" in a Brooklyn accent, and being glad the kids were not in the car. I was alone as anchor Aaron Brown said on air "There has just been a huge - huge - explosion - " as the South Tower came down.

I honestly don't remember making the decision to continue on. It didn't seem real. So I started the car and drove. While on the 405 freeway at Los Angeles International Airport, with no planes overhead, I began to realize the magnitude of what was happening.

At the theatre, the dancers was rehearsing. Radios were on in offices. People had CNN's website up on their desktops, but there was very little information available. At a staff meeting, one of my co-workers was tearful and frightened, and asked to go home. 

I just opened my mouth. "It's important for us to be professional and calm. We're hosting this company. Their home country has known terrible suffering and destruction, and now they're here in a place that's foreign to them and they must be frightened. It's like war breaking out. We have to be calm so they feel safe in our country."

I don't know whether I was responding to her, or whether I just blurted it out, as the reason for my own strange sense of calm and detachment finally became clear in my own mind. But someone else at the conference table agreed. And then others.

In the days following September 11, 2001, all across America, theatres closed. Sports events were cancelled.  TV shows were cancelled, postponed, or had altered scripts. Not only did authorities worry assembled audiences might be in danger, but also people felt it was inappropriate to present entertainment during such a troubled time. In Los Angeles, all the theatres were closed.

Except for our theatre. Our director decided to present "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia" on September 12, 2001 as scheduled. The artistic tradition that survived the horrors of Pol Pot would continue, even in our own time of horror and sadness.

World Trade Center memorial lights - photo by Genesun Han, wikimedia Creative Commons license
In an interview by Michelle Caswell of the Asia Society prior to September 11th, Proueng Chhieng, the artistic director of the company and Dean of Choreographic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, was asked what impression he hoped to make in the US. He replied:
Ever since the Angkor period whenever people talk of Cambodia, including Cambodians, there’s always talk of war and people fighting, but never anything positive. I hope this tour will bring the positive message out to both Cambodians and non-Cambodians and show to them the powerful effect that culture and dance forms have. It is something that is embodied in Cambodian spirit and souls.....
Some states look at dance as a type of entertainment or amusement, but I believe it’s the art and culture that makes up people’s souls and gives them strength. That is the beginning of making a country better. Dance is the strength of the people and the strength of the people makes up a nation. Many countries, including Cambodia, value the economy over the arts, but once that happens, the nation is broken. Without dance, people may be rich and prospering, but they’ve lost compassion. They’ve lost what it means to be sympathetic with other people. In society there is a social aspect and a cultural aspect and if the cultural aspect is not addressed, society is not whole. Dance creates and builds a strong conscience.
 If they can dance in such a time, so should we.


SUEB0B said...

I'm fascinated by the role of art, music, dance, poetry, storytelling, fashion and beauty in our lives. They are things that don't, on the surface, seem entirely necessary. Yet people are willing to fight and die for the ability to create these expressions, so they must be intrinsic and necessary to our souls.

Thanks for sharing your story. As always, I'm so glad you started blogging and so glad you have kept doing it.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Some states look at dance as a type of entertainment or amusement, but I believe it’s the art and culture that makes up people’s souls and gives them strength.

Well said. Some people in some states, I would add, look at the arts only as a tool that should serve the state's propaganda. You can find them at Andy Breitbart's Big Hollywood, for instance.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Amazing post- I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that many people around the world are no strangers to violence (this is why I was so angered by our decision to attack Iraq). 9/11 was a horrifying tragedy, other populations are suffering horrifying tragedies on a daily basis.