Shedding a Light

A foray into a darker artistic territory led to the creation of Stephen Mills' Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, a timeless work about genocide. Performed by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre this month, the ballet is augmented with educational events aimed at raising human-rights awareness.



Dancers Erin Halloran and Nurlan Abougaliev perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of Stephen Mills' Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. Photo: Rieder Photography

For dance maker Stephen Mills, choreography is a puzzle with thousands of possible solutions and finding the right configuration is the challenge that inspires him. When he embarked on his choreographic journey for Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, he also discovered that dance can be a teaching tool.

"Art can be a catalyst for learning if we ask the right questions, and dance can teach outside its own discipline," says Mills, artistic director of Ballet Austin and recipient of a 2006 Humanitarian Award from Austin's Anti-Defamation League. "Human rights are one of the most important issues that we deal with today."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, Mills questioned the relevance of classical ballet in current society. "9/11 was a catastrophic event for all of us as Americans. I was looking for a way - as were other artists - to have a deeper conversation with people," says Mills, who has choreographed more than 40 works.

His friend Mary Lee Webeck, director of education and of the Warren Fellowships at the Holocaust Museum Houston, relentlessly urged him to focus a ballet on the Holocaust.

"I didn't feel that I had the moral authority to address the subject matter," says the Kentucky native, who is not Jewish and has no ties to the Holocaust. Webeck introduced him to Naomi Warren, a native of Poland who was imprisoned in three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and lost her entire family during the pogrom. "Naomi convinced me that we've all been affected by the Holocaust. If I had a platform for human rights, then I had a duty to do so. For me, this paradigm shift was a profound moment," he says.

Mills participated in the Warren Fellowship's intensive Holocaust-education course; visited Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel; toured former death camps, and met with survivors. "It was a very emotional project. Each of the 25 survivors I spoke with said, 'You have to talk about the future. Our children are the symbols of survival.'"

Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., downtown.
Nov. 12-15: Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
$20.50-$88.50
Tickets: 412/456-6666
PBT info
Info on related exhibits, events and performances

Loosely based on Warren's experiences and those of other survivors, the uninterrupted 75-minute contemporary ballet underscores suffering guided by hope. "Absence is a theme that runs through the ballet. I thought that minimalist music would be appropriate," says Mills, who chose scores by Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Michael Gordon, Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass. He crafted gestures, deconstructed movements and employed an abstract classical-ballet vocabulary, but avoided literal imagery.

Mills choreographed the finale in 2004 for American Ballet Theatre Studio Co. and interpolated his award-winning Ashes (1998) - an emotionally charged ballet about a survivor of the Holocaust and the time spent and the relationships formed in a concentration camp - into the fourth section. Of the work's remaining segments, which include pieces titled "Houses," "Siren" and "Hush," Mills says that the wedding dance, a complex ensemble piece that's used to convey the idea of ordinary lives before something catastrophic happens, was the most difficult to choreograph. On the other hand, the 12-minute "Train," depicting the transport of prisoners, was completed in two days.

PBT is the first company after Ballet Austin to perform the ballet. "He's adapting it to fit a smaller stage, which opens up other touring possibilities," notes Harris Ferris, PBT's executive director, who was instrumental in acquiring the production. "Doing a work like this is part of our mission to present meaningful content, not just entertainment," he says, adding that the project also includes audience education. "They will know what they're going to see. It [the ballet] is troubling; the music is at times grating, but it also has lovely dance passages."

Preparations for the Pittsburgh premiere have been under way for more than a year. In late August, the troupe participated in a two-day seminar held in Pittsburgh and at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Plus, the dancers were encouraged to read additional materials. PBT's seven-member steering committee formed community partnerships and collaborations with local groups, including the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, to organize community events.

Starting in October and continuing through the ballet's Nov. 12-15 run are more than 15 exhibits, lectures, performances and films on the subject of the Holocaust. Among them are presentations by the Carnegie Mellon University School of Music and the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

"PBT is doing a wonderful project around the piece," says Mills, who supervised similar events that wrapped around the Austin premiere. He encourages audiences to partake of the offerings, but notes that his ballet can be understood on its own. "I hope that people will come to the performances with open minds - learning is integral to our lives," he says. "For me, ballets come when they're ready. I didn't seek this out. But I learned that, as a choreographer, I can't be afraid to take a stand and say something."

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Bitcoin ATMs Come to the 'Burgh

Bitcoin ATMs Come to the 'Burgh

But what exactly is a bitcoin?

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Parts & Service Adds Pizza To Superior Motors

Parts & Service Adds Pizza To Superior Motors

Executive Chef Kevin Sousa and Pastry Chef Kate Carney are cooking sourdough pizza in an outdoor brick oven.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Underrated Fountains in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Underrated Fountains in Pittsburgh

While we all know and love the grandeur of the fountain at Point State Park, there are many hidden fountain gems throughout the city. These are a few of our lesser-known favorites.

Comments


A Mysterious (But Messy) Night at the Museum with DODO

A Mysterious (But Messy) Night at the Museum with DODO

A review of "DODO," the immersive-theater production currently taking place at the Carnegie Museums by Bricolage Production Company.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
It's What Steelers Do After Kansas City That Matters

It's What Steelers Do After Kansas City That Matters

The team is more than capable of beating the Bengals Sunday, but are they willing to keep their eye on the ball long enough to begin stacking victories again for a change?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
#Gottahaveit: Take It To the Hoop

#Gottahaveit: Take It To the Hoop

Robert Hallett, Goldsmith, handcrafts the jewelry in his Oakmont shop.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Celebrate the Life and Work of George Romero This Week

Celebrate the Life and Work of George Romero This Week

A preview of the week-long tribute to the late filmmaker, plus reviews and more movie news.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Pick of the Patch: Pumpkin-Themed Proposals

The Pick of the Patch: Pumpkin-Themed Proposals

In honor of fall, we’re showcasing three couples whose proposals involved one of the best things about the season: pumpkins.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Holiday How-To: Upgrade Your Fall Decor with Advice from Local Experts

Holiday How-To: Upgrade Your Fall Decor with Advice from Local Experts

Interior designers share their tips on creating easy, elegant décor that will take you from Halloween through Thanksgiving.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Tuition Increases at the University of Pittsburgh

Tuition Increases at the University of Pittsburgh

School trustees voted this week to increase tuition for in-state and out-of-state students.

Comments

Edit Module

Edit Module