September 11, 2001, I was at home in my West Village apartment (about 2 miles north of the World
Trade Center). After witnessing the destruction of the towers from my rooftop, I ran to the Red Cross on the Upper West Side to donate blood. A sea of my fellow New Yorkers had the same idea, but we were all turned away. I was left walking home in a stalled city with a sinking feeling of helplessness. In the days to come, signs for missing persons were plastered all over lamp posts, hospitals, and street corners. Each was not only a reminder of the heartache and loss so many were suffering, but also reinforced my helplessness. That experience fed the creation of H U G.
The impact of television stories about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed and images of soldiers' caskets returning home haunted me. Many years before that, I had also been tortured by the stories of genocide occurring overseas. For years, I asked myself what could be done to prevent these wars and acts of violence that erupted out of anger and misunderstanding. I wondered if one person could make a difference or do anything to change people's hearts - to help others find forgiveness and love before hatred grew into something out of control.
When the question got to be too big to comprehend, I started to think as small as possible. I read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell which argued that small changes could have a large impact on society. The small moment between two people where love turns to hate, I decided, must be at the root of every monstrous act of atrocity and violence. A quote of Mother Teresa's I had loved came into focus: “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.”
I had begun to sense that the walls of my home extended far beyond the walls of my tiny New York City apartment. I can't entirely explain this, except to say that it was a feeling that washed over me at moments when my heart was overflowing with peace and joy. I remember telling my friends that my home was the whole city, and all the people in it were on some level part of my family. I wanted to create a safe space for the people in my city who might be grieving the events of 9/11 or other challenges that are an inevitable part of life. One day, riding down 14th Street, an image came to my mind: a line of couples dressed in all white, embracing, in the middle of the frenetic city energy. This was the image that directly bore H U G.
I personally found overwhelming comfort from my spiritual life. I wanted to create an experience for people of any or no faith to find the same peace and comfort I was able to access. I very consciously set out to create inclusive art which led to my decision to focus on the hug gesture, an unbiased human action that people universally understand and relate to. I realized it was one of the smallest acts anyone could do to spread compassion.
At the same time, my father had a strong impact on what drove me to create this work. He challenged my belief in the altruistic nature of what I did by pointing out that my work in dance and theater was only reaching a small group of people who were willing to pay money to walk into a theater. My particular audience was especially narrow, because I mostly performed in and created experimental, avant-garde work. His comments resonated with me. I had always considered the audience's experience in the creation of new work, but he pushed me to carefully consider who I was making work for and how I would reach them. He challenged me to think about how I could speak to a wider audience, especially the people who didn't attend performances.
In addition, I wanted to eliminate all superfluous movement and utilize only what was most essential. I fought any desires to embellish and pared down the movement to focus on one single gesture with a beginning, middle, and end. I wanted meaning and purpose integrated into every ounce of this piece. Through this process of simplification, H U G became a dance utilizing the most straightforward, purposeful movement I could imagine. I then integrated everything I knew from my work as an actor/writer/director. H U G was derived from theater as much as dance.
A beautiful accident occurred during the first incarnation of H U G. After journeying through Manhattan, one of the performers had to suddenly leave before the last site - the World Trade Center. I decided we would perform with one person missing. It would be a poignant way to memorialize all the missing persons embodied by that space. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged woman walked into the performance. She discreetly asked the solo performer if she could hug her and they embraced, completing the row of people hugging. They hugged for a short while, and then the woman told the performer that she loved her. They both smiled, and the woman walked away. Afterward, the performer talked about the heartfelt connection they had made.
What delights me still is that this woman none of us knew felt as if she was invited to walk into what was obviously a staged event. Usually, the public does not cross what in theater is called the fourth wall. Performance often defines a division in space between the art and the onlookers. That moment was something I could not have hoped for. It was one of the biggest gifts I received from doing this project, because it proved that H U G was truly reaching people.
Moving forward, I want to continue to help heal communities and peacefully battle against wars and global atrocities. I believe in the magnification and repetition of this simple, quotidian act. It counteracts the violence, big and small, that takes place. H U G is my effort to inspire others to generate peace, forgiveness, and compassion in the world around them.
From a conversation with Janeil Engelstad in May 2011