Improvisations in War
By Ruth Zaporah

My friends, social activist Tova Green and Fran Peavy had been to the former Yugoslavia, specifically Croatia and Serbia, several times since the war began, each time bringing gifts and medical supplies that they had gathered from American women. They made many friends on these trips, particularly members of local women's organizations working against the war and supplying aid to refugees. While there, they asked their friends what they would like them to bring on their next visit. To their surprise the response was: culture-art and performance. Hence, they invited me and seven other women to join them in June 1994 on a three-week tour, offering performances and workshops throughout the war-torn country.
      The conditions of the world, at least as depicted by The New York Times every morning generally had me overwhelmed. Customarily I've maintained a vague removal from international misery, probably as a way of protecting myself from my own sense of helplessness and rage. But events seemed to be mountain and my guard, thinning. I was pausing more while reading, projecting myself into the stories, identifying with the victims and trying to find myself into the stories, identifying with the victims and trying to find myself in the persecutors. So when Fran called, there wasn't a missed beat between her invitation and my response. Yes, absolutely yes and thank you, thanks you.
      There were ten of us on the June '94 "Honoring Loss / Celebrating Life" concert tour. Four performers: myself; Rhiannon, a jazz vocalist; Barbara Bordon, a percussionist; and Naomi Newman, an actress with the Travelling Jewish Theater. Two Muslim women from Malasia: Norma Nordin, a lighting designer and theater director; and Zuriah Aljeffri, a painter. Penny Rosenwasser, a stage manager and community activist; Franceska Schifrin, a painter; and Fran and Tova, the organizers. We called ourselves "Doves." We were Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. We were happy with that model and felt it appropriate, since we were heading into a war zone fueled by extreme nationalism,
      Our itinerary included Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik in Croatia, and Belgrade and Nove-Sad in Serbia, plus a total of nine refugees camps that surrounded these cities. The plan was to do performances in theaters in the cities and workshops/performances in the camps. Fran and Tova has made all the arrangements on their previous visit.
      Even though I trusted Fran and Tova's judgment in including my work on the bill, I experienced a subtle anxiety about it. Both the performances and the trainings that I do draw forth content that is somewhat unpredictable and possibly dark. This seems to suit the tastes of educated American or Europeans audiences and students. I didn't know about the Balkan countries-who we'd run into there, whether this work would translate.
      I improvise performances. Performing both as actor and dancer, I weave images through movement, language and vocalization. I enter the stage with no pre-arranged concepts. I create pieces by beginning with a spontaneous action. I then build a scenario step by step until content is realized. Within that process, I introduce characters, events and situations that reflect the mingling of imagination and personal experience. The pieces are dreamlike, landscapes grounded in humor and pathos.
      My Action Theater trainings investigate and exercise various physical and mental processes of awareness. Students look deeply at their perceptions, behaviors and the possibilities for skillful change.
      In the weeks preceding for trip, three fears loomed larger and larger in my fantasies: (1) being captures and tortured by the Enemy; (2) doing movement with women refugees, inadvertently opening them to deep pain and, then, abruptly leaving without having time to mend; (3) finding my improvisational work irrelevant and inappropriate for a war-torn audience. I didn't want to bring what I anticipated as my own despair and rage into their already pressing lives nor did I want my horror, dismay, and revulsion to shroud what I could otherwise offer them.
      The first fear turned out to be unfounded. I was never in physical danger in either Croatia or Serbia, or, if I was, I didn't know it. Yes, there were some tense moments. When our train passed across the Serbian border, the passport control officials were nasty and insulting and when we stood with the Women in Black* in a main plaza in Belgrade holding up peace placards on a Wednesday afternoon, there were groups pf military watching our every move and the lobby of our modest hotel in Belgrade seemed to be full of lurking shady characters with their eyes steadily on us. Otherwise, as we traveled from city to city we traveled from hand to hand, graciously and fastidiously hosted by local women's organizations. Everything was tidily arranged. Even the State Department and the United Nations knew of our whereabouts. For the most part, I felt, at least physically, safe.
      In Zagreb, the first war city on our itinerary, it became clear that this tour would require two different kinds of performances. One for the refugee camps and the other for the city theaters, which drew general audiences. In the camps, we needed to work nonverbally, and when we did speak it was with the aid of translators. In the cities, the people were somewhat educated in English, generally more cultured. Language, simply states, worked.
      Every camp was different and out visits, unfortunately, were short, three to four hours. We'd usually arrive by bus and then be offered a tour. We'd always decline, preferring to go directly to where we'd be working. We didn't come to observe or gawk. We came to offer our talents, meet people and listen. Each camp required a few moments of scoping out. On the Dalmation Coast, once a resort area, the refugees were housed in damaged hotels. There was a sense of cal, orderliness. People were nicely dressed, the children settled, contained. In contrast, in the sprawling camps were mostly women and children, others mixed, with men and boys. The ambiance would cue us as to how to proceed with an appropriate presentation. We aimed to be simple and friendly. For example, at a children's hospital I found myself singing and dancing "You Put Your Right Foot In.." and "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," a far cry from my practiced haute-art fare.
      My second fear also didn't apply. Teaching anything turned about to be inappropriate. What was fitting was playful performing and interactive activity. For example, I danced with a harmonica in my mouth, a language everybody understood. Seeing a middle-aged woman prancing around with a harmonica clenched between her teeth seemed to tickle everyone and, at least for those moments, distract them from their boredom, apathy and despair. I drew those who were willing out onto the floor and we danced to the harmonica together. There were always some people unwilling to dance, dressed in black, obviously in mourning. But even they couldn't resist a smile, as delight and laughter arose.
      Even though I had found, with the harmonica, a model that translated, it took me a few camp experiences to truly find myself in the task. At first, I was tense, off balance, focusing too much on the audience and how I was affecting them and what I wanted from them-to make them feel better, be relieved, forget war. But as I looked into their faces, felt their warmth, hugs and smiles, and heard their heart wrenching stories, I stopped objectifying them. In a sense I let go of them and took hold of myself. I traveled inward, locating the deepest, strangest self, the self I love to play with.
      The city performances were, in a sense, a bigger challenge. In each show, I improvised three pieces, the first being a dance with either Rhianon singing and playing the piano, or with Barbara drumming. I hadn't performed just dance in many years, my interest having been overtaken by intrinsically connected language and movement. But here, in this setting, I longed for silence, for my body to move with and through the horrendous experiences that I was witnessing. Dance came forward and moved itself, one felling transforming into another, horror to humor, shame to power. Every dance was different and I met myself each time.
      The second improvisation was the harmonica dance, light and playful. I was usually up for it, having cleared myself and paved the inner route with the previous dance.
      It was the third improvisation, which included the indelible concreteness of language, that was the crucible. It presented a challenged I couldn't ignore, not after all these years of practicing.
      Split was the first "war" city we performed in. I was tense. U was programmed to follow a slide show of Franceska's powerful Saravejo was painting accompanied by Barbara drumming. I watched this event from backstage and experienced myself shifting into a dark and somber place. I entered the stage denying these feelings, again, as in the camps, trying to entertain, change the energy, lift the spirit. Maybe I did. However, the experience wasn't satisfying. I worked too hard, didn't relax, didn't transcend myself.
      It wasn't until Dubrovnik that I dropped into myself. We were there a week, got to know people, made friends, felt the city, took up life there. This exquisite city had been under attack for fifteen months. Our new friends had lived through that and had had loved ones die. They were fierce, dedicated, steamy, sophisticated and very warm people. The refugees we met in the camps nearby shared the same fire and light. We laughed, shared stories, gifts and clothes and argued about the war. We were glad to know each other.
      War was taking place ten kilometers away and yet these people were living their lives as normally as possible. I was in awe of their strength and my improvisations reflected that. Their power inspired my power, their grandness, mine. The content of the pieces shifted to themes of hopefulness, endurance, adaptability, and perseverance. I reflected their experience and was grateful for the inspiration.
      Belgrade and Novi-Sad in Serbia offered yet another challenge. We didn't know who our audience would be, whether we would be aligned politically or not. I didn't know how direct my material should be. Whether I should say what I thought about their military history and current violent abuses.
      Again, this mental bantering was irrelevant. We stayed in Belgrade a week. Yes, it was difficult. The city, the air, the faces, had a gloomy resignation. There was little food. American were hated. The general citizenry was uniformed, indignant, nationalistic. In the refugee camps we heard chilling stories about genocide, rape, mutilation, etc. similar to those we heard in Croatia. Yet, in these camps too, there were smiles, hugs, playfulness, gifts and loving gestures.
      Our hosts in this aggressive, male dominated culture, were wonderful, brave, dedicated women, who put themselves on the line daily by speaking out against their government's activities. The people who came to our performance knew that we were invited by these peace groups. I assumed they were either politically aligned or government spies. The room was packed: energy-powerful, temperature-smotheringly hot, air-dankly humid. I improvised my hear out, danced with all the passion I could muster, "harmonica-ed" my breath away, and, finally, spoke of accommodation:
      In the valley there lived a group of people. They stayed very close together all the time. Breathed together. In and out. You could always hear their collective breath no matter where you were. One day one of them noticed a light coming from another valley. During the night that person left. With the dawn, there was a noticing. Breath stopped. Silence. But then a baby gasped for air. And another, and another. And soon everyone adjusted themselves to the change and was breathing again. Sometime, later, another person disappeared. Again breath stopped. Again accommodation. Again breath. And this happened again and again until the only thing the valley people knew how to do was to accommodate.

      The reception was fantastic, overwhelming, both to my piece and the whole evening. A lot of gratitude that we related directly to their experience without preaching, sermonizing, condescending, or over-sympathizing.
      In Novi-Sad, we were hosted and sponsored by the local office of an international peace and development organization, Soros. A young woman who directs their cultural events met us. She described an event of the previous week. A multi-national theater festival had drawn a large audience. The local television station showed up, presumably to film the event for broadcast. After focusing for five minutes on the production, the camera shifted to record the faces of everyone in the audience. (This obviously created a very tense situation. Consequently, she didn't expect many people to turn out for our event. And she was right. Only seventeen people came. Yet, I felt graced by their presence, their willingness to risk comfort and maybe even freedom. The improvisations reflected back their commitment to peace.
      Throughout the tour, I maintained composure. (I think having raised four children prepared me for anything.) I functioned clearly and fairly unemotionally. But when I got home, I dropped into a state of depression and despair that I've never known. I couldn't find a way to hold my life here in California with what I knew of the suffering and cruelty that was going on over there. I lost all semblance of hope for nay of us. It seemed justified that we're ruining the planet and creating our own demise.
      A week after I returned, still wrestling with the upheaval, I left for a two-week residency at the Naropa Institute in Colorado. Groups of people would come together as they did at home (family and friends) and want to hear about the tour. What was war like? What did you see? I made several attempts at recounting the experience and each time it felt wrong, a severe diminishment. The experience was not limited to the facts of "this happened and then this happened." It was only when I was on a panel about improvisation with Nancy Stark Smith and Rachel Rosenthal, that I, inadvertently, found my voice. Rachel used the word "sacred." That word blew me open. How did sacred apply to war? Finally, the accounting poured out of me with the passion with which it originally entered. I learned that i had to be moved to speak.
      The following week I performed an improvisation for the Naropa community. I knew that I wanted to make work about what I had experienced but I didn't have any idea how that would happen/ I entered the space garbling language, and garbled and garbled, traveling back to Croatia, Serbia, the Slavic people, my hotel rooms, the young boys going off top fight, murder, torture, crying women, angry women, mutilated men and women, my traveling mates, my loss of hope. In performance, I felt myself again, and heard myself telling myself what the trip meant to me.
      The tour was a great lesson about the fullness of life. I touched the aspect of war that's about people struggling to smooth out their existence in the face of miserable onslaught. I learned that underneath despicable pain and despair, the hear beats, loves and, given a moment's breath, hopes.



Ruth Zaporah
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