Dance Matters

October 20, 2009

Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre takes on the heavy stuff.


A far cry from fluffy fairytales, Stephen Mills’ Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project challenges ballet to take on big issues. Ballet Austin’s 2005 production is performed this month by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as the centerpiece of PBT’s 40th anniversary season.


As it did for many artists, the events of September 11, 2001, left BA artistic direc­tor Mills looking to dance in order to work through his shock and grief. It was at this time that he met Naomi Warren, a Holocaust survivor living in Houston. Warren had been a prisoner in three camps, including Auschwitz. Most of her family was killed.


Could ballet aptly represent such tragic and enormous loss? For Mills, it could, if he narrowed his focus to a single female survivor, incorporating the many accounts he had heard. “You can’t tell the whole story,” he says, “but you can tell one story.” While Light deals directly with the Holocaust, there won’t be a swastika onstage. “The entire ballet is from the perspective of the victims,” says Mills. “I didn’t give the aggressors a presence or a voice.”

Extending beyond the platform of ballet, the project in Austin included art exhibits in public spaces, seminars for teachers on Holocaust education, public lectures, and a televised town hall meeting. “They couldn’t avoid contact with this project in our community,” says Mills.


PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr hopes to have as far reaching an effect in the Pittsburgh community. “In art,” says Orr, “we must inspire and educate.” In addition to the performances of Light at the Byham Theater Nov. 12–15, organizations including the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Chatham University, the Carnegie Mellon University Philhar­monic, and the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh will be hosting performances, readings, lectures, and classes for the public.

“To do this, respect and reverence are required,” says Mills. Like those in Austin before them, PBT’s dancers are expected to read up on the subject, meet with survivors, and visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.


The dancers at PBT are fully aware of the challenge that awaits them. At first, PBT principal Erin Halloran felt daunted by the responsibility of representing such a huge atrocity. “I was nervous about trying to do a ballet about so much death,” she says. “But I think the focus on the individual makes it possible.” Despite her nerves, Halloran is eager to address weighty subject matter. “Ballet needs to talk about serious issues to keep up with other art forms,” she says.


Mills, who is not Jewish, had his own apprehensions about creating Light. “My biggest concern was that I would be accused of co-opting someone else’s story and doing it badly,” he says. In order to come closer to an understanding of the Holocaust, Mills went to Europe, where he visited seven camps and met more than 20 survivors.

For Mills there is an urgency associated with this project, because in a few years there won’t be any more survivors with firsthand accounts. “Then it all just goes into a history book,” he says. The lessons from the Holocaust are global and extend far beyond its victims. “Genocide is not something that ended in 1946. It still exists today,” says Mills. “I want people to understand that we say ‘Never again,’ but it happens again and again.”

It seems Mills has found careful guardians of his mission in Pittsburgh. “The project tries to make people feel responsible for their actions,” says Halloran. “Doing nothing can be criminal.” —Kathleen McGuire



Pictured: Ballet Austin dancers in the 2005 production of
Light. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Ballet Austin.



Trading Places: Glenn Edgerton and Jim Vincent

New leadership at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Nederlands Dans Theater


Two of the best repertory companies on earth, one in Chicago and the other in The Hague, are exchanging artistic directors.


After nine years at the helm of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Jim Vincent took his place at the head of the larger and more exotic Nederlands Dans Theater in September. Both companies excel at athletic, quirky movement and both are known for generating new, adventurous work. Vincent has brought in A-list choreographers like Nacho Duato, Jorma Elo, Ohad Naharin, Susan Marshall, William Forsythe, and Jirí Kylián—very similar to the list at NDT. He has also commissioned emerging choreographers like Andrea Miller and Hubbard Street dancer Alejandro Cerrudo.


Speaking by phone the day before he flew to Amsterdam to start his new life, Vincent, 51, was clearly happy to be going “home” to the company where he made his mark as a dancer more than 20 years ago. “There are still pictures of me on the wall,” he mused. Yet he will miss the Hubbard Street dancers, who he felt “defined the collective spirit of a family working together.” He feels Hubbard Street’s success as a company can be attributed to “the audience getting a sense of how much the dancers enjoy one another’s company.”

Replacing Vincent at Hubbard Street is Glenn Edgerton, 49, a former Joffrey dancer who went on to perform with the main company of NDT and become its artistic director from 1994 to 2004. For the last year, he has been associate artistic director of HSDC, operating under Vincent’s wing. He calls the Hubbard Street dancers “phenomenal” and wants to continue some of the collaborations that Vincent set up, like being in residence for an extended program at the Art Institute of Chicago.


The two have crossed paths before. Vincent’s last year at NDT was Edgerton’s first, and Edgerton found himself watching videos of Vincent to learn certain roles. Americans who have spent most of their careers in Europe, they have kept in touch over the years.

Jirí Kylián had a huge effect on both of them. Vincent considered him “the complete mentor” when he was with NDT (1978–1990). “Jirí dealt with us as people first,” says Vincent. “He has that presence as he walks into a studio, drawing everyone into that single focus. He was constantly with us—on the bus, on the planes, in the same hotels. He lived with us, he worked with us, he breathed with us.”

Edgerton feels that Kylián is a master at homing in on expressiveness and enjoys working in that vein with his own dancers. “Getting to the root and essence of a phrase and finding the emotion that comes from that movement, and how that resonates with the public—drawing that out in a dancer is an exciting process.”

This fall NDT celebrates its 50th anniversary, for which Kylián has made a new work and revived several older signature works. After that, he will no longer be choreographing regularly for NDT—partly because he has developed other creative interests.

Taking his cue from Kylián’s style of leadership, Vincent says, “I’ll be in the studios, in the hallways, in the offices, working with marketing, working with development, working with education, creating an artistic staff. I’ll be creating a new platform.”

Edgerton, for his part, couldn’t be more pleased with his new job. “I love that combination of a ballet dancer who has the physicality and open mindedness that takes dance further. To be back in the U.S. and be here with Hubbard Street is a dream come true!”—Wendy Perron



Pictured: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s new director, Glenn Edgerton, rehearsing dancers. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.