I had just started my junior year in college; my first (and only) semester as a resident assistant. I became an RA mostly because they get their own rooms, but I think, in hindsight, I also genuinely wanted to support people.
When a plane struck the World Trade Center, I was in the computer lab at Barat College, a tiny liberal arts school in Lake Forest, IL. I was checking my email because the dial-up connection was too slow in my room. Another student burst into the lab and told us classes were cancelled because the White House was on fire.
I hurried back to the common room in our dorm (I didn’t have a TV in my room) and joined a small group gathered around our 24” set. Turns out the White House was not on fire; you know how the rest of the story goes. Like so many others, I watched in disbelief as a second plane struck the South tower, and as news trickled in about an additional attack on the Pentagon and a diverted fourth attempt resulting in a plane crash in rural Pennsylvania.
My experience on 9/11 is not unique or particularly compelling. I felt grief, sorrow and a dull, aching kind of patriotism. Like so many other Americans who were far from where these events were taking place, I also felt disbelief and detachment. I can only imagine the horror experienced by those who were closer to it, and by those who had loved ones in those buildings and on those planes.
Classes were, indeed, cancelled. My modern dance class, which met at 1 p.m. every day gathered anyway and sat on Barat’s gorgeous lawn, mostly just to talk. I don’t remember much else about that day, except for one thing Bob Garrett said. Bob, ever the wise sage, was scheduled to accompany our modern class.
“How can we even think about dance when there’s all this trauma in the world? It feels so frivolous,” someone said. Maybe it was me—I don’t remember, but that sounds like me, doesn’t it?
“Art is exactly what we need right now,” Bob said.
The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, killed more than 2,900 people. According to the Associated Press, 2,448 service members died in the war in Afghanistan, which in total killed 170,000 people. Just yesterday, 2,400 people died of COVID-19 in the United States. According to data released by the Chicago Police Department, 614 people were shot in July alone. For those of us who don’t work in hospitals or morgues, the pandemic is a slow-moving, sometimes unnoticeable trauma. For white Americans, the ever-present danger Black Americans face can fade in and out of conscious view. In 2015, anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked to the highest level since 9/11 and have remained elevated.
The point here is not to pit one trauma against another—that is comparing apples and oranges. The point is to remember that trauma is all around us, experienced differently by those who are closer to it, and can be paralyzing in a variety of ways. Twenty years have passed since that day on the lawn at Barat. I sometimes still feel art is generally frivolous… and also “exactly what we need right now.”
Last month an amazing cohort of dance writers gathered virtually with colleagues from South Africa, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates. These writers, whose work can be seen here on See Chicago Dance, pulled all-nighters, dug deep and engaged with challenging, soul-affirming work on view at this year’s digital JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience.
The work we do—“we” meaning artists, critics, scholars, administrators—isn’t brain surgery. It isn’t humanitarian aid. But it does matter.
Still, ramping up to the fall dance season and the art world returning to some kind of “normal” feels glib under the circumstances. The words of my colleague, Chris Borrelli, which gloomily frame the Chicago Tribune’s Fall Arts Guide, resonate:
“A fall arts season that looks like a fall arts season. On the other hand, who cares anymore? I’m not certain I do. The Earth did not stop rotating, the sun did not stop rising, seasons still change as anticipated and summer gives way to autumn on schedule — we had an autumn last year, we’ll have an autumn this year. That’s something. Yet the old wash of relief as weather turns cool, that familiar promise of a fresh beginning — that feels tentative. The climate is changing, and only half the country is vaccinated against a virus the other half is not vaccinated against mostly because of age or ignorance. It sounds like satire then to point out that movies have not entirely rebounded, or that live music — and theater, museums, dance — is back but unsettled. Is it indecent to wonder about the future of sweater season when the world burns?”
And yet, what choice do artists, venues and presenters have? Stay closed out of some self-destructive sense of optics or carry on, as art is wont to do and has always done?
So, it with a keen sense of the optics, the chaos and trauma all around us and the privilege we carry as members of the arts ecosystem—we get to do this, after all—that I put one foot in front of the other, reserve a seat on the aisle, not too close to the front, strap on a mask or two and head to the theater. I will be there for the world premiere of Kyle Abraham’s “An Untitled Love” at the Dance Center and for the grand opening of the Sybil Shearer studio at Ragdale, which is not far from what was once Barat's campus in Lake Forest. I want to check out Synapse’s final “Mural Dances” and belly dancing in Kenwood Park. I’m excited to witness “Venus at Home” online and get inspired by “The Rebirth of Women” at Bassline Music Complex. And for lovers of Links Hall, there is a multitude of classes, gatherings and performances taking place during their open house, which begins Monday.
I will be there, because art is exactly what I need right now.
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