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Telling the Holocaust Through Dance

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

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.”

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.


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