Part of the horror of the Holocaust is its enormity: It was an expression of inhumanity so vast and vicious that we still struggle to comprehend it. No one work of art can encompass it.
Ballet Austin’s Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, which the troupe performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday night, is a beautifully crafted, deeply felt and sometimes powerful evocation of that terror. But choreographer and Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills’ portrayal was ultimately so broad that its impact was diminished.
The ballet was the culmination and centerpiece of a three-month-long cultural and educational program sponsored by the Arsht Center that motivated a great deal of community participation and goodwill. Mills’ ballet was inspired by the odyssey of Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren, who endured three concentration camps with astonishing determination and hopefulness.
Allisyn Paino portrays the present-day Warren as an anguished, older, maternal figure in a long blue dress who watches and comforts her younger self, played by Aara Krumpe in a passionate, committed performance. The ballet opens on a dark stage with Paino embracing Krumpe, who huddles over a globe lit by a narrow light, an emblem of life and humanity.
This segues into a scene of archetypal humanity: Adam and Eve figures (Ashley Lynn Gilfix and Frank Shott) in an arching, ardent pas de deux, followed by a group of dancers whose fluttering hands and circling arms reach toward heaven. Krumpe and Shott emerge and lead the company in a joyful community dance. Amid folk dance motifs of winding lines and linked hands, the couple is lifted high as at traditional Jewish wedding.
The dancers’ intensity and sincerity and their full-bodied commitment were moving and impressive throughout. And the visual elements were striking on their own and in their integration with the ballet’s theme.
Designer Christopher McCollum’s stark sets added a powerful graphic symbolism. In the Adam and Eve scene, ropes reach up and down from a contorted tree as if to connect it to heaven and earth. Rows of small scrims on stage-spanning bars fill with city images as the dancers struggle to escape, and later evoke the trains that took victims to death camps. Tony Tucci’s stunning lighting design, with its dramatic silhouettes, are essential to the mood of the ballet.
The most powerful segments were those that engaged most directly, physically and originally with events. In a section that evoked the death camp transports the dancers, stripped to white briefs and undershirts and became a writhing mass that slowly moved across the stage shedding dancers, a grinding machine spitting out bodies. A concentration camp sequence shows eight dancers in an inexorable circle toward death, with bursts of yearning, agony and comfort subsiding into the relentless march. At the end, Krumpe is left alone, cowering.
But that powerful moment is followed by a lyrical section with eight dancers in blue unitards in flowing lifts and soaring reaches. Mills wanted to end on a hopeful note, showing that humanity, like Warren, survives. But the uplift feels disconnected from the intensity that precedes it, and that ending – like the communal dance at the beginning – feels meandering and almost generic.
Perhaps continuing with the darkness would have been unbearable to most audiences. But there’s a power in the work’s center that does not feel answered by its ending, and that seems a pity.