Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project
November 12–15, 2009
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Julia Erickson. Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT.
While art is said to mimic life, it is a bitter irony that often life’s greatest atrocities can inspire some of art’s greatest works. Such
is the case with the Holocaust.
It is through this tragic lens that Ballet Austin artistic director/choreographer Stephen Mills created his Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project (2005). The contemporary ballet, performed expertly by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, took a mostly abstract approach to the subject. In doing so, it became a window into the breadth of humanity’s dark heartedness, allowing us not only to peer into the Holocaust’s past horrors but perhaps to relate those horrors with those existing in world today.
Set to an emotional score by composers Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, and others, the movement style mixed modern ballet with contemporary movement à la Mats Ek and Ohad Naharin. Light’s seven sections began with the illumination of a sphere representing hope and a pas de deux conjuring images of Adam and Eve and the tree of life. The ballet’s remaining sections figuratively followed the journey of real-life Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren. Guest artist Janet Popeleski portrayed the mature Warren entering and exiting the stage as if moving through memories of that time. Her younger self was danced by PBT principal Julia Erickson, who projected an arresting vulnerability and expressiveness. This played out in scenes as diverse as Warren’s happier pre-war life and in brutal images of Kristallnacht and the forced removal of Jews from their homes.
A siren song of remembrance for what has been lost and what remains, Light was masterful and hauntingly beautiful at times. In one poignant scene, a dozen of PBT’s ensemble cast were called out, one by one, by an unseen aggressor who forced them to strip to their underwear and huddle into a small square of light, where they shook in fear. They climbed on top of and tumbled over one another while air raid sirens blared, giving the disturbing impression of Holocaust victims crammed into a boxcar, bound for a concentration camp.
Light’s most lasting images, however, came in the section entitled “Ashes” that depicted life in the camps. During Pärt’s gripping Tabula Rasa, PBT’s dancers clung desperately to one another and were at each others throats. Metaphoric images of death came into focus as some dancers rolled along the floor from light into darkness while others marched in a circle and took turns at its center, playing out end-of-life struggles. This scene climaxed in dancer Elysa Hotchkiss’ lissome and passionate demi-solo.
Fittingly Light concluded in relative hush as four couples, dancing to sublime music by Philip Glass, put to rest tragic images, leaving in their place heartfelt memories and a sense of hope for the future.