Artists struggle to make sense of senseless act

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NEW YORK - Against a setting sun, a clarinetist blows fiercely into his instrument, the sound more anguished cry than musical note. Dancers, moving as slowly as a dream, climb atop a tomb-like vessel piled high with dark, pebbly dirt, alternately burying themselves in it and rising defiantly atop it.

Premiering just blocks from where the World Trade Center towers were reduced to rubble by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the dance's point of reference is as immediate as it is haunting. Offering, a new piece by the avant-garde dancers Eiko and Koma, is just one of scores of works to emerge this past year as artists seek to give shape to the vast range of emotions that the event triggered.

Among the pieces that they have created: A choral and orchestral composition whose text draws on the phone calls made from inside the towers the morning of the attacks and the missing-person leaflets that blanketed the city soon after. An imagined dialogue between two people reviewing their lives as, hand-in-hand, they jump from one of the burning towers. And music that spans the radio band - from a rap daring terrorists to venture into their 'hood to a country-western song asking the universal where-were-you question to an album-long musing on heroism and healing by Bruce Springsteen.

As an emerging body of work, they are united only by the common ground of Sept. 11 and the attempt to put into words, images, melodies and motion the events of the day and their evolving meaning. To make sense, in other words, of the senseless.

"When it happened, we all felt these things that we couldn't express," said actress Bebe Neuwirth, who lives in downtown New York. "The wound was so enormous, so unspeakable. I thought, somebody get a poet."

Neuwirth, a Tony- and Emmy-award winner, is among about 150 actors, writers and directors to commemorate the anniversary in a three-day theater marathon, culminating tomorrow, of works created for the occasion. Actors including Edie Falco, Ethan Hawke, Sigourney Weaver, Kristin Davis and Joel Grey will perform new works by playwrights and composers John Guare, Eve Ensler, Neil LaBute, Michael John LaChiusa and others.

The number of marquee names attached to the project, called Brave New World, is a reflection of how deeply Sept. 11 affected Americans - artists and performers to no less an extent than anyone else.

"There is this need to bear witness, of 'I've seen something I've never seen before, and I need to keep the memory of this alive for the future,' " said Mary Schmidt Campbell, a former cultural affairs commissioner for the city and now dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. "The assault on the senses was so overwhelming, particularly down here - the eyes burning, the smoke and then the silence of the city."

As one of the world's leading centers of the arts, New York is home to numerous artists who quickly sought to address the horrific event in their back yard. Painters set up easels near Ground Zero; photographers, videographers grabbed their equipment. Soon, galleries and museums had opened Sept. 11-themed exhibits, several memorial and fund-raising concerts were organized, and numerous public spaces had sprouted amateur artworks - graffiti, poems, drawings and other ephemera.

Beyond New York, artists also felt an impulse to create. In Nashville, Tenn., country-western musicians - natural spokespersons in a time of newfound patriotism and a longing for heartland comforts - were particularly quick to be heard on the subject. In Hollywood, where Steven Spielberg has vowed never to make a Sept. 11 movie, other filmmakers eventually began working on projects based on an event that even as it unfolded seemed vividly and horribly cinematic. Among the works in progress are a movie about United Airlines Flight 93, in which passengers attempted to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers and crashed in Shanksville, Pa., and one based on the play The Guys about firefighters coping with the loss of fellow company members.

'Tip of the iceberg'

Throughout the ages, horrific events have inspired artists to turn to their chosen media and craft an immediate response: Pablo Picasso painted his tortured mural Guernica in the aftermath of the Nazi bombing of the small Basque town in 1937. Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, also written that year, can be heard as a rebuke to Stalinist repression.

More often, though, it can take years or even decades for artists to fully interpret an event. Even today, writers, filmmakers and other artists revisit defining events such as the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.

"You have to let it settle for a while; you have to sort of absorb it all," Campbell said. "The deep impact of an event like this will resonate for years to come. What we've seen from artists so far is just the tip of the iceberg."

Many of the works that have emerged in this first year seem like a first wave, the initial response to the shock. In many ways, they mirror the responses of the public at large: the sorrow at the loss of life; the anger at the unprovoked nature of the attack; the rush to volunteer, donate money, give blood or otherwise show support.

"You want to do what you do," Neuwirth said. "Artists express, and they entertain. Nothing is going to make it go away. If this helps people to heal, that's the greatest thing you could ask for."

On a recent afternoon, Neuwirth and other performers rehearsed a few of the works for Brave New World's four performances over three days at Town Hall in the theater district.

Neuwirth will perform in Adopt a Sailor by playwright Charles Evered, an officer in the Naval Reserves who helped in the recovery efforts at Ground Zero. Her character initially seems like a frivolous woman caught up in the post-Sept. 11 swell of patriotism. She and her husband sign up for a program to play host to a sailor in their home during Fleet Week.

But as her character begins talking about Sept. 11 and how she saw each of the planes slam into the towers, she turns serious, and her rage builds - about the event and, as it turns out, about her husband.

The piece ends with a note of uplift, though, as the "adopted" sailor tells them of his experience that day.

"I was out in the middle of the Indian Ocean on watch that night," says the sailor, read in the rehearsal by Josh Radnor, who recently starred in The Graduate on Broadway. "I saw every star I saw the night before, and I thought, that's good. That's a good thing. They could do what they could do, but they couldn't take even one beautiful star out of the sky."

The performances will keep some of the lights of Broadway on during a week that promises to be a sober one in New York. A number of other shows playing have decided to go dark Sept. 11 in silent tribute.

For actor Eli Wallach, another participant, Brave New World is a way of showing the world that New York has survived.

"New Yorkers are a resilient bunch, theater people particularly," said Wallach, who will read a poem that his grandson Tyler, 13, wrote for a school assignment six months ago. "New York will recover."

'This is for all of them'

Other performers will similarly mark the anniversary on stage - several orchestras and choral groups have scheduled performances of requiems by Faure or Mozart, and, later in the week, the Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform a piece, Stabat Mater, that choreographer Michael Smuin created in response to Sept. 11 for his San Francisco-based company. Smuin waived his usual royalties for performing the work.

The New York Philharmonic commissioned a work to commemorate Sept. 11 by the renowned composer John Adams that will premiere Sept. 19 during the first week of the orchestra's new season. Adams has described the piece, On the Transmigration of Souls, as less a requiem for the Sept. 11 victims than a "memory space" for listeners to go to with their thoughts.

Adams became caught up in a Sept. 11-related controversy last year. The Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled a performance of excerpts from his opera The Death of Klinghoffer in November because the subject matter - the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, who killed a Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer - was deemed too sensitive for audiences in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. (Additionally, a member of the chorus who was to sing the excerpts lost her husband aboard the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, making her fellow singers hesitant to perform a piece about terrorists.)

At the time, Adams criticized the Boston orchestra, saying it wrongly assumed that concert-goers wanted only "comfort and familiarity" during a time of crisis. Rather, he said, at times of trauma, people "seek out works of art that speak to us with depth, wisdom and humanity."

His new piece, a work for chorus and orchestra, seems unlikely to prompt another controversy. In an interview on the Philharmonic's Web site, Adams says he used as his text some of the missing-persons posters that appeared in New York after the attacks, and the performance will include a recitation of the victims' names. As part of his composing process, Adams visited Ground Zero and spoke to police officers and widows of firefighters.

Similarly, Springsteen called several widows of victims while he was writing songs for his new album, The Rising, which plays as a sort of tone poem on the subject of Sept. 11. Springsteen contacted several widows after seeing in their husbands' obituaries that the men had been fans of his work. The album has been well-received and on the top of the charts since its release early last month.

Other Sept. 11-themed songs have also enjoyed popularity, particularly in the country-western genre, in which several songs spoke to the lingering anger the attacks provoked throughout the country: There is the macho posturing of Toby Keith, whose single "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" gained notoriety when he was kept off ABC-TV's July 4th special because, as the singer alleged, anchor Peter Jennings was offended by the profane lyrics. The song, however, remains at the top of the country charts.

Anger similarly motivated the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, which posed as Iwo Jima-like soldiers on the cover of its CD Iron Flag, released in December.

"Who ... knocked our buildings down? Who the man behind the World Trade massacres, step up now," goes the rap "Rules." "Where the four planes at, huh, is you insane. ... Fly that ... over my hood and get blown to bits!"

But for all the bluster that Sept. 11 inspired among recording artists, the song that broke through to widespread acclaim is one of a gentler, more pensive sensibility - country star Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." Something about Jackson's humble approach - in the chorus, he characterizes himself as "just a singer of simple songs" with more questions than answers - struck a nerve in the sad wake of Sept. 11. The song not only topped the country charts but crossed over into the pop ones as well.

Jackson has said the song came to him one night in October while he was sleeping - he rose, went downstairs to his tape recorder, sang into it and returned to bed. He presented the song in November at the Country Music Association awards show, and it proved so popular that radio stations started lifting the audio off the show to play on the air. The song hit the charts before Jackson recorded a studio version.

The singer has received numerous awards for "Where Were You," which is included on his latest album, Drive, and yet he remains somewhat abashed by the attention.

"I'm still angry and sad and forever changed by what happened that day," Jackson said after accepting one of the awards.

"I always felt uncomfortable about the attention this song has brought me," he said, dedicating the award to the Sept. 11 victims. "This is for all of them."

A search for meaning

As many turned to religion in the wake of Sept. 11, so too did many turn to the arts. Museums, galleries and other cultural institutions drew crowds for their Sept. 11-themed events.

"We forget that the human is more than an intellect. The human is also a heart; and in times of trauma, that is what art addresses," said Lucille Clifton, the Columbia, Md.,-based poet whose work is included in the anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond. "You seek comfort, solace, understanding, some way to make sense of it all."

Beyond that, Clifton said, art can also question and provoke, to raise issues that are out of step with the mainstream.

There has been strong reaction against such works - the alternative country singer Steve Earle has been slammed for a still-to-be-released single, "John Walker's Blues," written in the voice of the so-called American Taliban member - and yet some have found their audience.

The solo-named comedian Reno has drawn largely enthusiastic audiences for a Sept. 11-themed show she has performed in several off-Broadway theaters. The comedian, known for her leftist views, mixes political commentary - she's no fan of Attorney General John Ashcroft's treatment of civil liberties - with wry observations of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Reno: Rebel Without Pause has been filmed by independent moviemaker Nancy Savoca and was scheduled to be screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival yesterday and tomorrow.

What possible humor could there be in such a tragic event?

Perhaps how her neighbors in Tribeca, near the World Trade Center, ran out of their homes to see what was happening but soon headed back inside to watch it on TV rather than in person. Or how the ultra-well-meaning of what she calls Tribecastan spent the next several days making sure every dark-skinned bodega worker, even if he turned out to be Italian, wasn't being harassed in the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The show has attracted a range of people from firefighters' widows to John Walker Lindh's father. Only one man, in about 150 performances, has walked out during the show, she said.

"All I'm doing is telling the story, and I happen to be funny," Reno said. "There's a lockstep in the country right now, and people have submerged their differences. But you're not spitting on anyone's grave when you tell Mr. Ashcroft to slow down and see what's what before taking the country down this path."

To a wounded city

For artists in New York, the proximity to the tragedy has given their work a certain intimacy.

"It's very emotionally involving, being so close," said the dancer Eiko of performing her new piece, Offering, so close to Ground Zero.

Eiko and Koma, a Japanese wife-and-husband team living in New York, performed the piece with another dancer, Lakshmi Aysola, and clarinetist David Krakauer in a number of outdoor spaces in Manhattan over the summer, then toured with it elsewhere in the country. Billed as "an offering to a wounded city," the piece was part of the Dancing in the Streets series designed to "reclaim our city with dance."

Offering is a thought-provoking piece, with the dancers moving so slowly as to almost be still and yet one in which grief turns to consolation and even hope. The artists invite audience members to stay as long as they want and wander the periphery of the performance space at will.

As dusk fades and candles burning in one corner of the vessel of dirt glow brighter, questions come to mind: Are the flames from a building turned funeral pyre or from the soothing candles of a ritual? Are the saffron-clad dancers dead or phoenixes rising from charred ruins? As with the best art, the possibilities of interpretation are wide.

Eiko said the dance springs from the events of Sept. 11 but, she hopes, also transcends them.

"It does affect," Eiko said of the piece's inspiration, "with the tomb, the fire. But we didn't just want it to be a tomb. It could be a cradle."

Some viewers saw the piece as a meditation on the cycle of life - Eiko looks as if she could be Aysola's mother - or of the seasons; others saw a sort of sacrificial rite. But as New Yorkers, the experience of having lived through Sept. 11 is like a filter through which everything now passes.

"I haven't been down here in a while, and as I came down Murray Street, I kept having tears in my eyes," said one member of the audience, Robin M. Glassman, describing how she walked past Ground Zero to see Offering at Battery Park City.

"It continued the tearfulness for me," Glassman, an artist who lives in Brooklyn, said. "It's how you come to it, and I came to it with a sad eye."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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