Telling the Holocaust Through Dance

Ballet Austin’s Revival of ‘Light’ Reflects on the Shoah

Depravity in Dance: The ballet balances telling a historical story with providing hope.
Amitava Sarkar
Depravity in Dance: The ballet balances telling a historical story with providing hope.

By Lisa Traiger

Published March 22, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Stephen Mills initially balked at the suggestion that he create a Holocaust ballet. The artistic director of the Ballet Austin company recalled saying: “I’m not Jewish. I don’t really have much Holocaust education. I’ve never even met a survivor.” That’s when his friend, Mary Lee Webeck, a University of Texas education professor, connected Mills with Naomi Warren, a Holocaust survivor and longtime Houstonian who founded the Warren Fellowship at the Holocaust Museum Houston. “It’s hallowed ground,” Mills said. “You can’t wrap your mind around that much destruction and pain. And to distill it down to a theatrical experience felt like it would be insulting.”

But Warren, 91, believed otherwise. “I told Stephen he must make this ballet,” she told the Forward, “because he has the stage, the platform, to do it.” If nothing else, the ballet, “Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” which runs March 23 to 25 at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, would introduce the Holocaust to a new generation through dance.

The impetus for “Light” grew from Mills’s self-examination following 9/11. Looking beyond the studio, he questioned the significance of his work in ballet to a nation on the brink of war. His subsequent journey through the history and legacy of the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on him as well as on the Austin community. In 2005, “Light” premiered in conjunction with an extensive series of public events, among them a public pledge by community leaders to support citizens in not remaining bystanders when confronted by bigotry and hate. Elie Wiesel came to town to speak; the school district offered seminars on Holocaust education to teachers; galleries and public parks displayed art on themes of tolerance, and a televised town hall meeting debated issues of bigotry and intolerance. And all because of a ballet.

Now, Mills and Ballet Austin are returning to “Light,” revisiting the values and principles inspired by the ballet. Since January, community partners, including the local Anti-Defamation League chapter, the Jewish Community Center of Austin and many others, have been programming art shows, book groups, plays, films and speakers. These ancillary events culminate on April 19, at a communitywide Yom HaShoah commemoration. By then, “Light” will have closed, the sets and costumes returned to storage. But, as Mills emphasized, the project has always been more than a ballet.

Before Mills moved into the studio to choreograph a single step, he committed himself to a year of study about the Holocaust, its effects on survivors and their children as well as its contemporary ramifications. As a result of his research, he realized that the story of the Holocaust was “too vast” to tell and instead he chose a single narrative: Naomi Warren’s. “To tell Naomi’s story,” he said, “is to tell a story that many people experienced: She had a family that she loved. They went through life like everyone else: having bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals. And then, she found herself being looked at as something less than [others], then segregated, then imprisoned, then transported. She spent time in the ghetto. She and her family were transported to Auschwitz: everyone in her family, save for her, was killed.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.