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'Light' seeks to spur discussion of human rights, hate

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Inevitably, when Stephen Mills introduces a discussion about "Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project," his critically acclaimed ballet first presented in 2005, he says he's greeted by the same question: You made a ballet about the Holocaust?

"It's not a dance about the Holocaust, specifically," said Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin. "That would be so offensive of me to presume I can tell that story."

Ballet Austin is remounting "Light" at the Long Center for the Performing Arts March 23-25.

Along with it comes three months of community programming, a vast cooperative effort between Ballet Austin and more than 40 organizations to foster a citywide discussion on promoting human rights and raising awareness about hate, bigotry and bullying.

Last week, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Police Chief Art Acevedo and representatives of Ballet Austin announced the project at a press conference at City Hall.

Leffingwell, Acevedo and Austin school district Superintendent Meria Carstarphen are serving as honorary chairs of the event. Anti-Defamation League Austin, the City of Austin, KLRU-TV, the Police Department and the school district are among the lead collaborators.

When "Light" debuted seven years ago, Mills and other Ballet Austin leaders never intended for the dance performance to exist on its own without a roster of adjunct opportunities for education and discussion about the importance of human rights.

"We always imagined it being used as a convener of conversation, and any artist hopes that what they create has a life beyond its creation," Mills said. " ‘Light' became a huge conversation. I don't think we understood at the time how large that conversation could be and still is."

This presentation of the "Light" project is deliberately framed by very symbolic holidays. It began Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — and continues through April 19, which is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Among other events are an exhibit at St. Edward's University of paintings by Robert Shetterly, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Zach Theatre is dovetailing its production "The Laramie Project," a two-part documentary play based on the events surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming. And on March 20, Holocaust survivor and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Gerda Weissman Klein will be interviewed live by Dan Rather at ACL Live as part of KLRU-TV's Engaging Speaker Series

"I wish that everyone loved dance," Mills said. "But I want to have as many opportunities as possible for people to engage in this topic. The important part is the learning."

Mills' 75-minute one-act ballet is set to the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Evelyn Glennie.

Before creating "Light," Mills traveled to Eastern Europe to visit Holocaust sites, including several concentration camps. He also went to Israel to talk to members of the Israeli dance community. And he interviewed about a dozen Holocaust survivors in the United States, Europe and Israel.

One of those survivors was 93-year-old Polish-born Naomi Warren of Houston, who survived both the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen camps. Warren's story served as Mills' main inspiration for "Light."

"After I met Naomi, I didn't think about anything in the same way," Mills said.

Warren's story as adapted into a ballet serves as leverage for Mills and others to urge a discussion about hate, intolerance and bigotry — topics Mills said need to be kept in the fore.

The tone of public and political discourse is at a particularly hateful level these days, Mills said. And the effects of bullying and bigotry have escalated with the rise of the Internet with particularly tragic consequences.

The rise of teen suicide — particularly among gay teens — is fueled by a kind of hate familiar to Mills. Memories of being bullied in high school still cast a dark cloud in mind of the 51-year-old choreographer.

"My story isn't an unusual story," Mills said. "It happens to gay teens constantly."

In January, Mills took the Ballet Austin dancers to the Holocaust Museum Houston. Mills spent a considerable amount of time doing research at the institution when he created "Light," and many of the dancers who will be performing in March were not a part of the first production.

Despite health issues, Warren rallied to meet with Mills and the dancers at the museum and told her story of hope, survival and light.

"I think Holocaust education is really important," Mills said. "To me the past is present; it's always living, and we have to be mindful of it."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

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