7 August 2010
It is with great sadness that The Place has heard of the sudden death of Dr Karen Woo. Karen was a surgeon working in Afghanistan, and was killed along with nine other aid workers in a gun attack.
Karen was an alumna of London Contemporary Dance School and a dancer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Richard Alston Dance Company. As a member of LCDT she performed in the company's farewell tour in 1994 and its last ever London season at Sadler's Wells, for which the dancers received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance.
After she left dance to pursue her medical career, Karen kept in touch with former colleagues and associates at The Place. She returned in February this year for a reunion of alumni from LCDS, held as part of The Place's 40th anniversary celebrations. On that occasion she had talked with passion about her work in Afghanistan.
We are immensely saddened at the circumstances of Karen's untimely death and salute the immeasurable courage and sacrifice Karen showed in undertaking her aid work in Afghanistan.
Robert Cohan CBE, founding Artistic Director of The Place, said today: "The death of anyone so generous and caring [such] as Karen is hard enough to bear, but her uniquely brilliant qualities of intelligence, skill and beauty make her loss even more painful for all those who knew her."
Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp OBE, Chief Executive of The Place, writes: "I am sitting here in my office still trying coming to terms with the news and reading the card Karen wrote to me on the day that London Contemporary Dance Theatre gave its final ever performance, at the Marlowe Theatre Canterbury on Saturday 25 June 1994, a performance in which Karen and I both danced as members of LCDT, Karen being one of the youngest and me, one of the eldest. Needless to say Karen writes with such warmth and hope for the future; it says much about the beautiful person she was.
I have always been full of admiration for the way Karen carved out a new career in medicine. It is hard to believe that only a few months ago, she was here at The Place for the LCDS alumni reunion, happily reuniting with former friends and colleagues and talking with such passion and enthusiasm about her work in Afghanistan and the film she was making with another LCDS alumnus, James Barnard. Her deep empathy for the human condition and her extraordinary selfless courage are so evident in the work she was undertaking in Afghanistan and remain as an inspiration to all of us. The sense of loss is tremendous. Our heartfelt condolences extend to Karen’s family, her fiancé and to all those who knew and loved her."
Richard Alston, Artistic Director of The Place, writes: "I have just returned from France where I was visiting Robert Cohan, the Founding Artistic Director of the Place. Janet Eager, ‘Mop’ to the countless dancers she looked after (including Karen), was also there.
We were all three of us so deeply upset to hear of Karen’s shocking death and Bob, Mop and I wanted to add our voices to the great wave of strong feeling there is about this brave young woman.
Seventeen years ago, I had the great pleasure of choreographing for Karen and I remember so well that as a young dancer she already had something special. Karen was still a student at the Place when I made a dance to Britten’s setting of poems by Rimbaud. One poem was entitled ‘Being Beauteous’ - inevitably I chose Karen for that part, and I still think of her whenever we revive that piece, as indeed we did earlier this Summer.
As a performer she not only danced articulately and musically, she had a natural special presence, what we often call charisma. Karen had charisma by the bucketful - she shone on stage, she glowed, and audience members always asked who she was - “the beautiful girl, the one with the smile”. Given a step, she made it totally, touchingly, her own. Watching videos now of the young Karen, one can see that her dancing is light, energetic and clear, and again and again that inner warmth of hers bursts into a huge unsuppressible smile.
Dear Karen, we remember you and your remarkable life-embracing spirit with immense fondness; no brute with a mindless gun can take that away from us, no they truly cannot. We wish you peace."
The Karen Woo Foundation has been set up to remember Karen by continuing her work bringing medical care to those who need it most in Afghanistan.
“I knew Dr Karen well and we used talk about our days watching performances at The Place and Sadlers Wells. I told her about my uncle Robin Howard's courage and sense of fun too.”
“I used to dance with Karen almost 20 years ago but to this day I have never forgotten how beautiful and graceful she was. I am so shocked by this terrible news but have the most amazing memory of her dancing the black witch solo in Sleeping Beauty. Karen, you were an amazing person, so brave, so inspirational and you will always be remembered. RIP Karen and dance with angels in Heaven x”
“I attended the alumni reunion in February but sadly didn't meet Karen. She sounds as if she was a truly remarkable, inspirational young woman. Deeply saddened by her cruel end.”
“Even not personally knowing Karen, I was, and still am, devastated at the news of her death. I can't find words to help understand such an event! My deepest sympathy to family and friends who were very close to her.” Primavera
“In the 15th Chapter of St John's Gospel it is written that Christ said there was no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. Karen exemplified this saintly love in her compassion for the people of Afghanistan, and so it is with deep humility we pay tribute to her courage and dedication which blazes as an inspiration to us all.” Judyth Knight
“Karen was a truly inspirational and courageous woman. My heartfelt condolences to Karen's family.” Cathy Lewis
“I feel compelled to leave a message ... I didn't know Karen on a personal level, but I remember her and her dancing vividly, both in her performances with LCDT in Newcastle and when I was a student at LCDS watching RADC. She inspired me, and she was a truly beautiful dancer.” Caroline Lofthouse
“Dear Karen, you sudden departure will not be in vain, we celebrate you in the dance on the 13th in California. We will be thinking of your gentle pure spirit. Peace unto you. We unite in our stride to free our planet from pain and suffering. Peace, Sheron”
“I only ever admired Karen from a distance, but I feel her loss especially keenly because years before I made a similar move from LSCD/LCDT (1966-1970) to medical school; and I too have felt the fear on several occasions while working for community health in the Pakistan/Afghanistan borders. But none of this compares with what's happened to Karen. She had so much vitality, so many gifts that the world can ill-afford to lose. "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die" (Thomas Campbell 'Hallowed Ground' ca 1810)” Alan Beattie, Professor of Public Health & Health Education, Honorary Research Fellow, Lancaster University
“My strongest memory of Karen dates back to when she was a student in my first term music class at LCDS. I was trying to give the class a little background on western classical music and had found that of all genres and periods, the one that appealed most across the students' diverse backgrounds was Renaissance church music. So I played Tallis's 40 part motet Spem in Alium. At the end there was silence, until suddenly Karen stood up in tears and rushed from the room, quite overcome by the piece. I talked to her after that and realised that she was exceptionally intelligent. I asked her if she wouldn't think of moving from the Certificate to the Degree course, but if I remember rightly she didn't want to. I was delighted when she told me a few years later that she was studying medicine. Her death has shocked me deeply.” Jeremy Barlow, Music Director at LCDS, 1986-1999.
“So beautiful, bright, talented, humorous and warm ... what was there not to like about Karen? I was older, yet in awe when she joined LCDT. Then she went on to do more, and much more. I will always remember her appetite for life, and be inspired by it. What a tragedy that we will never know what she might have mastered next, but more that her loved ones have to go on without her.” Kate Coyne
“I have never actually met Karen and had no idea that she was originally a dancer! It is incredible to hear of her many talents and more importantly what she wished to do with those talents. Her death is an indescribable tragedy but the knowledge that such a person existed restores our faith in humanity despite that overwhelming tragedy!” Ruth Posner
“What a loss, in such harrowing circumstances. But what inspirational achievement, humanity, purpose and brave service in such a short life. Something truly beautiful.” Janet Smith
“For a girl who dedicated her young life to so selflessly helping others and who was giving her time in making the world a better place to be struck down is very terrible. She achieved so much in such a short time. Please accept my sympathy to her friends and family in their loss of a great human being.” Anthony Crickmay
“I did not know her (I belong to another period of the company) but just seeing her photo with that tender smile and intelligent eyes makes me feel an immense pain. I am sorry I am getting to know her in such tragic circumstance but I want to thank her because generous human being like Karen are an example for all of us.” Elsa Piperno
"Karen exemplified a wonderful human spirit, a beautiful dancer, a beautiful person, a caring surgeon - a most courageous and inspirational soul. My deepest sympathy to her loved ones, may her spirit continue to live in the hearts of all who came in contact with her." Anne Went
"Karen and I were in the same year at LCDS, we both joined LCDT on our graduation and were both founder members of RADC. Karen was full of life and enthusiasm. I was truly inspired when I heard that she had become a doctor. She died as she lived; always pushing boundaries. I'm shocked and saddened by her cruel end and my deepest sympathies to family and friends who were very close to her." Stephanie Ross-Russell
"Karen and I were both 16 when we began our studies at LCDS so we had an immediate connection, not only by age but by humour and silliness! That is something that I remember very vividly, our own way of getting through the hard times that every individual experiences in life. So, it was wonderful catching up at the reunion as she told me of using the same tricks and sense of dark fun to get through the terrible times that she had experienced whilst in Afghanistan ... she still was the same crazy Karen that I had danced, lived and played with! I was in awe of everything that she had achieved since LCDS, yet I find the hardest thing to accept with her passing, is how she spoke with great passion of her feelings of envy at my life since finishing my performing career and having a family life with children and how much she wanted that. It is so heart-renching that she was so close to achieving the simplest yet most basic desire that I was taking for granted, again Karen taught me something. I hope that Karen's fiance, family and friends find comfort from the tributes paid to her, spirit, love and humanity. She was a bright light wherever she went, be it in dance, medicine, stunt woman, friend..... and something that shines so bright can never be forgotten or put out. I hope that LCDS may be able to produce a memorial evening in honour of Karen and her work, which the proceeds may go to help continue on in her name. Please keep me informed, as I believe that we need to come together as a community and try to find a positive through this, just as she herself would have done." Nanette Kincaid
"I knew Karen briefly when we danced together in LCDT and remember clearly her vitality, beauty, confidence and enthusiasm. I had no idea she had grown into such an extraordinary woman, so gifted and giving. I have been shocked and shaken by the tragic news, at the same time inspired by the rich life she had led. My warmest sympathy to all who were close to her." Tracey Fitzgerald
"I met Karen in 1993, she was full of light and a lovely dancer. She gave her life to humanity. Il n'y a pas de mot pour décrire cette horreur. Je pense a sa famille, son fiancé, ses amis proches et leurs transmets mes condoléances." Dany Lévéque
"I knew Karen as a student at LCDS when I was Director Of Student Support at LCDS. When she started training with the School she was a delicate and exquisitely graceful young woman. I didn't realise then what I know now - she had the heart of a lioness - even in the face of her fear - she pursued the work she considered most important, even if it was the most dangerous. We must honour her commitment somehow. Perhaps the School would consider a fund-raising performance by the students and company members she knew during her time at LCDS. I would love to support this in any way I can." Louise Donald
"Karen was such an inspiration and so supportive when I was (16 years ago) starting at LCDS as a 19 year old. Being a fellow half-Chinese, at LCDT I used to watch her rehearse and jetee across the old studio 8 and think one day I could be like that. This is a terrible tragic crime and great loss. Giving your life though is saving a life. Thank you Dr Karen Woo for making this world a better place inspiring me with your determination and proactive energy and compassion. We have lost a very beautiful woman in a hateful unneccesary crime. May God be the Judge. I would fully support a fundraiser any way I can." Angela Tuti Leung
"I had the pleasure to be at The Place with Karen from 93-96. Such a high spirited girl with an immense drive and amazing positive, honest and loving energy. It really saddens me to hear of her sudden tragic and unnecessary loss of life. Reading about what she has done since leaving The Place has been a real inspiration, how much she has achieved in her short life, her good will and the joy and happiness she has bought other people. I celebrate this and I know she is now in an incredibly safe place. Fund-raising would be a great idea Louise and also a get together to pay our respects to such a wonderfully dedicated person...x" Benji Vize Harrington
"Karen and I were both 16 when we started our training at LCDS so we became friends straight away. She was a beautiful dancer, so graceful and she could jump so high! Karen was incredibly kind, I still have a little note she left in my locker to cheer me up at a low time. I had no idea she had gone on to train as a doctor and I have been inspired reading about her life. She was a courageous generous woman and I am deeply shaken by this tragic news. My heartfelt condolences to Karen's family, her fiancé and to all those who knew and loved her." Caron Loudy
"I danced with Karen briefly in LCDT and saw such a beautiful person in every sense. What an amazing and caring life she led. I am truly shocked with this tragic news and send my deepest sympathy to her family and friends." Libby Fancourt
"Karen is a true hero - a selfless, determined, passionate, intensely intelligent and beautiful human being who has given light, joy and hope to so many. I feel privileged to have known her just a little, and gutted for all her close friends and family who have to go on without her. It's true she will remain an inspiration always." Jonathan Lunn
"As everyone before me has said (and many more who I have been in touch with lately) Karen was an exceptionally gifted dancer with real spirit and verve ... Her smile lit up any space she entered and she was funny, kind and friendly during her time at LCDS. She was a year or two above me, which meant she was always one of the dancers that were an inspiration to watch in class and on stage. I felt a deep sense of sadness at her loss as she was one courageous, talented dancer who managed to make a succesful transition from the dance world and become a courageous, selfless surgeon, working tirelessly in aid of others. You will always be remembered fondly and as a great inspiration to all." Maria Ryan
"Karen was a special friend who I will always love and cherish. She was kind, caring, supportive and great fun. She danced and lived with a passion and determination in her heart. I cant not thank Karen enough for her love and kindness to me as a friend over the years. Karen made an impact on everyone who met her. She grabbed life, the good and the bad, all of it. Her death reminds me how precious my life is and how much I value my friends and family. At this sad time my heart is full for Karen and for everyone who loved her. x" Marie-Louise Flexen
“When I saw Karen's picture on the news I thought I know that face but from where, I couldn't make the link to her being a surgeon, I thought no she's a dancer. It is testimony that her face shone as bright from that screen as it did to me as a student 20 years ago. She was always a star and will shine in many a person's heart." Jhalib Millar
"I was a student at LCDS when Karen was in LCDT. I remember watching the company take class through the porthole window of what was Studio 8 and falling a little bit in love with the gorgeous woman who stood by the door, near the piano. She was the woman who smiled when she danced, she just looked happy. She made people swoon. Karen was at The Place for maybe a year when I was there but I recognised her open beautiful face immediately when I saw her picture on the news. Even though I never met Karen she made her mark on me. What a remarkable woman and what a devastating loss. I would also support a fund raising performance by those who saw her dance, knew her or were lucky enough to have worked with her." Pari Naderi
"Oh Karen... how your sunbeams will be missed, as will your visits to The Place, you always brightened up the greyest of days. I admired you so much when you told of your proposed training to be a Doctor and always repected the hard work you put into it. I feel privilaged to have briefly known one such as you. Blessings" Jenny Henry
"I have known Karen since she was 13 years old when we met through our local Youth Dance Groups. We then went on to train together at LCDS. I write this with a heavy heart. She had such spirit, compassion, energy, humanity and courage. To have all this taken away in one act of despicable violence is too much of a tragedy for words. It has taken me many attempts at writing this tribute. Karen, your light will shine on. x" Vicky Evans
"Karen and I first met when performing with the National Youth Dance Company in 1989. We both went on to study at LCDS the following year, I knew only 2 people when I first walked into The Place - thankfully Karen was one of them. I have nothing but admiration and respect for Karen, a truly selfless and gracious person who achieved so much and inspired so many. Karen was a natural performer with absolute star quality, she could dance any dance with ease and poise. Her tragic death brings immense sadness, I send my deepest sympathies to her family, fiancé and all her friends. She will be missed profoundly...X" Helen (Johnson) Netherwood
"It has taken me two months to absorb that you are no longer here. So much has been said and I too confirm all those heartfelt comments. I had the great good fortune to choreograh a short piece with Karen in a duet, what a mover! When she alluded to her interest in being a doctor, I was sad that dance was losing her shining light. But a seed was sown in my life by her, can do, approach and I believed too that I could also contribute in a small way to humanity. A humble thank you for the short time we shared. I cannot imagine the depth of her family and fiance's loss. I share your sadness and send my warm wishes. She really lived and her positive influence continues to do so..." Claire M Perriam
"I was unaware until today of the tragic loss of Karen. I admired Karen's gentle and kind personality while I did my training at The Place. Karen's was reflected through her beautiful techincal abilty and natural movement style. Generous in heart and nature, such a sad loss to an obviously altruistic nature and person... " Louise (Hille) Catterall
"Why would they take such a special person I wish I was so brave and beatuful xxx"
"I had read about Karen's death in a newspaper in Germany. The article started retracing her last text messages. The incident, the execution triggered a nationwide discussion in Germany about human aid workers going under a Christian banner into Muslim stronghold regions... I then told many people (in Germany she was an example, a name, another tragic death in a war ridden zone) about my friend, Karen the person, her strength, beauty and natural ease. It was disorientating my sense of real to know about Karen's fate from a 'foreign' newspaper. Could Louise Donald's (above) initiative about a fundraiser performance be considered by The Place? To keep it real, much in respect of what Karen is about. Action. Karen joined LCDT shortly after me. (Yes Pari you are right: during class Karen always stood quite far front near the piano. It was where the studio had the best natural in the morning. I found it remarkable and courageous of her to take up this extra lit spot, where her smile beamed even more in a sort of 'MONA LISA' unexplainable manner.) Us being the newest members we bonded, touring whilst not performing very much. Like the rest of us I enjoied observing her strides, her clarity: stopping dancing, becoming a doctor, taking things further. At the 40th celebration of The Place she told me about wanting to make films about her work. She was already a political artist and more ... my dearest feelings to her family and fiancee. We are lucky to have known Karen." Fred Gehrig
"I never knew Karen but I have just watched the tv programme about her time in Afghanistan and she had outer beauty but her inner beauty shone through. Whilst many in this world who have lots play safe with their collected goods, Karen knew that was not real happiness and with her wisdom went to a place that was not safe to help others. To her mum and dad who appear on tv I want to tell you must so proud of Karen what a beautiful person you gave birth too, she is the real celebrity we should honour in our lives. Karen died but not in vain as the love and dedication she gave will be remembered forever and the people of Afghanistan will never forget an angel from England who came to save lives at the risk of her own. God bless you Karen, England your home is proud of you." John (a stranger to Karen)
"I am truly saddened for the loss of Karen Woo. I would love to have met her. An angel on earth and in heaven." Khalda Awan