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.”