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This became the foundation for the 85-minute work that uses music by Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Michael Gordon, Arvo Part and Philip Glass and a contemporary approach to crafting movement rather than purely classical steps.
Whittling his research into a single narrative made it possible for Mills to craft a work that, he said, speaks universally. “Yes, I show the degradation [through gesture and dance] and don’t shy away from what happened, but in the end you must give people hope. I know that some argue that there is no hope after the Holocaust, but Naomi doesn’t feel that way. She survived, and she built a family.”
A measure of his success is a recent invitation to perform “Light” at the 2013 Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre. For Mills, that’s a homecoming of sorts, as he spent time researching and meeting with Holocaust survivors in Israel seven years ago. Back in Austin, though, Mills said of his research, “I felt that the learning that I acquired was so consequential to me in my life that I really wanted to share it. I was determined that every dancer, every stage crew [member], every ticket taker, the board… was going to have as much Holocaust education as I could provide.” That meant a field trip for the dancers and staff, to Houston’s Holocaust museum. Dancers met with Warren, and Mills said that in off-hours many of them viewed such movies as “Schindler’s List” and read books from a list compiled by the museum staff.
At the ballet’s premiere, Warren reported that she sat in the audience trembling. “I saw it all: my life, my family, the hardships under the boot of the Nazis… and the survival.” The redemptive ending, which unwinds in swirling spirals of supportive partnerships, comes at Warren’s insistence. After the opening duet, with its biblical allusion to Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life, Mills shows joyous times in prewar Poland, the build-up of restrictions, forced transport and, in a section where dancers struggle and collapse, the fear and dehumanization of life in the ghettos and camps.
But the ballet — like Warren’s wartime experience — closes with a sense of liberation. From a dimly lit scene where dancers battle faceless brutality, hope rises in the form of harmonious couples paired off for a series of heartwarming duets. Miller took this final section from an older ballet of his, called “Hush.” Lush and gentle, this became, according to Miller, the final soothing section, offering resolution to dancers and audiences alike. “You show the degradation; you don’t shy away from showing what happened,” he said, “but in the end, Naomi insisted you have to give people hope.”
“The dance really isn’t about the Holocaust,” Mills concluded. “[The dance] is about survival and resilience, told through the lens of this woman who endured the Holocaust.” These lessons, he insisted, must not be lost. But ballet is just one way to convey them. As Warren said, sometimes art can reveal deeper truths than can history textbooks. “I try to tell her story in a very metaphoric way — no swastikas, no Heil Hitlers.” Said Mills, “There are more immediate ways to teach children about the Holocaust than through textbooks.”
Lisa Traiger writes about dance for The Washington Post and Dance Magazine, among other publications.