Artists struggle to make sense of senseless act

Emotions: In theaters, concert halls and museums, Americans seek to express the unspeakable.

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 10, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Against a setting sun, a clarinetist blows fiercely into his instrument, the sound more anguished cry than musical note. Dancers, moving as slowly as a dream, climb atop a tomb-like vessel piled high with dark, pebbly dirt, alternately burying themselves in it and rising defiantly atop it.

Premiering just blocks from where the World Trade Center towers were reduced to rubble by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the dance's point of reference is as immediate as it is haunting. Offering, a new piece by the avant-garde dancers Eiko and Koma, is just one of scores of works to emerge this past year as artists seek to give shape to the vast range of emotions that the event triggered.

Among the pieces that they have created: A choral and orchestral composition whose text draws on the phone calls made from inside the towers the morning of the attacks and the missing-person leaflets that blanketed the city soon after. An imagined dialogue between two people reviewing their lives as, hand-in-hand, they jump from one of the burning towers. And music that spans the radio band - from a rap daring terrorists to venture into their 'hood to a country-western song asking the universal where-were-you question to an album-long musing on heroism and healing by Bruce Springsteen.

As an emerging body of work, they are united only by the common ground of Sept. 11 and the attempt to put into words, images, melodies and motion the events of the day and their evolving meaning. To make sense, in other words, of the senseless.

"When it happened, we all felt these things that we couldn't express," said actress Bebe Neuwirth, who lives in downtown New York. "The wound was so enormous, so unspeakable. I thought, somebody get a poet."

Neuwirth, a Tony- and Emmy-award winner, is among about 150 actors, writers and directors to commemorate the anniversary in a three-day theater marathon, culminating tomorrow, of works created for the occasion. Actors including Edie Falco, Ethan Hawke, Sigourney Weaver, Kristin Davis and Joel Grey will perform new works by playwrights and composers John Guare, Eve Ensler, Neil LaBute, Michael John LaChiusa and others.

The number of marquee names attached to the project, called Brave New World, is a reflection of how deeply Sept. 11 affected Americans - artists and performers to no less an extent than anyone else.

"There is this need to bear witness, of `I've seen something I've never seen before, and I need to keep the memory of this alive for the future,' " said Mary Schmidt Campbell, a former cultural affairs commissioner for the city and now dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. "The assault on the senses was so overwhelming, particularly down here - the eyes burning, the smoke and then the silence of the city."

As one of the world's leading centers of the arts, New York is home to numerous artists who quickly sought to address the horrific event in their back yard. Painters set up easels near Ground Zero; photographers, videographers grabbed their equipment. Soon, galleries and museums had opened Sept. 11-themed exhibits, several memorial and fund-raising concerts were organized, and numerous public spaces had sprouted amateur artworks - graffiti, poems, drawings and other ephemera.

Beyond New York, artists also felt an impulse to create. In Nashville, Tenn., country-western musicians - natural spokespersons in a time of newfound patriotism and a longing for heartland comforts - were particularly quick to be heard on the subject. In Hollywood, where Steven Spielberg has vowed never to make a Sept. 11 movie, other filmmakers eventually began working on projects based on an event that even as it unfolded seemed vividly and horribly cinematic. Among the works in progress are a movie about United Airlines Flight 93, in which passengers attempted to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers and crashed in Shanksville, Pa., and one based on the play The Guys about firefighters coping with the loss of fellow company members.

`Tip of the iceberg'

Throughout the ages, horrific events have inspired artists to turn to their chosen media and craft an immediate response: Pablo Picasso painted his tortured mural Guernica in the aftermath of the Nazi bombing of the small Basque town in 1937. Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, also written that year, can be heard as a rebuke to Stalinist repression.

More often, though, it can take years or even decades for artists to fully interpret an event. Even today, writers, filmmakers and other artists revisit defining events such as the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.

"You have to let it settle for a while; you have to sort of absorb it all," Campbell said. "The deep impact of an event like this will resonate for years to come. What we've seen from artists so far is just the tip of the iceberg."

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