Opus Colorado

The Colorado Ballet and Choreographer Stephen Mills are profound and wonderful in Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project

Friday evening, March 29, I attended the opening night of the Colorado Ballet’s production of Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. This was the first time this ballet was performed in Denver. In the program, I also read that “This ballet is inspired by the poignant journey of one Holocaust survivor and serves as a timely reminder of the importance of the protection of human rights.” The italics on the word poignant are mine. I italicized it because it is such an incredible understatement. The ballet was remarkably artistic because of its expression, dancing, acting, and because of its absolutely new approach to choreography. However, it wasn’t just poignant, it was devastating and heartrending, but that’s what the Holocaust was.

This ballet is in one large movement with five very distinct segments and no intermission. It begins with the Tree of Life/Family; then Segregation and Marginalization; Humanity as property/Control through terror; Coping inside the box; and finally, Survival. There are five outstanding composers used for the music in this ballet: Steve Reich (Tehillim); Evelyn Glennie (Rhythm Song); Michael Gordon (Weather); Arvo Pärt (Tabula Rasa); and Philip Glass (Tirol Concerto).

The Choreographer was Stephen Mills of Ballet Austin in Austin, Texas. I will quote from the program notes:

“Known for his innovative and collaborative choreographic projects, Stephen Mills has works in the repertories of companies across the US and around the world. From his inaugural season as Artistic Director in 2000, Mills attracted attention from around the United States with his world-premiere production of Hamlet, hailed by Dance Magazine as ‘…sleek and sophisticated.’ The Washington Post recognized Ballet Austin as ‘one of the nation’s best-kept secrets’ in 2004 after Ballet Austin performed Mills’ world premiere of The Taming of the Shrew, commissioned by and performed at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The Company was first invited to perform at Kennedy Center in January of 2002 with the Mills production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and at The Joyce Theater (NYC) in 2004. In 2005 after two years of extensive research, Mills led 13 organizations through a community-wide human rights collaboration that culminated in the world premiere work Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project. In 2006 Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project was awarded the Audrey & Raymond Maislin Humanitarian Award by
The Anti-Defamation League.

“In 1998 Mills was the choreographer chosen to represent the U.S. through his work, Ashes, at the Rencontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis in Paris. Most recently, Mr. Mills was awarded the Steinberg Award, the top honor at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur International Choreographic Competition for One/The Body’s Grace.

”Mr. Mills has created more than 40 works for companies in the United States and abroad. His ballets are in the repertories of such companies as The Hong Kong Ballet, American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, The Atlanta Ballet, The Milwaukee Ballet, Washington Ballet, Cuballet in Havana, Cuba, BalletMet Columbus, The Dayton Ballet, The Sarasota Ballet of Florida, Ballet Pacifica, Dallas Black Dance Theater, The Louisville Ballet, The Nashville Ballet, Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet, The Sacramento Ballet and Dance Kaleidoscope. He has worked in collaboration with such luminaries as the eight-time Grammy Award-winning band, Asleep at the Wheel, Shawn Colvin and internationally renowned flamenco artist José Greco II.

”In addition to his work as a choreographer, Mr. Mills is a master teacher committed to developing dancers. He has been invited as guest faculty at many pre-professional academies including Jacob’s Pillow, Goucher College; Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts in Dallas; The Virginia School of the Arts; The New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts; Stephens College and Point Park College in Pittsburgh. Mr. Mills is a member of the national dance service organization Dance/USA and has served both in leadership roles and on the Board of Trustees for the organization.”

Notice how extensively I quoted from Mills’ biography. I truly believe that Mills will be recognized as one of the great choreographers along with Balanchine, Ailey, Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, and deMille. In this ballet, his choreography was fast-paced, and required great energy and strength on the part of the dancers. It struck me as being incredibly difficult because of the physical demands. I am also sure that it took a great deal of mental strength, because there were none of the “traditional” ballet movements that so many dancers must learn when they are being trained. Above all, the choreography was enormously expressive, and every dancer in the Colorado Ballet responded to that quite easily: it is emotional and dramatic expression that makes this ballet company one of the best in the United States.

The ballet begins with a nineteen-year-old girl having a conversation with the woman she is to become. The Girl was danced by Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, and the Woman by Lorita Travaglia. What a pleasant surprise it was to see Travaglia on stage, even if she did not dance. The fact that she did not dance, and was therefore “silent,” made her appearance more dramatic. On rare occasions, I have seen her at rehearsals work with the other dancers, and as Ballet Mistress, she is one of the hard-working members of the staff. The above-mentioned “Girl” and “Woman” are the same person in the ballet’s first segment, and the Woman shows the young Girl what she will become, as she will be a survivor of the Holocaust. The music for the first segment was by Steve Reich, and was a cacophony of human voices, which, to me, seemed to demonstrate the sameness of all humanity.

Notice the different segments that I mention in the second paragraph of this article. The second segment, Segregation and Marginalization, demonstrates the process of deeming individuals as members of “The Other.” I was absolutely amazed at how every single dancer onstage reflected the anguished puzzlement and disbelief in that process. And in the third segment, Humanity as property/Control through terror, “The Others” were taken away on railroad boxcars to be delivered to the camps, and it was heartrending to see some of the dancers simply rolled off the boxcars because they did not survive the trip. The music of the third segment was composed of perhaps eight or nine warning sirens (air raid sirens?) and a low pedal point from an organ or synthesizer. The warning sirens were actually part of the composition entitled Weather by Michael Gordon.

Segment IV showed the humaneness and survival instincts of those in the camps. Segment V represented a glimmer of hope shown by those who did survive and The Woman who had a productive life, family, and a successful relationship.

While this ballet was, of course, definitively choreographed, it was remarkable to me that Stephen Mills somehow allowed each dancer to show individual expression, and how that expression was personalized and demonstrated by all of the dancers onstage.

I have often remarked in my articles concerning the Colorado Ballet about its depth of ability, and my sincere belief that the individuals who go out on stage could dance any solo they choose. That depth of artistic ability was clearly in evidence Friday evening. Lesley Allred, Dana Benton, Morgan Buchanan, Cara Cooper, Klara Houdet, Tracy Jones, Asoka Sasaki, Christina Schifano, Megan Swisher, Sally Turkel, Sharon Wehner, Gregory DeSantis, Francisco Estevez, Jesse Marks, Christopher Moulton, Sean Omandam, Adam Still, Jeremy Studinski, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Dmitry Trubchanov, Luis Valdes, and Ben Winegar all deserve the highest praise. Their dramatic ability is as powerful as their dancing.

Stephen Mills’ choreography of this ballet demonstrated completely that choreography is to ballet what composition is to music. I am as amazed by his concept of movement as I am by Bach’s counterpoint, a Haydn quartet, or a Beethoven Symphony. And, I must mention the set and costume design by Christopher McCollum. It went hand-in-hand with the choreography.

Gil Boggs, Marie Belew Wheatley, and the Board of the Colorado Ballet deserve much praise for presenting a ballet that is so strong and uncompromising in its presentation. The artistry of this ballet performance was also strong and uncompromising. We must remember its message.

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