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Performing with Ballet Austin, dancer finds renewal in a Holocaust ballet

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Paul Michael Bloodgood performs in the 2005 production of Ballet Austin's 'Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project.' Recently Ballet Austin officials announced that the group was invited to Israel to perform in 2013.

For Paul Michael Bloodgood, dancing a lead role in "Light/The Holocaust and Humanity," Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills' critically lauded modern ballet, has proved life-changing.

"I feel flattered to be a part of it," he says over a Chai latte at Juan Pelota Café, taking a break amid a full day of rehearsals. "But I'm humbled by it, too. It's so much bigger than a ballet."

Ballet Austin premiered "Light" in 2005, gaining national attention for Mills' eloquent metaphoric exploration in dance of the swirl of issues surrounding the Holocaust: hatred, bigotry, fear, intolerance and, finally, survival, hope and understanding.

Now, the company is remounting "Light," a 75-minute ballet in five sections, for three performances at the Long Center beginning Friday. And recently Ballet Austin officials announced that the group has been invited to Israel to perform the piece as part of an international festival in 2013.

But when Bloodgood, who has twice been singled out for awards from the Austin Critics' Table, first began work on "Light" seven years ago, the dancer was at a bit of an artistic crossroads. Left with a sense of restlessness after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Bloodgood was questioning the very relevance of his career choice.

"I thought being a dancer, being an artist, didn't feel as necessary as it did before," says Bloodgood, who hails from Seattle and has the sinewy body brought on by years of discipline and training. "But ‘Light' reinforced in me that the arts can make a difference. "

That difference, as Bloodgood points out, comes from art's ability to spark conversation about important, and urgent, topics.

"Dance, art has a way of transcending events," he says. "It's bigger than one person."

The Holocaust served as Mills' starting point for "Light," in particular the story of one survivor, 93-year-old Houstonite Naomi Warren, who survived both the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Using an abstract narrative with symbolic characters — without specific Holocaust imagery — "Light" illustrates humankind's courage and resilience in the face of unimaginable cruelty and devastating loss.

Bloodgood's role in "Light" is that of the male companion to the female survivor. And, as did all the Ballet Austin dancers during the initial staging of "Light," Bloodgood, 32, underwent much more than just a rehearsal of dance steps. Mills and the company spoke to several survivors and Holocaust historians and visited the Holocaust Museum in Houston. And though many of the same dancers who premiered "Light" in 2005 are still with the company, Mills again engaged the dancers in extra-studio discussions and research.

And Bloodgood, along with his wife and fellow Ballet Austin dancer, Anne Marie Melendez, took it a little further, too.

For the past several months, Bloodgood and Melendez have been hosting their fellow dancers for informal discussions about the issues raised by "Light" and sharing books and watching films about the Holocaust, as well as other histories of genocide and intolerance.

"I'm trying to absorb as many different stories as I can, learn as much about what different people experienced as possible," Bloodgood says. "I don't play a specific character (in ‘Light') per se, but I represent a role many people experienced. That's a lot of responsibility."

The upshot of all the research, reading, thinking and discussing, Bloodgood says, is that it's made the issues of hate crime and bigotry all the more immediate for him.

Silence is no longer acceptable to him.

"Intolerance is a universal problem," he says. "And being a bystander is just as bad as being a culprit. You have to speak out."

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699

‘Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project'