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Rita Kohn
Lewis J Whittington
Jessica Abrams
Donna Sternberg
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Je Suis Paris: ExploreDance.com Colleagues Express their Views over the Paris Terrorist Attacks

by Rita Kohn, Lewis J Whittington, Jessica Abrams, Donna Sternberg
November 16, 2015
Consolation for families of those murdered and those whose lives are forever shattered by the wanton acts of terrorism are the first humane thoughts that come forward.

After that is the seeking to stem this flow of hatred that is poisoning our world. Never again, no more—these are impetus words to push us to replace hatred with genuine caring for the wellbeing of each other. It starts one on one in our homes, neighborhoods and towns, villages and cities. The smoldering hatred in our own midst is part of the larger inferno of hatred that we witness in Paris.

My call is for each of us to seek a way to allow our personal beliefs to remain just that—personal. When individuals within our own neighborhoods insist that all their neighbors must hate the people they hate we are in the midst of crisis here at home. I am surrounded by people who tell me I must believe as they do, otherwise I am not a good citizen. When I suggest perhaps the better way is to live in harmony without insisting on a narrow allowance of freedom of thought, belief and action, they tell me that is an un-American attitude, that the USA was founded on the ideal in which they believe, and they have the votes to back it. So here we have it, hatred in my own neighborhood with evangelists coming to my door insisting I must repent of my caring heart and actions. When the power of hatred overpowers the power of love, we have the slaughter of innocent people in Paris. It’s not ISIS alone—it is us empowering that kind of attitude and action here at home.

— Rita Kohn, Indianapolis - November 16, 2015

A magical night in Paris was shattered this month when terrorists denoted bombs and opened fire on innocent civilians in cafes, restaurants and in the Bataclan Concert Hall, where 80 people were murdered by gunman. The attacks left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured. French President Francoise Hollande closed the borders and declared that France was officially “at war” with ISIS and dispatched bombing raids on their strongholds in Syria in the days that followed.

Most of the terrorists were dead, but at least one remained at large as French investigators uncovered the terrorist cell, headquartered in Belgium, responsible. Meanwhile, Paris remained under curfew and theaters, galleries and public arenas were closed for days, but restrictions eased by the following week as the citizens of Paris, refused to be terrorized into hiding and took to the streets with public tributes and vigils. A black and white image of an Eiffel Tower peace symbol sketched by artist Jean Jullien went viral on global social media.

Pianist-composer Chilly Gonzalez described the valiant attitude of Parisians in an interview on Public Radio International as he was about to take the stage at Paris’ famed Folies Bergere on November 17. Gonzalez, who has lived in the city for many years, described the Parisians as dealing with “shock, grief, bafflement,” he said, but we are “soldiering on…to be as defiantly normal as possible.”

In the wake of the attacks Gonzalez didn’t cancel his performances, as others were starting to do, he said he wanted instead to “create an atmosphere for musical healing. Match the mood, and let the music speak. It’s not about how I feel; it’s about the connection to the people of Paris.”

Meanwhile, around the world artists and performers the globe expressed their solidarity with the citizens of France- In Verizon Hall in Philadelphia the audience solemnly stood up as they heard the first triumphant notes of ‘La Marseillaise’ by the Philadelphia Orchestra before the evening’s scheduled concert. Radio stations played French music and announcers quoted Leonard Bernstein’s famous line. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

The November attacks are a horrific sequel to the murderous rampage by jihadists against the publication Charlie Hebdo, offended by the magazine’s satirical cartoons about Islam. A terrorist cell of two brothers and a third accomplice slaughtered twelve staff members- artists, editors and writers in their offices. Their acts resonated with artists particularly because censorship and the oppression of artistic expression, especially as dictated by violence is a total fascist assault on human rights and dignity.

Did the global reaction of outrage of with the rallying cry of ‘'Je Suis Charlie" with tens of thousands demonstrating against their atrocities mean anything to the terrorists? Profoundly, the answer is no. Why would they? These are mass murderers following brutal ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose perversion of the Qur’an and Islam, is just an excuse to torture, enslave, kill and destroy everything in their path. They declared war on all those who don’t believe in the apocalyptic world view by their leader.

The November attacks came with statements from ISIS that Paris itself needs to be destroyed as an altogether depraved culture. This pronouncement is, among other things, an old fascist dictate to destroy what terrorist fear most- Paris is a symbol of humanity and enlightenment- freedom, truth, honor, expression, passion, alliance, courage, thought, intellect, serenity, peace, sensuality, affirmation, vision, enlightenment- And for many an unyielding spirit of artistic freedom and intellectual liberty; its contributions to the world of art, culture and humanity are inestimable.

The work and soul of these artists stand as witness, documentaries and, indeed, and vital testament to artistic freedom and intellectual defiance against barbarism.

Parisians have conquered terrorism before and we should, as artists, never forget the vigilance and sacrifice of those, known and unknown, who fought for the inviolability of their city. When Nazi tanks rolled into Paris in WWII, many artists left, but many stayed and worked for the resistance at their own peril. The work and soul of these artists stand as vital testaments to artistic freedom and intellectual defiance against barbarism.

One thinks of such works as Rene Clement in “Le Battaile du Rail” which chronicled the story of the French resistance fighters sabotaging their own railroads to stop German invaders. Or Pablo Picasso’s searing canvas Guernica, which depicted the slaughter in Spain in 1937 and bringing the atrocities to the attention of the world. Or the profound courage of Jewish musicians and composers who knew they would perish in a concentration camp at Terezin, but created and played music until their certain end.

And in dance, the towering humanitarian statements by choreographer Kurt Jooss’ seminal “The Green Table” made in the 30s, between the world wars, depicting scabrous, petty power grabs between lying leaders. Or choreographer Anna Sokolow’s Anti-War Trilogy which confronted and documented through dance the physical wages of several wars including Vietnam. These are just a few examples of art as witness to world events.

What is, finally, the responsibility by artists, writers, actors, singers, composers, choreographers, poets and the collective community of the allied arts to respond to such crimes against humanity? Is there, indeed, an artistic duty to publicly weigh in. The short answer is yes. We are targets whether we acknowledge it or not and the first strike by terrorists is always to install fear.

But, the answer is also no – artists do not have to directly comment on human events, however catastrophic. Just the fact that they work on their craft, express through their art, and give something to the world that inspires the imagination and exercises freedom of expression will be a weapon and a shield.

In fact nothing crushes al-Baghdadi’s diabolical vision of the world more clearly than the validation of true humanity, dignity and eternal truth of free artistic expression and the courage of artists to be present and bear witness to the events and truth of their time.

— Lewis J. Whittington, Philadelphia - November 24, 2015


“Make me an instrument of peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.” —St. Francis of Assisi

As most of us know by now, living in the age of high-speed information as we do, that last Friday in the wee hours of the morning, the city of Paris experienced a cluster of attacks for which ISIS has now claimed responsibility and which took the lives of over 120 people. Since then, the outcry has been fierce and the outcry over the outcry almost fiercer. Comments immediately sprang forth on social media, ranging from Donald Trump’s tasteless tweet about France’s gun control laws to Facebook chatter highlighting the fact that coverage on the recent Beirut bombing has been negligent by comparison – all this has created a sort of white noise that is drowning out the true emotional impact of what happened that morning.

Immediately after the event, I was glued not just to the television but to the internet AND the television, scooping up every scrap of information my little fingers could drum up. In addition to the heart-wrenching photos of the aftermath, I found myself riveted to random videos on the BBC’s website of pretty much nothing but cops standing around the Bataclan concert hall after the attack. I saw a couple of mecs – that’s French for dudes – who seemed to know each other and exchanged the double-kiss that is de rigueur in France and who then lit cigarettes before going home, presumably, to sleep. I saw people standing calmly around talking with police. I saw police standing calmly around talking with each other. One video showed a man playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a piano parked outside the Bataclan while a crowd of people encircled him. And while it could be said that I was just another American consuming information, I found these video dispatches fascinating. There had just been three attacks – not including attempts – on their city and yet these people were acting like it had all been a false alarm. They were calm. They were civilized. The police were calm and civilized. There was no mass hysteria, no desperate need to assign blame.

And it dawned on me: this is why we love Paris and why this attack and the one on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last January moved our country the way it did. On some level we see in the French the dignity that we, an upstart of a country, do not always have. When tragedy strikes in France – and quite likely in other countries, I’m just focusing on France right now – people convene. Their first instinct is to come together. They do not metaphorically retreat into their gated homes and sit in the dark watching dramatic news chyrons blaze across their television screens as they devour Cool Ranch Doritos (for those who don’t know what chyrons are, they’re those lower third, television graphics accompanying news stories that further explain what we’re seeing, since apparently visuals aren’t enough). The French do not immediately seek to blame someone or capitalize off the event. They know that their only hope for healing is through the collective, and so they seek it.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” – Matthew 18:20 (King James version)

A friend posted something on Instagram recently to the effect of, don’t pray for Paris; religion is what caused the attacks in the first place. Let’s be clear: religious extremists caused the attacks and their extremism has as much to do with their desperation and hopelessness as it does their religion. Besides, like it or not, religion is here to stay. Prayer, on the other hand, while used in many houses of worship, does not necessarily connect to any particular religion. Prayer is a moment of silence, an act of humility in the face of something larger than us, call it spirit, a higher order, the collective, God. To do so is to indulge in a rare moment when – ideally – all thoughts of who we think we are that separate us are put aside to focus on something more magnanimous. To “pray for Paris” is to solemnly acknowledge the tragic event and to seek guidance in how to heal from it. It is a cry for help in a world that needs it. It is more question than statement: how can we connect to our highest selves in the service of the world? How can we seek light in the darkness? If religion seeks to divide and define, prayer brings people together.

The chatter – Paris or Beirut, white or brown, prayers or the shunning of them – only serves to distract us from the task at hand: processing tragedy, healing from it and letting it lead us to a more enlightened state of humanity. Like the ever-vigilant P.C. police, it distracts a very distractible people from the real problem and seeks to incite riots over minor verbiage. Also like the concept of political correctness, it attempts to divide, to cause us to split hairs, to argue rather than accept. What we must accept and what the French have accepted is our own vulnerability, our own fragility, ultimately our own mortality. We run from this truth and in our running create more lies and, in some cases, more tragedy. And yet this is the truth we all share, the common denominator in our humanity. It is with dignity that we, too, must learn to fully accept and even embrace this because doing so will allow us to come together as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and simply people. People. If we move into fear, then the terrorists have truly achieved their aims. We must look at these heinous acts of violence as vehicles for transformation. As a species we really have no other choice. And the only way we can do so is as one.

— Jessica Abrams, New York - November 29, 2015

"My company performed on the night of the Paris terrorist attacks. I had been in the theater all day, and didn't find out about it until right before the performance. The news shook me and I wondered how to acknowledge what had happened and also keep that lovely aura of expectation that a live performance has. My feeling is that art is an antidote to terrorism and hatred. Creativity comes from love. It is born in freedom and is a testament to the human spirit. Hatred and an ideology that curtails freedom is anathema to art. If energy can neither be created nor destroyed, then the energy that goes into making art - energy that is founded in curiosity, discovery and love - counteracts and helps heal the base emotions and doctrine that motivates terrorism. So I dedicated the performances and the energy that went into bringing them to fruition, to help heal the hatred and violence that brought about the events and Paris, a week earlier in Lebanon and around the world."

— Donna Sternberg, Artistic Director, Donna Sternberg & Dancers - December 23, 2015
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