A Dance to Remember
A series of events this fall observe the Holocaust
On September 12, 2001, Steven Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin, staggered into work with a cup of coffee in hand, and, like most of America, began talking about the national calamity he’d watched on television the previous day.
Mills has produced national touring productions such as “Hamlet,” which Dance Magazine called “sleek and sophisticated.” His “Taming of the Shrew” premiered at the Kennedy Center.
But he had never touched overtly political subject matter. Ballet is a classical art form, and most of its practitioners are more at home enmeshed in storylines from medieval folklore or Renaissance theater than those from CNN or Newsweek. But something inside of Mills changed on 9/11.
“At that moment, I decided I needed to have a deeper conversation with my audience,” Mills says. That decision led Mills, a Catholic raised in Kentucky, to befriend a Jewish Holocaust survivor in Houston. It led him to Europe’s most notorious concentration camps. It took him through four years of introspection, research and soul-searching. This fall, Mills will take another step on that journey, when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brings his Holocaust-inspired ballet to life in Pittsburgh, Nov. 12–15 at the Byham Theater.
“Light / the Holocaust & Humanity Project,” originally mounted in Austin in 2005, is no ordinary ballet. For one thing, Mills will not license the work to companies without an intense accompaniment of Holocaust-related programming. So PBT artistic director Terrence Orr and executive director Harris Ferris committed to developing a full community-based program around “Light.” PBT is working with the United Jewish Federation’s Holocaust Center to create a slate of lectures, exhibits and concerts leading up to the ballet designed to situate PBT’s performance of “Light” in a broader context and inspire community-wide dialogue.
“The people that shared their stories with me are too important to me to just allow it to be a dance,” says Mills. “I wanted people who didn’t know about dance or didn’t even care about dance to know about this project.”
PBT scheduled the production of “Light” and its surrounding events to coincide this November with the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous “night of broken glass.” Widely regarded as the start of the Jewish Holocaust, Kristallnacht was the Nazis’ first organized assault on Jews in Germany and Austria. Beginning on Nov. 9, 1938, synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned. Jews were beaten, and more than 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned.
Among those scheduled to speak before local audiences this fall is Fritz Ottenheimer. Ottenheimer, 84, of Forest Hills, was a 13-year-old in the medieval southwestern German town of Konstanz.
“I remember waking up when they blew up the synagogue,” says Ottenheimer, whose father, Ludwig, was among the 30,000 German Jewish men arrested that night. Ludwig was taken to Dachau concentration camp and nearly died from dysentery before his release the following month. In 1939, Ottenheimer emigrated with his family to New York. The events of Kristallnacht still resonate, all these years later. “We lived just around the corner from the synagogue. It actually shook my bed. At first I couldn’t understand what could have exploded. I looked out the window and there was a wall of fire where my synagogue had stood.”
Ottenheimer, who settled in Pittsburgh and worked for 30 years at Westinghouse, says he’s not much of a ballet fan, but he’s keeping an open mind about whether “Light” will succeed.
It brings up a good question: Can a ballet do justice to a history as large and as cruel and as meaningful as the Holocaust? This is the stuff of multi-volume histories and sober documentaries. But some think it is through art that we can learn the most, because it connects the audience at the emotional level.
“What art does is it takes the experience down to the level of the individual—how a family experienced the details of the Holocaust,” says Edie Naveh, executive director of the UJF’s Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “It touches on our humanity in a way the historical record cannot.”
The coming of “Light” coincides with another historical moment—the end of the era when those who witnessed the Holocaust are still alive to tell its story.
“There is a sense of urgency to do this now. The last of the survivors are leaving. The witnesses to the Holocaust are passing,” says PBT’s Ferris.
Ferris admits “Light” may give audiences more than they’re used to handling—this isn’t “The Nutcracker”—but he thinks ballet-goers will be up to the challenge posed by the topic. “It will be disturbing, to be honest. We don’t think it’s the kind of thing that will spice up a subscription season,” he says. “As much as we have responsibility to entertain and uplift through our art form, we also realize that the arts have this underlying role in shedding light on more difficult topics.”
Ferris, Orr and local attorney and entrepreneur Hal Waldman are the three largely responsible for bringing “Light” to Pittsburgh. Waldman is a past board president of PBT. Along with his wife Diane, Waldman is active with the local UJF’s Holocaust Center. The group was talking last year after a meeting when Ferris mentioned Ballet Austin’s production of “Light.” Waldman said he’d like to bring it to town. He felt so strongly about it, he offered to pay for any funding shortfalls the ballet company incurred to bring it to Pittsburgh. (That’s no small chunk of change—PBT is trying to raise $300,000 for “Light.”)
“If you’ve ever met a survivor, if you’ve ever seen the tattoo on their arm, you understand that this kind of inhumanity has to be avoided in the future,” says Waldman.
Still, one might wonder, a ballet about the Holocaust? “There is an incongruity to it,” Waldman says. “The beauty of the art form matched with the most grotesque event in human history—how do you reconcile that?”
Will Mills and Orr pull it off? Pittsburghers will judge for themselves. In Austin, after the 75-minute performance (no intermission for this one), audiences were mostly silent after the ballet. Hundreds stayed for “talk-back” sessions after the curtain fell. PBT will offer similar post-performance discussions for its audience.
Mills says he tried not to burden the production with historical specificity or cumbersome visual cues—there are no swastikas, no goosesteps, no Nazis. The Holocaust is both backdrop and metaphor. The dance tells the story only of the victims—those who survived and those who didn’t.
There are five movements to the work, starting at the beginning, with Adam and Eve. Then there is a period of gathering darkness, imprisonment, death and, finally, survival and rebirth. The dancers writhe and clutch at one another, shiver, shudder, float and melt into one another. The cattle car to a concentration camp is staged as a shaft of light from which the dancers must not leave. The group moves incrementally, minutely, across the stage, and one by one, its members fade out of the light.
The production decisions that went into “Light” come directly out of Mills’ experience in dreaming up the project. Shortly after 9/11, he met Naomi Warren, a Holocaust survivor who had lived in Houston after immigrating to the U.S. Warren had been in three concentration camps. After arriving at Auschwitz, she was separated from her mother and younger sister. Warren was funneled into one line, for those headed for a work detail. Her mother and sister went into a line that ended ultimately at the gas chamber. The last she saw of her mother were her “big gray eyes,” Warren told an interviewer. Warren survived by squirreling away bits of food she found stuffed into suitcases in the sorting room where she worked separating other prisoners’ confiscated belongings.
Mills, rapt, listened to her story. He decided he wanted to tell the story of the Holocaust—at least, one little piece of it, through ballet. He went to Europe to visit several concentration camps. He talked to survivor after survivor. He read voraciously and digested the experience. He is not Jewish, so he felt uneasy about taking on the topic. He almost didn’t do it—how can a dance take on the murder of 6 million people? Warren told Mills to do it and pushed him to expand the subject beyond the Holocaust of the Jews.
“Naomi encouraged me to tell [the survivors’] story through an American perspective that deals with the other issues we continue to struggle with as Americans,” Mills says.
The repression in the Darfur region of Sudan and the racial and ethnic killing witnessed in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s are proof that many of history’s lessons have gone ignored.
“When you talk to survivors, it’s important for them that [the work] not just be about the Holocaust because we still live in a world where genocide is active and present, even as we speak,” Mills says.
When Mills told his friends and colleagues about his idea, a slight panic swept over them.
“It is with a little trepidation that one’s artistic director tells you that he’s selected the Holocaust as a topic for a body of work,” says Cookie Ruiz, the executive director of Ballet Austin. “I’m aware of the things that sell, I’ve done qualitative and quantitative research. I’ve done the demographics. I’ve studied the sociographics of our audience. At the most basic level, I would not be truthful if I didn’t say, ‘Will this be a draw?’” But Ruiz knew Mills and knew he had found something more important than subscription sales.
“A piece like this has to be authentic,” says PBT’s Orr. “The dancers have to find a way into the work in a way that’s personal to them. It’s not as if the choreographer can come in, turn on the music, and say, ‘Here are the steps.’ ” To begin their preparation for this important work, Orr took his dancers and staff on a two-day orientation, in which they traveled to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Then Ruiz brought in Elie Wiesel, the Nobel-Laureate and Holocaust survivor, as part of Ballet Austin’s programming. “He told the audience, ‘Don’t sleep.’ When issues of atrocity are present, don’t sleep,” Ruiz says.
When the curtain lifts on “Light,” there will be many interested in how well it portrays the singular experience of the Holocaust, and what, if anything, art can teach us about today’s world. Among those who plan to be there is Ottenheimer, some 70 years after the night that changed his life. Ottenheimer, who returned to Germany in 1945 as a soldier in an Army military police unit, says the Holocaust lessons are as clear and applicable today as they are hard to face.
“The lesson is, it does matter what individual people think and what individual people do. When injustice is done, people have to get involved,” Ottenheimer says. “They cannot just walk away from it, because eventually, they pay too steep a price.”
Reid Frazier is a freelance writer living in Wilkinsburg with his wife and two daughters.