Last Saturday, I attended an amazing artistic event. Donald Byrd’s contemporary dance group, Spectrum Dance Theater, performed his political-artistic meditation on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Chekhovian Resolution. It was titled after a phrase from Israeli novelist Amos Oz, referring to the melancholy resolutions of Chekhov’s plays in which no one gets what they want and everyone ends up diminished in some way, yet life goes on.
I was fascinated by the performance as soon as I heard it would happen because I’ve never heard of a dance performance that attempted to grapple with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed almost a contradiction in terms: how can an artistic form that eschews words make a cogent statement about such a bloody, intractable political struggle? And what dance language would Byrd use to reflect on his subject? And could it possibly do it justice?
Choreographing a dance about this war between Jews and Arabs seems like writing a poem about the Holocaust. How do you encompass the enormity of the suffering in an artistic medium?
I am pleased to report that Byrd did an admirable job. But he did it by fudging a bit. This was not just a dance performance. It was a passionate literary and political piece as well. Words, those things which dancers tend to distrust, were a key element of Chekhovian Resolution. This is turn set up an interesting tension. Byrd decided that he could not encompass his subject with movement alone. But how would the words and the movement interact with each other? Would they co-exist peacefully or impinge on each other and diminish each other?
I found Byrd’s impassioned speeches and historical account of the conflict to be riveting. He clearly had expert assistance in compiling them because I didn’t hear a single error in all of the historical data he incorporated. Nothing he said jarred me or made me think I was listening to a dilettante or meddler as sometimes happens when the inexperienced attempt to make their mark dealing with this arcane subject. I thought everything Byrd said or did was true. But I don’t mean this in an absolute sense. Rather, he had to freely concede that he had no clear answers, that everything he was saying might be wrong, etc. In other words, he had to both have a strong point of view and yet show humility. And that is a major accomplishment in a field where every word you say or gesture you make can give you away as an ideologue, ranter or fool.
I was also interested in the performance because one of Byrd’s collaborators was the Palestinian musician Wissam Murad. I knew of him because he partnered with David Broza to create the first Israeli-Palestinian pop song, B’Libi.
Unfortunately, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv could not process Murad and his musical accompanist’s vias in time and they never made in to the U.S. Their absence was felt deeply not just physically or artistically, but politically as well. Apparently, in Palestinian society there is an artistic taboo against working with even the most progressive Israeli artists. The Seattle JTNews reports that the renowned Palestinian oud player Simon Shaheen was one of those who turned down a collaboration with Byrd and his Israeli co-choreographers, Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror. Murad was the only Palestinian who would do so.
I realize that the issue of artistic collaboration is wrapped up in many political complexities. But I cannot for the life of me understand why Palestinians would attempt to make a principled argument that such cooperation was trief. How else can we establish a model for the peaceful future we envision if we don’t live that future now and through our art? Artists are the visionaries. They show us what can be if we will it. But if we allow art to be held hostage to our impoverished political agendas then we’ve sold ourselves and our future out.