'Draining the Cup: The Battery Dance Company's Mission of Cultural Diplomacy

 
Watching New York's Battery Dance Company perform in Amman, Jordan, was, for me, a little slice of all the things I like best about being home: it was an experience both moving, exciting, and slightly painful.

The story starts with me, huddled in a bus station in the freezing cold, hugging myself against the last serious blast of winter. To be honest, winter in the Middle East isn't that serious, compared with, say, Chicago. But it's more unpleasant for being somewhat unexpected.

I was on my way to a show the Battery Dance Company was doing as part of one of its frequent international tours. That particular trip was supposed to include Syria, Israel, and Jordan, according to the company's artistic director, but Syria was canceled after the U.S. ambassador withdrew from Damascus.

I recall that the cold that night was making me reconsider the whole endeavor. I've always been more interested in narrative theater than in dance, and I was inherently suspicious that anything called "A Mission of Cultural Diplomacy" could live up to its billing. Still, they were playing both banks of the Jordan, which I supposed was a good start.

About that time, a young woman wandered into the otherwise empty bus alley. She wasn't wearing the headscarf, so I guessed that it wouldn't be too culturally inappropriate to ask if she was waiting for the bus to Salt. Many things in Jordan these days are English-speaker-friendly, but the signs at the Abdully bus station are entirely in Arabic.

Thankfully, the woman answered me in English, and I explained that I was trying to get to the Amman University arena for a show. She seemed surprised-first that there was a dance performance going on, second, that I was actually going to it. So, for a few minutes we talked about how odd it is that in a country on the "development fast track" in so many ways-every day there are new highways, schools, offices, government-sponsored e-learning initiatives-there seems to be so little art made.

There are, perhaps, economic factors involved in the "art problem," as I call it. For years (the past 12 in particular), the people who could afford to get out of Jordan's embattled neighbors, Iraq and Palestine, have been fleeing to Amman. According to Interior Ministry statistics, about 50 percent of new construction in 2004 was done by Iraqis. An influx of foreign capital and business is raising rents, prices, and the cost of living, while leaving wages for the average Jordanian pretty stable. Skyrocketing utility rates have been making the editorial pages of many of the papers here; the subject has even made it into the English-language papers, which generally cater to a more affluent audience.

."In Jordan," my bus station friend said, "people are more worried about getting food, paying the electricity bill." But, I wondered, isn't this argument a little spurious? After all, people have problems everywhere in the world. Some make art, some don't. The satellite dishes that sprout from nearly every roof in Amman hint that the entire city isn't as chronically overworked as all that: they have time to watch cable TV from Europe.


But there still seems to be a painful dearth of "stuff going on." When I briefly covered the art beat for a local magazine, I started following all the gallery news, which for the most part consisted of exhibits of Iraqi painting and photographs of Palestine in the 19th century. I live and work near two of what I am told are the country's biggest theaters; they sit dark every night.

Yes, of course, there is some art in Amman-there are a few local bands that play around town, and occasionally someone puts on a one-person show. But these events are scarce and hard to find. The embassies and cultural centers theoretically bring in art from other countries-though, in a recent e-mail exchange with the people at the British Cultural Council, I was told they were no longer doing cultural events.

According to Edwina Issa, a theater educator and director who has been working in Jordan for nearly 20 years, a lot of the cultural programs run by outsiders have dried up over the years, or have just not been followed up on a local level. When art gets made or brought here, it seems like a mirage, vanishing when you get close. There's the idea that it's not real. Even at Jordan University, Issa said, students are selected for art programs based on a test score.

"People here don't believe you do this as a vocation," she said.

The irony of all this is that among a certain segment of the population, people are really, really hungry for art. Any kind of art. After a few months here, I know I am. It's something unusual for an American to experience, especially a New Yorker. In New York it seems there's always more art than anyone needs or wants.


But when I made it out to the university amphitheater, it seemed as if everyone I know was there. Two hundred people were packed into the first rows of a 4,000-seat arena, wearing the expressions of starving men who have just sat down at a loaded banquet table.

I sat next to a musician friend, and he immediately started to complain about how he missed all the company's other shows

 

and workshops-the show I went to was its last, after spending a full week in Amman.

"Why wasn't there any publicity for this?" my friend asked. "I only found out from an anonymous text message on my phone last night. It's typical. They'll spend millions to import some group or some star, fly them out here, but then they can't bother to spend a few thousand JD to publicize it."

I couldn't argue. I found out about the show from Issa, who saw the dancers the previous night, playing in a 400-seat theater to an audience of 38. It was even free.

People who are trying to make art in Amman can testify that funding for local projects has become harder and harder to come by in recent years. No one wants to pay for art anymore; perhaps they don't see enough return on it. And maybe that's the thing that's missing: in America, there is a deep-seated cultural idea that art is good for something. General Motors, Ford, and GE all fund some kind of art as part of their public relations endeavors. Archer Daniels Midland is one of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's biggest sponsors. No one gets rich in America without tossing a few bucks to some favorite theater, museum, or cultural organization.

As much as Jordanians try to imitate America by putting up skyscrapers, there are still details they miss. Like the fact that, although Americans seem crass and cultureless about many things, when it comes to art, many put their money where their mouth is.

The Mission of Cultural Diplomacy was funded by Bank Audi, the Municipality of Amman, and, of course, the American Embassy. The best collection of Jordanian art available to the public is in the lobbies of the Sheraton Hotel.

And the Battery Dance Company was terrific. The show began with its "solo project," which gave each of the dancers a moment alone in the spotlight. Some of the solos were good, others great. When dancer Stevan Novankovich performed a routine that mixed Russian, European, and Middle Eastern sounds and influences, the audience burst out in appreciative gasps and applause, as if they never expected to see their own culture reflected back at them except through spy movie villains. For me, watching Novankovich's modern moves and flawless technique, with his wild, Gypsy energy, felt like waking up.

Jean Sato performed a short but haunting solo to accompaniment from vocalist Christine Correa. The song she sang was about death. Perfect movement matched with lyrics about decay and dissolution. At one moment, Sato seemed like a puppet, hanging from strings tied to some invisible hand, while the next she surged like a live wire. For a moment, human skin was just a wrapping around something bright and powerful and longing to escape.

In between the solos, the company's musical group performed pieces both vocal and instrumental. One of the most interesting was the simplest: a slow, chanted lyric about the life of an artist, living in the Land of Art, who works on the Art Farm and sells Art for money to deposit in the Art Bank, or to spend at Art Restaurants and Art Nightclubs. Somewhere else, perhaps, this song was written to be ironic. In Jordan, the Land of No Art, it became a hymn, a paean to a world where the spiritual can somehow intersect the temporal through an act of making.

Of course, you can say, that's the world we all live in, the only difference is whether we have eyes to see it. And this is where the pain comes from, because if I had seen this show in downtown New York instead of in a manufactured city set on the side of a mountain in the middle of an uninhabitable desert, how much of what I saw in that theater would I have appreciated? Isn't that the irony of a world of abundance? Even from an overflowing cup we can only drink so deep before we choke.

For more information about the Battery Dance Company, visit their website at: http://www.batterydanceco.com


Nicholas Seeley, a former staff writer for offoffonline, currently lives in Amman, Jordan, where he works as a teacher and freelance journalist. Recent theatrical work includes directing fellow New Yorker-in-exile Jibril Hambel in a production of Wallace Shawn's "The Fever," at Amman's Blue Fig Cafe, and organizing an amateur theatrical salon.

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