Dance transforms emotions about 9/11


Sarah Skaggs, in black shirt, and dancers rehearse "9/11 Dance: A Roving Memorial" in New York City. (Katie Hosmer/Katie Hosmer)
August 26, 2011

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Sept. 11 commemorations are often predictable. Powerful, but predictable. The beautiful morning. The towers tumbling. The ending we already know. It is hard to think differently about a day you’ve been thinking about for 10 years. But Sarah Skaggs, a six-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, has created a public art project that enables people to see the tragedy through an uncommon lens: dance. She interprets the role of movement in the aftermath of terror through “9/11 Dance — A Roving Memorial.” The work features dancers ages 20 to 70, and it will be simultaneously performed by about 15 dancers between noon and 3 p.m. Sept. 11 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the National Postal Museum and the Arts on Foot Festival in Washington, as well as in three locations in New York City and and one in Shanksville, Pa.

“These two ideas — dance and 9/11 — don’t necessarily go together. I was living in Little Italy during 9/11, about 20 blocks from the World Trade Center, so I saw the whole thing. . . . I thought: After something like this, dance — which to me is something joyous, ecstatic, athletic — what can dance do after this disastrous time?

“It’s precisely that question — it seems like that [philosopher Theodor] Adorno line: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ The Titanic is drowning; are we still playing our violins here? What is an artist’s response to this? I decided that the presence of the body in a highly public space can be quite powerful. . . . I was using the language of flash mobs, the idea that people come together for a couple rehearsals, and we’ll take this idea and turn it on its head by making a reflective, beautiful thing.

“One of my dancers gave me Brain Eno’s ‘Music for Airports,’ and I never danced to that kind of ambient, quiet music. It just struck a chord with me. Ahh! Dance is for airports. This is how I will channel my post-disaster reaction to 9/11, into this solo. . . . We never actually danced in the airport, but the impetus [for ‘Roving Memorial’] was this solo, and now I’ve transformed it into this big public art project.

“The dance starts by people moving very slow. The [audience is] caught off guard at first, and then they seem to pause, and that’s really all it’s meant to do — for us to pause, in a way. . . .

“One woman came to the rehearsal in D.C. and said, ‘This is a sacred dance, did you know that?’ She could just feel the way the arc and the sweep of the movements somehow had a resonance to her as well. I was very moved by that.”

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