Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sälam Ethiopia

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Nearly two weeks have passed since I returned from a 10 day journey to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Crossing Boundaries Festival & Conference with members of the Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT). The festival and conference were organized by the Ethiopian Theatre Professionals Association, Addis Ababa University College of Performing & Visual Arts, and Sundance Institute East Africa Theater Program Alumni. This is my travelogue.

8am, Monday, September 21, Frankfurt:  On layover here via Chicago, en route to Jeddah and Addis Ababa – 12 more hours. We left Minneapolis-St. Paul at 11:20am, Sunday. ADT received the invitation to Crossing Boundaries nearly two years ago. Just three weeks ago, we learned that the U.S. State Department would sponsor our journey. 

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Mount Entoto • James Davies
Within days of that news, I learned that a friend would walk El Camino de Santiago across northern Spain (her journey is now underway). I wept while reading of her plans, as the possibility of that trek has rested in my soul since seeing Martin Sheen's film "The Way" several years ago. I follow Karen's walk from her daily Facebook posts, and just watched a documentary during the flight here about six other people's Camino.

Two days ago, Glenn, a dance administrator friend in San Francisco, posted video of a sermon by an Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral who related the journey of his first sojourn at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

My life with dance these past 35 years has combined politics, the spiritual, commerce, and creative expression. I view dancers and choreographers as priests and priestesses, working in their temples to touch on aspects of the sacred and the divine.

Each of the four dance companies I have managed has been progressively like the peeling of a flower, fruit, or vegetable to get at the essence of the universe's energy and truth. This journey to Ethiopia is part of the peeling, as we bring our performance offering of "Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine" and prepare to immerse in the works of other artists from other realms.

U.S. Ambassador Patricia Haslach and members of Ananya Dance Theatre,
Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 24, 2015 • U.S. Embassy Ethiopia
11:55pm, Monday, September 21, Addis Ababa:  We arrived at 8:40pm, five minutes ahead of Lufthansa's schedule. The visa line at Bole International Airport seemed long but was not. Members of the U.S. Embassy staff and organizers of Crossing Boundaries met us with flowers, warm greetings, and transport to the Washington Hotel. We held a whirlwind planning and organization meeting in the hotel lobby.

We will be at the American embassy tomorrow morning, meeting with women from the Yellow Movement group, an initiative by women at Addis Ababa University (AAU) to speak up for women’s and girls’ rights. It was started two and half years ago to campaign for better protection of women from gender-based violence. In the afternoon, we will be with dancers and others at AAU.

Festival organizers tell us there will be an audience of 1,200 for Friday's "Roktim" performance at the Ethiopian National Theatre. With that many people, we cannot present the first act of “Roktim” outside the theater, or in its lobby, as we did at the world premiere at The O'Shaughnessy just three days ago. We will have to “take it inside” the theater where acts two through four will be staged more traditionally.

These were the first air flights ever for one member of our traveling party, a dancer who is now a seasoned traveler. At breakfast in the Frankfurt airport this morning, an international business traveler joined our group for conversation; before leaving, he paid for everyone's breakfast, invited the company to perform in Toronto, and donated a 500 Euro note to our coffers! ​

James Davies & Gary Peterson with "Lucy"
Ethiopian National Museum, September 26, 2015 • Ayu Shashe
6:15am Wednesday, September 23, Addis Ababa:  At different times we have referred to visiting Ethiopia as “returning to the Mother Country.” Our path through the city yesterday morning took us past the Ethiopian National Museum, holding the 3.5 million year old remains of Lucy, the mother of us all. There may not be time this trip to visit the museum, but we now know where it is. We also passed the sprawling grounds of the Menelik Palace, former home of Ethiopia's emperors, and the AAU campus.

At the U.S. Embassy yesterday, we engaged in three hours of conversation and movement dialogue with 14 women, all law students from AAU. These 14 are part of a core group of 20-30 members of the Yellow Movement, AAU students who meet weekly and hold weekly public activities on campus to raise awareness of, and to change attitudes and behaviors that result in violence against women. Like artists and others who labor in the unsung shadows, they often find little external support for their efforts, and some of our conversation focused on the value and power of individual efforts to change the world.

A year ago, ADT unveiled its new website after a year of planning and development. The value and power of that effort was on display as we called up text, photos, and videos over the Internet to facilitate our discussion. Many constraints on women's roles in the world are rooted in issues related to sexuality, and candid conversation covered those, including the need to lift one's internal constraints.

Learned Dees, Cultural Affairs Officer,
U.S. Embassy, and Gary Peterson
Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa • James Davies
Talk about the search to find one's voice led to an exercise that included mass screaming at top pitch within the safety of the group. This unexpected noise prompted two embassy staffers to enter the conference room for closer observation. The following discussion illuminated the difficulties of exploring and finding the limits and full power of one's personal voice and how that is reflected in our bodies. Yet another movement exercise illustrated the ways we can influence – and be influenced by – others in our daily observations. Conversation continued for more than an hour more over lunch, hosted by the Embassy.

Without being political in relating it, one of Hillary Clinton's legacies as secretary of state was embedding into the U.S. foreign policy establishment a central awareness and conscious promotion of women's rights and issues around the world, in whatever forms might be appropriate by time and locale.

The embassy employs 1,200 people. Photos are not permitted of the exterior or interior, and all visitors’ electronics must be checked at the first of several security checkpoints in the compound.

Ananya Dance Theatre at Crossing Boundaries opening ceremonies
National Theatre, Addis Ababa, September 24, 2015 • Crossing Boundaries Ethiopia
Tuesday afternoon, we proceeded to 2-1/2 hours of meet-up with representatives of Ethiopian dance ensembles, including the Destino Dance Company, established to help underprivileged young people develop their potential through dance. After rounds of verbal introductions and movement sharing, each group learned two movement phrases of the other and put them together into a four-minute dance.

Jet lag began to hit as evening arrived, and we took crash time before meeting to discuss how we would master today the logistics of the two spaces where we will perform: the embassy's reception for the local and international community, and the keynote performance at Crossing Boundaries Festival. Dancers crowded into and were rehearsing, standing "in place," in one of our hotel rooms at 10pm last night.

This morning, we will meet with graduate students in theater at AAU, followed by visits to take the measure of the two performance sites. Later in the afternoon, Ananya Chatterjea, ADT’s artistic director, will return to the American embassy for an hour-long interactive interview on Facebook.

Addis Ababa is home to about 4.5 million of the country's 96 million people. In altitude, it is third highest capital city in the world at ~7,500 feet. The city is built in a mountainous valley. Construction activity is everywhere. Today is a Muslim holiday, but the country is predominantly orthodox Christian. In fact, for Christian religious reasons, the national calendar was changed recently and the current year is 2008. About 2% of the population attends college. I have been told that college is free.

Lobby of Ethiopian National Theatre, Addis Ababa
1:15am, Thursday, September 24, Addis Ababa: This is a photo of the lobby of the Ethiopian National Theatre where we will perform on Friday evening. It was originally known as the Haile Selassie I Theater when it opened in 1955 for the silver jubilee of the reign of The Conquering Lion of The Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Elect of God. Legend traces Selassie's lineage to Makeda, Queen of Sheba, whose affair with King Solomon produced the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty. They don't make emperors any more, nor theaters that look like this!

Earlier in the day, Wednesday, we conducted a workshop with faculty and students from the graduate theater program at AAU’s Cultural Arts Center, located on the grounds of one of Selassie's former palaces, which he donated to the university. Also on the grounds is the J. F. Kennedy Memorial Library for which Robert Kennedy laid the corner stone and Rose Kennedy attended the opening.

Haile Selassie's throne at
Ethiopian National Theatre
Selassie was an internationalist, and Ethiopia was a charter member of the United Nations. His long and storied life provides food for much reading.

Access to university education is by national exam. University education is free. In addition, the government provides ~$16,000 to each student over the course of four years. This must be repaid after graduation. Amharic is Ethiopia's main language. English is used mainly at university levels. The government is encouraging more use of English at elementary school levels.

Wednesday afternoon, we visited the Hilton Hotel for a spacing rehearsal and sound check in the ballroom where we will perform Thursday evening at a U.S. Embassy reception.

Later, we got in 45 minutes of street market shopping while Chatterjea and dancer Hui Wilcox answered questions with local residents on Facebook.

Tomorrow (this) morning starts early. The van arrives at 8:30 to take us to our rehearsal at the National Theater for Friday evening's performance. The dancers rehearsed in our hotel ballroom until 11pm tonight.​

Post-performance joy at Totot Traditional Restaurant
Addis Ababa, September 25, 2015 • Andrea Reynolds
2am, Friday, September 25, Addis Ababa: An arduous technical rehearsal at the National Theater from 9am to 2pm on Thursday. It is a magnificent and resonant space, but none of us speak Amharic, and only one of the theater’s people speaks English! Working out spacing with light and sound cues was productive but tedious. One of the crew members let James Davies into the emperor’s box, which Davies described as “a haunting space unused since Haile Selassie was removed as emperor in 1974. The theater was built in 1955 to celebrate his 25-year anniversary as emperor. His red throne remains, in perfect condition, after all these years.”

Late Thursday afternoon, ADT performed at a reception for alumni of educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Ethiopia, at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. The reception was hosted by the U.S. Embassy as part of a month-long series of activities celebrating 75 years of U.S.-Ethiopia educational and cultural exchanges.

James Davies and Gary Peterson
Totot Traditional Restaurant, Addis Ababa
David Kennedy, the embassy’s Public Affairs Officer, introduced Ambassador Patricia Haslach, who delivered welcoming remarks.

Learned Dees, a native of Burnsville, Minnesota, and the embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer, introduced ADT and its 15-minute performance.

The performance included a sung poem linking the Mississippi and Nile rivers, and dancers circulating throughout the ballroom inviting attendees to “Dance with us!” Many, including Ambassador Haslach, did so.

Reception attendees included Mulatu Astatke, the “godfather of Ethiopian jazz.”

Following the reception, Chatterjea and the company appeared on stage at the opening ceremonies of the Crossing Boundaries Festival & Conference, held at the Ethiopian National Theatre.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia • James Davies
12am, Saturday, September 26, Addis Ababa:  Following four hours of focused rehearsal, ADT presented the festival’s keynote performance, “Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine,” at the National on Friday evening, September 25. The audience provided a standing ovation afterward. “Roktim” had received its world premiere just a week earlier, September 19, at The O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul. 

Amin Abdulkadir, Ethiopia’s Minister of Culture & Tourism, attended the performance and hosted all festival performers and their traveling parties afterward at a dinner at the Totot Traditional Restaurant. Artists from 11 countries vied to outdo each other in an extended dance to live music on the restaurant’s stage.

Meskel Square (in one direction), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 27, 2015 • James Davies
11:30pm, Sunday, September 27, Addis Ababa:  A heavy cloud and smell of wood smoke hang over much of Addis tonight in the aftermath of the Meskel festival bonfires all over the city. Davies and I, with our new friend Ayu Shashe, arrived at Meskel Square around 4pm and stood for three hours waiting for the city's main bonfire to be lit as nearly 700,000 people assembled reverently. As dusk descended, and a full moon rose low in a cloudless sky, a sea of candles flickered. The annual festival hearkens to Saint Helena's efforts to find the "True Cross" on which Christ was crucified. Orthodox Christian faith traditions hold sway here, with adherents from about 50% of the population.

Earlier today, the three of us attended services at St. Matthew's Anglican Church on Queen Elizabeth Street. The sermon was the most clarifying I have ever heard about the Biblical book of Revelation. During church coffee hour, an ex-pat from South Africa, who has lived here for 12 years, told us he has never heard of major street crime occurring here, just the routine of pick pocketing in crowded, close quarters. That jives with a week's worth of observations: no firearms, even among most of the military and police units. Amazingly, we also see no road rage among a pedestrian and vehicular population that shares the streets in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Collectively, they have it worked out. I am not sure we Americans know how to learn from them about working some of these things out.

Members of Ananya Dance Theatre at
Church of Saint Elias, Addis Ababa
September 28, 2015 • Gary Peterson
Our embassy motor pool transport ended with our Friday evening performance, and with it the projected sense of American power and privilege. Riding around town in a van bearing an "American Embassy" emblem on the windshield opens doors, raises security gate arms, and makes way on closed roads. For the weekend, the Crossing Boundaries Festival provided some group transportation.

An atmosphere of security pervades much of the city. The routine entering of any hotel, including one's own, requires the x-raying of all bags and passage through metal detectors.

On Saturday, the company attended conference plenary sessions at the Goethe Institute on the AAU campus. Chatterjea participated in a roundtable discussion, “Movement, Ideas and Bodies,” with Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, Ph.D., Director of AAU’s Gebre Kristos Desta Center, and Mshaï Mwangola, Ph.D., Research and Communications Officer, The African Peacebuilding Network Hub (APN-Hub).

While my colleagues were so occupied, Shashe and his friend Hanuk accompanied Davies and me up Mount Entoto. We visited six churches (including the Church of Saint Raquel and Church of Saint Elias), the palace of Menelik II, the Ethiopian National Museum (where one exits the car for pat down before driving onto the grounds and, where we visited the 3.5 million year old remains of Lucy), and Holy Trinity Cathedral, where we prayed at the tomb of Haile Selassie. We had lunch at the Lucy Restaurant.

Members of Ananya Dance Theatre, Yellow Movement, and staff of ASWAD,
a shelter for women and children, Addis Ababa, September 28, 2015 • Blen Sahilu
Saturday evening, we attended a play by The Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Theater at the National, followed by a Food Art Performance by Konjit Siyoum at the Asni Gallery. Davies, Chatterjea, and I made a late night visit to see Mulatu Astatke at his Ethio Jazz Village. He had attended both of our performances, and we wanted to return the favor. The rest of our group ended the evening at the Fendika club of dancer Melaku Belay.

Sunday brought a mix of conference and non-conference events. Three of our party left for the airport this evening to return home. The remaining 10 of us leave Monday evening, after the dancers travel up the mountain to sight-see, and after members of the Yellow Movement take the company to visit the women and girls of ASWAD, a shelter for women and child survivors of gender based violence.

Hanuk and Ayu Shashe, National Museum
Addis Ababa, September 26, 2015 • James Davies
In our outing to Merkel Square today, Davies, Shashe, and I parked about a mile away and walked through back streets and alleys of town both in daylight and in darkness. Shashe was born here and drives people all over town every day, so there are few shortcuts and passages he does not know. It was a great way to experience the city up close at ground level.

I love it here and I feel sad to leave.

We did accomplish what we came to do: represent the United States at an international arts festival and conference with the new faces of our state and country. We succeeded extremely well and have forged indelible memories, embryonic relationships, and new opportunities for the future.