‘Memento’ by the Jerusalem Ballet

The ballet centers on the story of Franceska Mann, the young, Jewish prima ballerina who lived in Poland before the war.

By SARAH HERSHENSON
August 25, 2019 17:57
NADYA TIMOFEYEVA works with dancers in ‘Memento.’

NADYA TIMOFEYEVA works with dancers in ‘Memento.’. (photo credit: LEONID HAROMCHENCKO)

Nadya Timofeyeva is the youthful artistic director of the Jerusalem Ballet and School of Ballet. Her voice conveys enthusiasm as she relates the story of Memento, the new ballet she choreographed what premieres at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on September 1, and at the Jerusalem Theater on September 7.

“When I received the date for the premiere, which is on the first of September, I could not believe my ears,” she said in hushed tones. “September 1, 1939 was the outbreak of World War II and the time the ballet takes place. Memento will premiere on the 80th anniversary of World War II.

The ballet centers on the story of Franceska Mann, the young, Jewish prima ballerina who lived in Poland before the war, Timofeyeva explained. “It is a ballet about her hope, her life and her bravery.”

In 1939, Mann placed fourth among 125 other young ballet dancers in an international dance competition in Brussels. She was considered one of the most beautiful and promising dancers of her generation, and was booked for performances in classical and modern repertoire throughout Europe.

Within a few months, however, she went from being a star on stage to sewing yellow stars on her clothes.

“I was searching for a story to choreograph for our company, and considered the story of [Oskar] Schindler, but it was not working,” Timofeyeva recalled. “When our new general director, Marina Neeman, mentioned the story of... Franceska Mann, I knew I had a fit. She embodied everything I wished, her hope, her tenacity, and her bravery.”

Mann went to her death with strength, courage and confidence, according to the testimony in Eyewitness Auschwitz by Filip Mueller and the report by former Birkenau prisoner Jerzey Tabau for the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg.

At the beginning of the war she performed at the Melody Palace, a famous nightclub in Warsaw, but soon she and her family were to the Warsaw Ghetto where Mann was assigned to a cleaning brigade.

On October 23, 1943, the promising ballerina was among 1,700 Polish Jews on a train to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The prisoners had been told they would be exchanged for German prisoners of war in Switzerland. Then, when they reached Auschwitz, they were told they had to be disinfected before crossing the border into Switzerland.

From this point in the story there are several versions of what occurred next. It might been in the undressing room next to the gas chambers, or on the selection ramp, or in a labor area. According to eyewitnesses, Mann either had a pistol on her body or surreptitiously took a gun from the German roll call officer, Josef Schillinger, shot him twice in the stomach, killing him. She then managed to shoot and wound work service leader Sgt. Wilhelm Emmerich before she and the rest of the women were mowed down by German gunfire.

“AFTER HEARING the story, I immediately felt connected to Franceska Mann, and could imagine myself in her place,” said Timofeyeva. “I knew how she would move. In essence, I became her feet. For the last nine months while working on the ballet, I was a part of her story.

“My late mother, Nina Timofeyeva, was also part of the story. We made aliyah together in 1991. She was a prima ballerina in Russia, and I followed her footsteps. Her dream was to build a Bolshoi Ballet in Jerusalem. She began the process with great hope, and after she retired in 2015 I carry it on.

“I knew from the beginning that I needed to fill out the ballet with more characters. I researched at Yad Vashem and asked a dear friend of my mother’s about the life of a family, a Jewish family, before the war. From this information I was able to build a family and develop Franceska’s character within it.

“Then I built the character who personifies evil: a composite of the Nazi, of Hitler, and of the German officer at Auschwitz. The ballet is also about Franceska’s connection to the Nazis and how they exert control over her.

“The first theme throughout the ballet is Franceska’s great hope that the world would see what is happening in Europe and do something. Second, is her personal, steadfast determination not to give up hope until the final moment.

“The language of ballet is so beautiful,” explained Timofeyeva. “I chose to portray the harsh and ugly reality through actions of pantomime. There is no gun in Memento. In the last duet, the ballerina snakes her body around the Nazi and utterly crushes him.”

Timofeyeva chose Maurice Ravel’s Bolero to convey the endless motion of trains; Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 to highlight the dichotomy between German culture and savagery; the music of Russian film composer Isaac Schwartz to express freedom of the mind; and the light, happy music of English composer Lord Berners and the swing of jazz to highlight the hypocrisy of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who forbade that music in Germany but used it in a cabaret ensemble he formed called Charlie’s Orchestra which broadcast propaganda over the radio. Their song “Let’s Go Bombing” was a big hit.

“I want to take the audience on a journey and give them the feeling of knowing a Jewish family living in Europe before and during World War II,” explains Timofeyeva. “It is important to remember them, and to know how quickly their lives changed from fine to bad.”

Timofeyeva has confidence audiences will consider the antisemitism rampant in the world then and now. A quote by Edmond Burke hanging in her office sums up her outlook: “The only thing for the triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

“Even though I am apolitical and live my life in a ‘Ballet Bubble,’” she said, “I know everything can happen again. We must be active, not passive. I believe the ballet Memento strongly conveys this point.”

For more information or tickets: Suzanne Dellal Center, 03-510-5656 and Jerusalem Theater, 02-560-5755.


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