This weekend the Arsht Center will present a unique performance, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, choreographed by Artistic Director Stephen Mills and performed by his Austin City Ballet Company. The work is a culmination of a three-month community and education collaboration in Miami-Dade – it’s both a dance and an exploration of the origins of discrimination, of trauma, of genocide, and of the ultimate redemptive response. In this singular performance, 31 community partners set out to fight bigotry through education and the arts.
We spoke with Mills about this one-of-a-kind experiment.
Q. Your work has spanned genres and subjects, from re-imaginings of Shakespeare to classic dances of Broadway, to work with important Flamenco artists. How did you find your way into this story?
A. Like so many of us, after 9/11, I had to understand my world in a new way. I had to ask myself what was my purpose as a dancer and a dance maker. I needed to find a way to connect more deeply both with myself and with my practice of dance. I spoke with friends about this and one suggested that I might find some insight if I considered my questions in the light of the Holocaust. She told me then of one woman, living not far from us in Texas, a woman who had survived time in three camps. She asked if this might be the story I had felt I needed to go deeply enough into my work.
My first reaction was absolutely not. I feared I would be trespassing. I feared I might unwittingly be disrespectful or even cause more pain. This was not my story to tell. I had no right. Not only was I not Jewish; I had no family member who had fought in World War 11.
It was [the survivor] Naomi Warren who convinced me to go ahead. ‘People who have a voice,’ she said, ‘people who have a platform can lead the way towards discussion of all that happened. Art can be a way in.’
Q. Your work has been presented in various cities. Each time a great many community partners have become involved, presenting events focusing not only on Holocaust education but a wide range of human and civil rights. Some might say this diminishes the Holocaust.
A. Initially that worried me. It is impossible to measure the suffering of the Holocaust. It is without end. When once again I turned to Naomi, she said “Genocide didn’t stop in 1946.”
Now I see these various partnerships as concentric circles and am very grateful for each of them.
Q. This work is Naomi’s story. Can the audience expect to see overt violence and Nazi iconography? What should the audience expect when they enter the theater?
A. My hope is that the audience would come to the theater expecting a powerful experience. My hope is that they would come with an open mind and heart.
They will see a dance that takes place in a non-descript setting. The costumes and the music are all very modern. I chose to present the work like this as a way of saying all that the work chronicles persists. Still, there is no violent activity in the work. I was determined not to present a perpetrator. The dance is pared down. One doesn’t need for there to be violent activity for an audience to feel the presence of evil.
As preparation for creating this work, I spent a great deal of time studying the archival photographs of the Holocaust. As you know, the Nazis kept meticulous records. I came across one photograph of a large group of women standing in the woods. Although the gas chambers of Buchenwald were obscured by the trees the women, although the capturers had been silent, the women knew they were waiting: next it would be their turn in the chambers. The stories of the Holocaust were in their eyes. The stories were contained in the gestures of those women, in the way they held their bodies. Those are the stories I worked with in this work.
Since the perpetrator is not present, since the audience sees only the response to the terror in the eyes and movement of the dancers, the audience itself comes to feel like the perpetuator.
My hope is that the audience would come away from the performance thinking of how important it is to effect change, to ask something of themselves.
Light/The Holocoust & Humanity Project takes place on the stage of the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 7:00 p.m.; tickets cost $35 to $90; www.arshtcenter.org.
This article appears in Miami new Times Cultist.
Photo: Tony Spielberg