I'm homebound on the subway and have run into an old friend who happens to be dating a bellydancer. We chat about this and that for several minutes and hit a yawning pause.
Then he asks The Question.
It is about the last thing I expect to hear and I realize that, owing to the many such questions and conversations about my public comments regarding PURE's recent War & Peace project, it is time to finally and fully answer them all.
So what follows are assembled questions and answers that have come to me over the past weeks regarding this situation. I hope my answers satisfy, but by all means, do not be shy about asking me online or in person about anything that needs further clarification. So...
Q. It is very unusual in the bellydance community to publicly critique another's work. You must have known you would stir the pot. Why did you do this?
A. Well, first of all, it is not so unusual to critique work that is presented for public consumption (as opposed to at haflas). There are magazines, websites and podcasts devoted to bellydance which often offer reviews of professional work.
Q. But PURE is not a professional group. They are multi-level, aren't they? Why would you critique their work? And why would you do it on Facebook and your blog?
A. Yes, PURE has multi-level dancers, but isn't professionalism an attitude and commitment to quality? Further, PURE is first and foremost a non-profit organization dedicated to "[bringing] positive change to the world through dance and theater." And since it receives tax-deductible monetary donations as well as the time, energy and devotion of countless volunteers all over the world its projects should unambiguously support that goal. To not do so is fraud.
I and many others felt strongly that the War & Peace performance not only failed to do this, it could be seen to do the opposite. Since it is disrespectful to another's work to say, "Well, you didn't do what you said you'd do" without explanation, I felt it was important to lay out specifically how I had come to that conclusion.
Another very important reason involved truth and legality. Since I was making a connection between the performance and her situation with me, I would need to give details about that situation. To make statements that are untrue in a public forum constitutes libel, so by doing it publicly, I was testifying to truthfulness and was welcoming serious consequences if my statements were not true.
Incidentally, Kaeshi and others in PURE kept using the word "slander" in their description of my writing. This is inaccurate for two reasons: Verbal defamation is slander; written defamation is libel. But in order for any claim to be considered defamatory, it has to be a provably untrue allegation of fact (e.g. He or she did or said that), and not only was every factual statement of mine true (i.e. Kaeshi removed me from PURE, etc.) and verifiable from her own emails, those facts are not even in dispute!
It seemed that they were using the word "slander" to mean "anything a person says that you don't like." To use the word "slander" is itself libelous since they are claiming I am lying when I am not.
Q. You said "I and many others." What others are you talking about?
A. That is a tricky question, and one which speaks to why I've taken so many weeks to write again about this (aside from the odd Facebook post ☺). When Kaeshi first proposed the War & Peace project, its intent was to explore "[w]ar and peace within ourselves, communities and countries. What is conflict? What is resolution?" Now, as announced, the project unambiguously supported the goal of bringing "positive change." But in practice... it did not quite work out that way.
True to the spirit of the project, PURE conducted many workshops over subsequent months exploring this theme. But Kaeshi herself, I understand, was travelling and missed many of them. So, when it came time to put together the choreography -- at the last minute, as often happens in these cases -- the dancers found themselves enacting a battle in which everyone died, which was disturbing to many.
Q. Well, why didn't they bring this up to her during rehearsal? Why did you get involved at all?
A. That is a good question!! When the project was first announced back in June, I got the mailing for it -- which was strange since I had not been on PURE's mailing list for many months at that point. In any case, I recognized it as possibly relating to Kaeshi's feelings of conflict towards me and I wrote back to her and the group that it was a good project and made some suggestions for exercises that specifically related to her feelings towards me. Kaeshi responded that she would take my suggestions to heart.
Q. Did she do that?
A. Did she use the exercises I suggested? I don't know. I doubt it. But it doesn't really matter. My underlying message was to let her know I was aware of the project and had some concern about it.
Q. Why? Hadn't you been out of PURE for a long time by then? Why did you care at all?
A. Yes, I suppose I had not been a part of PURE since December 2011, which is the time she sent me several hurtful emails and removed all trace of me from the PURE websites. We never had an official discussion about it, though, beyond her saying she wanted us to take "a hiatus from each other."
But regardless of my "official" connection to PURE, I still had many friends in the group -- having been a part of it for over six years -- and I still have a great concern that my work in PURE Reflections: Beauty Reimagined be used to further the goals of peace and healing under which aegis the show was created.
Q. So these friends in PURE reached out to you?
A. Yes. Some did. Others simply knew about me from the email I had sent the group about the project. My understanding is that many suspected the source of the project involved me, so I felt some obligation to it. I and others believed that Kaeshi would use it as an artistic exploration of her feelings, and even dared to hope that, if she succeeded in this she might better understand her feelings towards me and perhaps bring herself to deal with me directly.
At first it seemed this might happen, but as rehearsals continued, it became increasingly apparent that she was determined to enact a rather violent vision, even though she was told directly by more than one dancer that "you can't just be friends when everyone is lying around dead" (or words to that effect). She didn't listen.
Q. But at the end of the performance, they weren't lying there dead. They were dancing together. Isn't that a peaceful vision?
A. Well, first of all -- and I have this from a variety of contradictory sources, so please forgive the fuzzy details -- but my understanding is that as of Thurs/Fri before the performance, everyone was just dead except for the leaders. I am not sure whether the leaders' expression of grief was a part of it. The resurrection didn't happen until the Philadelphia dancers arrived (incidentally, I had no contact with them, so their perspective sprung wholly from their desire to fulfill PURE's vision of healing and peace).
It was the Philly dancers who asked for the resurrection, and indeed it was they who played the "angels" who came in at the end.
But I still do not believe this offers a constructive vision of peace. Concepts like resurrection fall into religion and spirituality, so if the goal of the work had been: "To show how grief can bring God's grace," then maybe.... but that was not the stated goal of the project.
The goal, as written in the program, was: "[To] explore the conflict between two sides escalating into war and the subsequent consequences, loss of life and eventual evolution to forgiveness, healing, peace and celebration."
The choreography unambiguously had war, loss of life and, strangely, celebration; but I did not see consequences, forgiveness, healing or peace.
Q. You didn't think they were peaceful at the end? They looked pretty peaceful to me. They were dancing and holding hands.
A. It's debatable. I am saying that the message of peace should be unambiguous in order to fulfill PURE's mission. All I saw there was an absence of violence -- which is wholly different from the achievement of peace. Ironically, Kaeshi herself acknowledged the importance this distinction in one of the quotes she put in the program: "Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means."
What is strangest is that, in her letter to PURE "defending" her artistic vision (her quotes, not mine), she wrote: "I believe that Carol's motivation with writing her public essay dissecting our 10 minute choreography is she wants to prove to the world that we are lost at sea without her 'superior intelligence' as our compass to stay true to the message of PURE."
But the fact that she chose Reagan's quote, about the "absence of conflict," proves that she is fully in possession of that compass; she is just not looking at it. And when others point to it, she does not pay attention.
Q. OK. But you still did not answer the original question: Why did you post this on your blog and on Facebook? Why didn't you just write to her in a private email?
A. She had long since stopped listening to any private email from me. In the semi-public email exchange about this project on June 28th, she had written: "Thank you for your suggestions Carol. : ) All great points. I will be sure to keep what you suggest in mind and use some for exercises."
But I had made similar suggestions to her in a private email exchange earlier that month.
Specifically, I wrote, among other things: "There are many qualities that you ascribe to me which you, yourself, possess. But you can’t or won’t see them in yourself, and so you put them on me. ... May I suggest you write down a list of those qualities, both good and bad ... and meditate on that list. ... [Because] it is wholeness, being able to humbly see oneself as one truly is -- 'warts and all' and accepting the difficulty and discomfort of that -- which allows the ego to relax making compassion and compromise possible."
She wrote back: "At a glance I can see that you feel depressed, bitter and angry [and that] your words are dripping with vehemence and hate toward me."
So private messages from me were not going to reach her at all.
I also knew that a public message wasn't going to reach her either -- at least not directly -- but there was a chance it could reach those around her. It would give voice to those who felt they could not speak up for themselves, or those who tried but also went unheard. It could create a forum for an honest discussion. At least, that was my highest hope.
Q. Uh-oh. I get the feeling that's not what happened. How did she take it?
A. Not well. But before I go into what happened, I'd like to address my use of Facebook.
I and everyone else connected with this situation felt it was important for her to read these thoughts about the War & Peace performance. And the best way to get her attention was to post it as a series of comments to a Facebook thread about the procession. Dramatic, but effective.
There were several such threads originating from different participants, but I decided it was best and most fair to post it on Kaeshi's own thread -- which would bring it to her attention most quickly, and also give her the option of preserving or deleting it as she saw fit. I didn't want to involve anyone else in that decision.
Anyway, when she saw the comments, she immediately blocked me, so I don't know first-hand exactly what she did. I am told that she deleted some -- but not all -- of them (I broke the essay down into about a dozen comments). Then the thread continued in a pretty brutal way towards me, but that was to be expected.
Q. What did they say?
A. I don't know exactly what was said on Facebook, but I was forwarded many of the emails that were circulated around the PURE community afterwards, which called me angry, negative, slanderous, etc.
Q. I read what you wrote and it didn't seem angry. It was critical, but you were fair, I thought. Why did they say you were angry?
A. Well, they were upset. I think many of them didn't read what I wrote; they only saw that it wasn't wholly praising of the piece, and that sent off so many red flags that they couldn't see anything else. Which is unfortunate; we should be able to accept criticism without seeing it as a personal attack.
Q. They thought it was a personal attack?
A. Yes, unfortunately. I am not sure if Kaeshi wrote that on the Facebook thread, but the next day she sent an email to the PURE community saying: "I received an attack last night from a dancer named Carol Tandava Henning who is currently going on a completely unnecessary public Facebook and Blog denouncement (not the first)."
Actually, it was the first time I had addressed her behavior towards me publicly, but regardless, it was a poor move for her to describe my critique as an attack.
Q. I totally understand how she felt that way, though. I mean, if that happened to you, wouldn't you feel attacked?
A. Maybe. But if I am a leader of a group, then it is my job to protect my group members' feelings first and foremost -- regardless of how I feel -- especially in a what could be volatile situation.
If I had created a choreography that someone criticized publicly, the first thing I'd do is read the critique and decide if it had any merit. If I thought it had no merit, I'd tell my dancers, "I read this and I do not agree with this person's opinion." And then I would give reasons why I did not agree, and I would also ask my dancers to be honest with me about their feelings towards the piece.
If I did think the critic's opinion had merit, I would write, "I read this and understand the writer's viewpoint. There are things we could have done differently in this piece, so let's meet to discuss our thoughts and feelings so we can create a stronger work in the future."
I can understand how Kaeshi, personally, might feel attacked by criticism, as my comments were indeed a denouncement of her failure to live up to her own goals as a leader and co-creator of PURE. But it was very irresponsible for her to then spread her own negative feelings to the group.
Q. What do you mean by "spread her own negative feelings to the group"?
By crying to the group that she had been attacked, slandered and denounced, all she did is stir up lots and lots of negative feelings. People felt hurt and "shocked," and began to feel that they, themselves, had been "attacked."
Predictably, many wrote back telling her how wonderful she was and how horrible I am, which no doubt soothed her bruised ego -- but in the end all it did was create hostility, contempt, anger, and insecurity when none of that was necessary.
What she could have done instead was say something like: "I read these comments and they seem to be directed at me, not you. In fact this person said many good things about your work, so please continue to feel good about it."
She could also have added something about how important it is to be able to hear criticism and receive it fairly without feeling hurt, etc. and reassure them that she felt OK and offer to discuss thoughts and feelings at the next meeting.
After all, I was very careful to distinguish between the dance -- which was terrific -- and the narrative's overall message, which was inappropriate for PURE. I described their dancing as "enjoyable and entertaining" and added that "the choreography is indeed impressive and exciting; it is clear everyone worked very hard on it to a stunning effect" and later referred to it as having "riveting choreography and skillful dance."
In fact, if that dance had been presented by any other group, I would have endorsed it wholeheartedly. But it was not appropriate for PURE, and it carried a backstory and agenda that was personal to me.
That was my singular message, but it got translated within PURE as: "Carol has chosen to vent her blind anger" ... or that what I wrote "was told in a public and slanderous way" ... or "It is sad when a beautiful dancer or artist is no longer beautiful on the inside that they must tear someone else down to make themselves look good."
That last one was especially upsetting since the writer doesn't know me at all, and apparently didn't read what I had written. All she knew was what Kaeshi told her -- that she had been "attacked" and "slandered" -- and simply believed it.
Some even expressed pride in "[not needing] to know another side of the story" ... which is itself shocking and disappointing.
Q. So what is the situation now?
A. Well, a lot of people who don't know me are angry at me for no reason other than that they have been told to be angry at me. A lot of other people agreed with what I wrote; they respected my stepping forward and have been extremely supportive towards me.
Others simply don't know what to make of the situation, but they know me well enough to realize that I had a very good reason to do what I did, and have been supportive for that reason. Others who are closer to Kaeshi are embracing a perspective that is closer to hers, but is still trying to be fair to me.
Q. What do you mean? What is Kaeshi's perspective?
A. I will address this at greater length another time by fully answering her email -- aptly entitled "My Perspective" -- where she detailed her rather distorted view of me and my role in PURE, but in a nutshell, she feels she had to remove me from PURE because she considered my presence burdensome. And that the burden she experienced was entirely my fault.
For example, in one of her December emails, she wrote: "Our relationship takes such enormous effort to maintain that it does end up draining a lot of my energy." Or: "Your unstable emotions and strong personality are a huge challenge for me. ... As leaders, we cannot afford to have this sort of relationship with each other where we are constantly fighting with one another. It's not fair to PURE or the rest of the team."
First of all, the comment about me having "unstable emotions" was way out of bounds. It was extremely unprofessional, and personally hurtful, for her to characterize me in this way. But in so doing, she puts all the blame on me.
In some ways, I have gotten the feeling that she sees me as a bad child at the dinner table, and she -- as the firm but loving parent she'd like to believe she is -- has had to send me to my room for the sake of the family, and ultimately for my own sake. And she is sending me love and good wishes, and praying for my "healing" even though I must be so very, very hurt, angry, resentful, etc. towards her. And all she wants is "what's best for me." (Even though she has not done one thing in this entire ordeal that has remotely been fair or kind to me.)
And she, being the kind, wise, "ego-free leader" she would like to think she is, hopes I will eventually see the wisdom of her actions, "heal from this, move on with [my] life and take [my] boundless energy and talent and start up [my] own group or project instead of channeling it into negativity toward [Kaeshi] and PURE."
Q. Wow. She said that?
A. Yes. In her letter to PURE. "Negativity" is her favorite buzzword. But I will get into that at another time.
Q. I have to say, you do sound a bit angry and resentful there.
A. Well, anger is a pretty normal emotion when one has been mistreated by those one has trusted. So yeah, anger is in there. Not so sure about resentment. I think it's more like scornful disbelief that so many people are buying this.
Anyway. In her mind, she is the "responsible and reasonable leader" and I am the "bad seed" causing all kinds of problems for her and in PURE, so she had to oust me.
Fortunately, my reputation in the dance community is strong enough that most people know this is not true.
So those who are more sympathetic to her are framing it this way: They understand that I might feel hurt by Kaeshi's actions, but have decided she and I "just don't get along" (even though we worked together for seven years), and she was within her rights to exclude whomever she wants from her dance group.
This is true, by the way, but I would not say her doing so is consistent with PURE's goals of healing and peace.
Anyway, many of our mutual friends are seeing it as a necessary evil and are hoping I will heal and it will all blow over.
Q. Then will you let it blow over?
A. It isn't entirely up to me. If Kaeshi really wanted it to "blow over" she wouldn't have done the War & Peace project in the first place. Or she would have allowed it to fulfill its intent of exploring and understanding conflict. She knew I was paying some attention to it. And she also knew I'm not someone who sits idly by when others are suffering.
Q. "Suffering"? Isn't that a little dramatic?
A. LOL. Yeah. Well, I do have a flare for drama.
But seriously, many people were unhappy. It was not what they signed up for. And now many more people have been hurt unnecessarily.
Q. Who has been hurt?
A. Well, aside from me and Liz Free, now all of the people in PURE who are "hating" me are hurt -- though they may not see it that way themselves. Hatred is, at essence, a hurtful emotion -- both to those receiving it and to those feeling it since it allows no peace -- and Kaeshi stirred it up in them unnecessarily.
And now Rita, the former chapter leader of PURE Orlando and her husband have been hurt terribly, as well as the members of PURE Orlando itself, which is now disbanded because of this tumult.
Q. Whoa! What happened with PURE Orlando?
Ugh. Nothing good. When Rita, who had similar concerns about War & Peace, read my thread on Kaeshi's Facebook wall, she piped up with her own observations about the work and made the same connection between it and her feelings towards me, which she had watched cause a great deal of tension during the production of PURE Reflections in Florida last November.
Her comments are reposted in full on my blog, but she said things like: "I liked the piece...it appealed to my inner klingon. BUT ... Positive change is not something i saw in this piece... two warring factions ... beat each other to death ...okay...this makes us quite aware that violence is bad. people die. ...But then, the PURE Goddesses came in and brought everybody back to life. ... All that did was show that in all the conflict there is out there, it's okay. when we all die, we will all be risen again. ... Still, I liked the piece as the violent person i know i am at times. it fed that 'inner klingon.' But, was it really appropriate for PURE?"
And then she had the temerity to ask:
Was this actually a representation on [of conflict] going on unconsciously within Kaeshi and/or others in PURE? [That] conflict spread down here to Florida last year [during] our production of PURE Reflections ...
The emotions spread to others, bringing out problems that would have otherwise waited until after production. ... I would never take out my emotions on a person within the group. But i did see that happen when we were producing PURE Reflections Florida.
I saw bad emotions from one to another, from within the actors and from within the creators and directors.She mentioned also her personal depression after the production, which I was distressed to learn about; even though she and I have become quite close over the year, she has never burdened me with that knowledge.
Anyway, as you can see, her comments were respectful and from the heart; they praised the choreography, but also expressed sincere concerns about both productions as well as the state of PURE. And, yes, they were critical of Kaeshi's behavior; but they were critical of mine as well and I did not take it personally.
Q. Kaeshi took Rita's comments as a personal attack?
The next day Kaeshi sent Rita multiple texts accusing her of "publicly denouncing [her] as the leader of PURE" and then began "questioning where [Rita's] alliances lie." She then suggested that "PURE Orlando take a hiatus" and demanded to conference with Rita at a time that was impossible within Rita's work situation. Rita begged her, "My actions are my own. Please don't punish the other members for it." But Kaeshi was unrelenting and the text messages kept coming until Rita's husband Robert took the phone away and told Kaeshi to speak to him instead.
A few hours later they spoke and Robert repeatedly asked why she felt Rita's comments were a personal attack. Kaeshi's only answer to this was to begin to say, "I am PURE!"
Robert countered that PURE was not just one person, that it was a vision and a community, that it was about the members and their works and asked again why she felt this was personal. Still, Kaeshi did not answer, but continued to say that she was PURE, then declared that PURE Orlando was disbanded and hung up.
Robert posted the whole thing on the PURE Orlando Facebook Group, much to the dismay of that entire community.
Members were shocked and posted everything from, "I can't believe this" to "We're still with you, Rita" and "I never liked Kaeshi, anyway."
When that sort of talk began, I weighed in asking them to not bash Kaeshi; that she was undoubtedly distraught during the conversation, and that my critique had likely stirred up a lot of confused and conflicted feelings in her as she is not used to people standing up to her.
A week later, Rita officially stepped down as that chapter's leader and another well established dancer stepped in. Kaeshi told this person that she felt PURE Orlando was "inactive" -- though later this was revised to "dwindled to a few members" (or something like that) -- neither of which was true, since the chapter was in great shape and had just completed its own Procession the week before.
Q. So is PURE Orlando officially gone?
A. I'm really not sure. Last I heard, the intent is to "regroup, renew, revitalize" in January -- even though they were a strong and vital group. But for now they are not meeting.
Q. This still doesn't make sense. I can understand Kaeshi being upset with Rita, but PURE Orlando had nothing to do with it. Why are they disbanded?
A. That is a very, very, very, VERY good question. Honestly, I think it was Kaeshi's way to punish Rita, and probably me as well since now I have apparently been "banned" from the PURE Orlando group. It is similar to what Kaeshi did in New York: She was upset, so she had to make sure a whole lot of other people would be upset too.
The members of PURE are very devoted to Kaeshi. They will never see Kaeshi as the real cause of their distress, so they blame Rita and me -- creating more negative feeling towards us, and more support for Kaeshi whom they sympathetically see as having been "personally attacked."
This whole thing about being on "hiatus" ... I think that's just bullsh*t. It's Kaeshi's version of a "time out." It is her way of punishment, to put a person who has angered her in a corner where they can reflect on how bad they've been -- even though the dancers of PURE Orlando had done nothing to her at all; theirs is merely a case of guilt by association.
The "hiatus" is the same thing she did with me.
In December 2011 she wanted to meet with me, but I asked for a mediator. Then she refused and said, "I don't like who I become when I am trying to share the leadership role with you, so for now, I would prefer if we took a hiatus from one another."
Six weeks later she wrote again asking to meet, but she made no acknowledgment or apology for the many cruel and insulting things she had written to me in December. So by February I was done with her and I refused.
Q. Wow. So what is next?
Well, she and her husband Brad said many unkind and untrue things about me in their respective responses to my critique, and these emails were apparently forwarded rather widely, so I feel a need to address them directly and will likely do that here in the near future.
As far as my personal and professional connection to PURE is concerned, the thing I care most about is PURE Reflections. I do not believe that Kaeshi has the emotional or professional maturity to understand or responsibly convey that material, so it would be best for PURE to discontinue its production.
Beyond that, she can do what she likes ... though I am sad to see what PURE has become. It had a tremendous vision, one which I embraced for many years, and one which I had hoped Kaeshi would live up to.
But perhaps it is the teachers who are the last to learn.