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.
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.
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."