Few events in recent history evoke such intense emotion as the Holocaust. Few have been so often immortalized on film, in art and in literature.
So deciding whether to create a ballet on the subject was something award-winning choreographer Stephen Mills grappled with at length. In fact, reasons for not doing the ballet that became Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project (2005) seemed insurmountable.
"I am not Jewish and I didn't lose anyone in the Holocaust. I didn't even have a family member in World War II," says Mills by phone from Austin, Texas, where he is the artistic director of Ballet Austin. "I couldn't be more separated from the subject, and I felt in many ways I didn't really have the authority to do a ballet on it."
Then Mills met Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren, who reminded him that many of the crimes committed during the Holocaust are still being perpetrated.
"Genocide is still taking place today," says Mills. "People are still being murdered, raped and taken without their permission and degraded. We have a responsibility to call that out when we see it and not be bystanders, but participants in preventing it."
That sense of responsibility was the motivation Mills needed to go ahead with the ballet, along with an accompanying slate of community-education programs.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs the work Nov. 12-15, in a local premiere at the Byham Theater. (For a complete listing of related events and exhibitions organized by the PBT and the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation, see www.pbt.org/performances/light.)
As seen in a video preview, the ballet is expectedly dark, somber and at times disturbing. It is also joyous and hopeful. Mills' choreography is a mix of contemporary ballet and European movement styles, fraught with symbolism -- more like something you'd see at the Pittsburgh Dance Council than the PBT's typically classical style.
Light is based on two years of research, including visits to several concentration camps and interviews with more than 20 Holocaust survivors. It focuses on Warren's Holocaust experiences surviving three camps. The work's five sections explore what it was like for Holocaust victims to be targeted and taken from their homes, as well as the life-and-death struggle inside the camps.
What Light doesn't contain is specific references to time and place. There are no swastikas, Nazi soldiers, barbed wire or prison walls. The sets and costumes by designer Christopher McCollum are abstract and minimal, as is the music, from composers including Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
For PBT's part, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project is a bold statement highlighting the company's 40th-anniversary season.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project Thu., Nov. 12-Sun., Nov. 15. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $20.50-88. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org