For many, the events that took place on September 11, 2001, served as a kind of wake-up call. In the aftermath, home security systems sales skyrocketed, families came together, cities united and individuals took good, hard looks at their lives. In Austin, Texas, choreographer Stephen Mills began to doubt the necessity of his work.
“When 9/11 happened,” said Mills in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, “I was in the middle of making a dance.”
Mills is a gentle, articulate speaker who takes great care in choosing his words.
“As an artist, I began to question why it was I was doing what I was doing. By that time, there was a war that was about to begin. Men and women were going off to serve in the army. I asked myself, ‘What is my place? What can I do that is helpful as an artist?’ Because what I was doing felt like a vain, self-involved practice,” he said.
Mills has been the artistic director of the Ballet Austin for the past 12 years. This year, the company is celebrating its 56th season, which will include a three-city tour in Israel. While in the country, the company will perform Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project.
Earlier this week, Ballet Austin performed at the Acre Festival in the North. Tonight and tomorrow night they will perform in Tel A viv at the Suzanne Dellal Center, and on Monday night at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem.
The piece is the result of many months of research that Mills embarked upon following his post 9/11 catharsis.
“I began to look for something that would allow me to have a deeper conversation with myself and my community about how art can be helpful and impactful. At that time, a friend of mine wondered aloud if the history of the Holocaust might be a way in to understand the political and humanitarian issues at hand. She suggested that I meet Naomi Warren, a woman who survived three different camps during World War II,” Mills explained.
Mills is admittedly removed from the subject of the Holocaust.
“I am the most unlikely of people to be engaging in this conversation,” he said. “I’m not Jewish, and no one in my family served in the war.”
Still, Mills felt that the answers he was looking for were at his fingertips. He went to Houston to meet Warren.
“She is the most positive of people. She suggested that we all bear responsibility for what had happened. In the present day, we are all responsible for reacting to acts of bigotry and hatred happening around us. She suggested that because I have an audience and I could speak, I should speak,” he said.
The meeting with Warren proved to be the tip of the iceberg for Mills.
“Once I decided we were going to do this project, I realized I had to immerse myself in the information. It was important to do it with a great deal of reverence and knowledge. I spent about a year in the education process. I went to eight different camps across Eastern Europe, and I went to Yad Vashem to spend a week at the institute there. I did a great deal of reading and conducted many interviews with survivors. The thing about the Holocaust is that the history is vital now because we are able to speak with people who were directly affected by it. I understand that that is not always going to be the case. I wanted to engage the testimony from survivors. For me, it was a gift I didn’t expect to get, and it will stay with me forever,” he said.
With his research fully underway, Mills turned to his dancers. Though all the dancers are seasoned, they had never been asked to delve so deeply into a subject.
“We didn’t have any Jewish dancers in the company, so everyone was in the same boat in terms of base knowledge about what the task was,” Mills said. “I felt that it was important out of respect that the dancers came at it from the right perspective, meaning we aren’t going to go into the studio, put steps together and call it a dance.
You don’t go out to create change globally; you create change one person at a time.”
The dancers visited the Holocaust Museum in Houston several times and held their own private meetings with survivors from the area. Then, together with Mills, they put their knowledge and feelings into movement.
To make Light possible, Ballet Austin has partnered with dozens of organizations across America to bring Holocaust education and dialogue to the public.
“There is a great deal of World War II education in America but not much about the Holocaust,” explained Mills.
When the piece premiered in 2005, the response was astounding. Presenters around the country contacted Mills to bring the performances to their cities. At each venue, Ballet Austin invited the audience to engage with the cast in a dialogue about human rights.
The Israeli tour of Light is particularly exciting for Mills.
“I always hold my breath because I’m telling somebody else’s story that I didn’t experience. It’s a story that is coming from outside rather than inside.
I’m curious to know how the audience perceives the work, Israelis in particular,” he said.
Light/ The Holocaust and Humanity Project will be presented at the Suzanne Dellal Center on September 27 and 28 (www.suzannedellal.org.il) and at the Gerard Behar Center on September 30 (www.gerard-behar.jerusalem.muni.il).