Ballet Austin's Holocaust & Humanity Project: A Q & A with Stephen Mills
While preparing for Shelley Seale's CultureMap story on Ballet Austin's performance of Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, Ballet Austin Creative Director Stephen Mills answered some questions about his vision for the dance and gives some very personal answers regarding his emotional connection to the work.
Can you describe — in a couple sentences — your journey from conceiving the idea through today?
Stephen Mills: Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project began with a search to find a deeper meaning within my work. I never imagined I would be led to the catastrophic events of the Holocaust. While the devastating destruction and loss during WWII and the Holocaust was immense, the subsequent story of survival is awe inspiring. Today, after having spent time with a dozen survivors over the course of my work on this project, I find myself changed in unforeseen ways. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. Light has taught me to be more present in my relationships with those around me and to stay diligent and vocal when witnessing acts of bigotry, bullying and hate.
How gratifying is it to see the project expand like this?
SM: Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project has grown and changed since it premiered in 2005. This year’s project is filled with more grassroots efforts. With 48 community partners in the arts and human rights communities, the message Light embodies resonates more broadly than last time. The idea that an entire community is engaged in a conversation on the protection of human rights against bigotry and hate, and the fact that the conversation is being convened by an arts organization is very gratifying. Art is important in our lives and can engage people to affect change in their communities. This project is proof of that.
What has putting on the production meant to you? Do you have a particular memory that stands out?
SM: Revisiting Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project is meaningful to me in many ways. When re-staging a work, the piece reveals more of itself to me. In the process of teaching the dance to a new group of artists, I have the opportunity to re-engage with my learning of the topic. I share the stories I’ve been entrusted and, because of the retelling, they are more permanently inscribed upon me.
My greatest memory of the work is from the opening of the piece in 2005. As I sat with Naomi Warren, whose story is told in the work, I was extremely anxious about what reaction she might have after seeing the dance. Midway through the piece, Naomi took my hand and began to cry. As I continued to hand her tissues through the remainder of the dance, I was most concerned that I might have inadvertently triggered some pain or memory from her past. At the conclusion of the work, Naomi turned and gave me the longest, tightest and most sincere hug of my life. Whether the dance proved to be critically successful or not, I had been given a very unexpected gift from this gracious woman. An utter stranger had asked her for her testimony. And, as she shared her most intimate of stories with me, Naomi and I were bound together in the most indescribable way.