There are countless novels creating vivid images for readers about the horrors of the Holocaust. Films dealing with its atrocities are nothing new. Likewise, paintings and sculptures depicting the carnage and mayhem of World War II can be found in museums and galleries everywhere.
Words and pictures can easily tell the vile story.
But can one depict a saga of degradation, brutality and murder through the art of ballet?
Through precise movement, sparse scenery and haunting music, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s presentation of “Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project,” which premiered Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Byham Theater and ran through the weekend, engaged its audience with the range of sensibilities evoked by this stark period of human history.
The ballet was the culmination of a month of arts and education programming throughout Pittsburgh, designed to inspire a communitywide dialogue about genocide. The PBT, in partnership with The Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, is only the second ballet company in the country to take on this project.
Stephen Mills, artistic director of Ballet Austin, first created the ballet in 2005. He addressed supporters of the project, and about 50 Holocaust survivors, at a reception prior to the Pittsburgh premiere last Thursday at the Renaissance Hotel.
“How do you make a ballet about the Holocaust?” asked Mills, who is not Jewish. “As artists, we are always searching for deeper meaning in the conversations we have with our audience.”
Mills said that after the events of 9/11, he “understood what it was to have the bubble burst,” and tried to “grapple with what my place was as an artist.”
His quest to find meaning through art eventually led him to conversations with many survivors of the Holocaust, tours of seven concentration camps and a visit to Israel.
“When a survivor shares his story with you, it is a personal gift,” Mills said. “I don’t take it lightly.”
That he took the stories he collected seriously is evident in the sensitivity with which Mills has handled the subject of the Holocaust in “Light.”
The ballet begins in the Garden of Eden, with the dancers portraying Adam and Eve exuding joy and hope. Yet the audience notices the Tree of Life in the background is tethered to the ground with stark barbed wire — an omen of what is to come.
The next scene, called “Family,” celebrates the happiness and comfort of the Jews in Europe before the Nazis began their reign of terror. The dancers are smiling; the movements are joyous.
In sections three and four, the mood of the ballet changes. A bright white light represents the aggressors. The dancers are confused and scared. They are degraded, and forced to undress. In section five, they are confined to the cramped, claustrophobia of the boxcars, where many die before reaching their ultimate destination.
In “Ashes,” the sixth section of the ballet, the audience feels the experience of the camps, each individual dancer helpless, yet forming relationships with others in an effort to survive.
The ballet concludes with “Hush,” where more traditional dance movements, and sky blue unitards, connote reflection, hope and renewal.
Throughout the ballet, the lead character, portrayed movingly Thursday night by principal dancer Julia Erickson, and representing Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren — Mills’ inspiration for the ballet — encounters an older woman, who ultimately provides comfort. The old woman also represents Warren, but as a survivor, giving hope to her younger self.
Although the subject of the ballet is the Holocaust, its themes of genocide and indifference to the suffering of others are more global, and hopefully instructive, Mills said.
“What is our responsibility when we witness incidences of hate when we are citizens of the world?” Mills asked.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com or 412-687-1263)