This story starts when I was timidly walking the center line of the exhibition hall at the Association of Arts Presenters (APAP) conference. When I looked up and saw the Ballet Austin booth–off to the side in a lonely little corridor– I was moved to go over and say “hi.” (Why do they always put the Texans off to the side?) I should also add that I am a lover of all things Austin.
At the booth I met Ballet Austin’s main man, Stephen Mills, a soft spoken gentle man. I mentioned I was in Austin when the streets were covered with Hamlet banners advertising his ballet. “What’s left to do after Hamlet?” I asked. Mills told me he was working on a new project, something to do with light and the Holocaust. I said my goodbyes and promised to keep in touch.
The words, “light” and the “holocaust” rumbled in my thoughts for while; it was enough for me keep my promise and give Mills a call. The official name of the project is Light/The Holocaust and the Humanity Project. The project began when Dr. Mary Lee Webeck, a professor at the University of Texas College of Education, asked Mills if he had ever considered making a dance about the Holocaust. Webeck, a Ballet Austin fan, saw something in Mill’s work that made her think it was a subject worthy of consideration. “I was fascinated and horrified with the same questions that everyone else had,” remarked Mills.
Webeck and Mills began planning a city wide event that includes art, forums, lectures and a new ballet by Mills. With some key figures like Rick Perry and Ann Richards behind him, he was heading up one of the most original urban arts events in Texas history.
Mills had some homework to do tackle this serious subject. Making a ballet wasn’t the end of the story. “It’s just not respectful of the significance of the ordeal that people endured to just make a ballet. I wanted to ensure there would be some meaty educational opportunities as well.”
He contacted Holocaust Museum Houston and landed a Warren Family Fellowship. Five straight days of education immersed in the museum’s exhibit and remarkable testimonies by Houston Holocaust survivors left him deeply steeped in Holocaust history.
Speaking directly to Holocaust survivors was life-changing for Mills, “I can’t even describe what this experience was like. These testimonies put a face on actual experiences. It changes your whole paradigm on what we take for granted.”
Mills continued his education by visiting seven death camps in Europe, including Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Birkenau. “There is so much you learn about an event by being in the place that it happened.” On the plane ride back Mills wondered if he was in over his head. Processing all the information, emotion, and enormity of this event into a dance seemed like a monstrous task.
Mills narrowed his focus by telling the story through one person’s eyes. The “person” is a composite of the many compelling stories he encountered during his research. Mills saught to convey the loss of personal space in movement. Film sequences by Austin film company, Action Figure, and a minimal set by Christopher McCollum also provided a canvas for Mill’s choreography.
I was curious how Mills brought his dancers into the picture. How does a choreographer, who has undergone such a personal transformation, communicate the depth of his discovery to his dancers? Mills had an unusual plan to bring the dancers into the process. Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren spoke to the dancers. Warren entered a concentration camp at the age of 17. It’s not a surprise that the dancers found her testimony both horrifying and riveting. The Holocaust Museum Houston provided a trunk full of books to supplement their education. The dancers started a book club to further their research. Issues of race, gender, and identity surfaced during their discussions.
Mills engineered this project for his ballet to be one of many opportunities for engagement. An art exhibit organized by the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem, Israel on the theme of co-existence graces the river banks at Auditorium Shores. These 30-foot posters, created by artists from all over the world, stand like beacons of hope. I was able to attend the opening, with my two reluctant teens in tow. For a time they forgot the mud collecting on their fancy sneakers to take in these powerful visual messages.
Many events make up this grand project and all the details can be had by visiting www.balletaustin.org/light. Special events for educators occurred in February. Elie Wiesel, author of Night and probably the most famous Holocaust survivor, will speak on March 31st at Bass Concert Hall. Linda Ellerbee will moderate a town hall meeting on KLRU-TV on April 19th to be aired at a later date.
Several times during the course of my conversation with Mills I had to remind myself that I was speaking to the Director of a ballet company. With this project Mills distinguishes himself as an Artist/Citizen who dares to reinvent the role of a ballet company in an urban environment. So often arts organizations and artists isolate themselves into their own microscopic world and wonder why no one pays attention. Mills’s project models the power of a city uniting towards a common goal-enlisting a catastrophic world event to initiate a community-wide dialogue. And who says choreographers can’t change the world?
Little did I know, when I strayed off the path that day at the APAP conference, I would meet someone who also strayed off the path of “traditional ballet person.” As always, I am inspired by those that seek to bring the arts into the center of a city’s vitality. Houston has much to learn from Mills’s efforts in enlisting the intellectual capital available in his own city.
As we were ending our conversation I inquired how the concept of “light” got attached to a project about the Holocaust. “Every survivor I spoke with mentioned hope.” So, it follows, in the hope we find light.
Ballet Austin presents Light/The Holocaust and The Humanity Project at Bass Concert Hall, April 1-2, at 8pm, April 2 at 2pm. For tickets, please call Star Tickets at 512-469-SHOW, online at http://www.startickets.com/. Group tickets are available at Ballet Austin by calling 512-476-2163 or visiting http://www.balletaustin.org/