Colette A. Hyman: The power of art

January 26, 2019

Last Friday night, I attended a performance that reminded me of how much we need the arts to help us through painful, knotty situations, both personal and global. “Za’atar” featured performances by three Arab-American dance artists, including a trio created and performed by Sharon Mansur of Winona, and the friends she invited here, Leyya Mona Tawil and Leila Awadallah.

The final piece, “Thulathi” (Arabic for trio), began rather ominously with three movable partitions being placed across the stage, separating it from the audience, with space in between them to allow just glimpses of the space on the other side of this “wall.” For my friend sitting next to me, it was “Trump’s wall,” but I am sure that for the artists, two of whom have roots in Palestine, it is as much, if not more, the wall built by Israel along parts of the internationally recognized border between that state and the territory that it has occupied since 1967.

While audience members were face-to-face with this barrier, we also noticed, in the cracks, that the dancers continued their performance on the other side. Yet we could only catch fragments. Eventually, the performance moved to the wall itself, which gradually was moved closer and closer to the audience. The feelings of encroachment and containment were palpable. The audience breathed a collective sigh of relief when the performance ended and the “wall” was removed.

For many in attendance, this was their first experience of modern dance. What a powerful example of how artistic performance can provide us with experiences that allow us to understand what is going on in the world around us — beyond news headlines! The next day, I ran into a friend who had been among those new to modern dance performance the night before. He noted that the piece showed us how walls affect all of us: barriers designed to keep others out also prevent us from knowing and enjoying and learning from what is happening on the other side. Yes, the barrier presses in on all of us, not just those deemed so dangerous that they must be kept out by concrete and metal structures.

I have been reading about and thinking about walls and other barriers, for a long time, in Israel/Palestine, on the U.S. border, in Hungary, and elsewhere, horrified by the implicit and explicit violence they embody, by the pain they inflict on so many who are just trying to do what is best for their families.

I have to admit, however, that I have never experienced walls with the same impact as I did at that performance. Standing at the wall built by Israel in Bethlehem that looms over shops, streets, and homes, several years ago, I felt the wall in the moment: how it casts a shadow on all activity and makes concrete an assault on human rights that is persisting into a second half century. This performance powerfully brought back to me that earlier sensation, but it also brought me face-to-face with a realization I was unable to fully countenance at the time: how the wall pressed in on me as well, though I was only a tourist, and, indeed, continues to press in on me.

This is the power of art: to move us to come to new understandings of ourselves, our relationship to others, and our environment.

Expose yourselves to this transforming power, right here, in Winona. In a couple of weeks, you can immerse yourselves in the Frozen River Film Festival, Feb. 6-10, and for those of you interested in exploring the possibilities of dance, check out Dancescape at WSU, coming up Feb. 14-16. In its 29th year, this program of student performances will include choreography by students, faculty and guest artists.

We are fortunate to live in Winona in the 21st century: Over the last two decades, so many have worked so hard to bring new opportunities for exploring our world through theater and music, dance, film, and spoken word performance, and through the visual arts. This has clearly benefitted us economically: Nonprofit arts and cultural activity bring close to $5 million annually in revenues to the city of Winona. But how much richer are we for the new avenues these have provided us for engaging with and understanding the world we live in and the worlds others live in?

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