By Immanuel Shalev
In 2005, the Austen Ballet company put on a ballet depicting the
Holocaust called “Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project.” Stephen
Mills, artistic director of the Ballet Austin company put this ballet
together at the behest of a survivor, Naomi Warren. According to
Mills, he initially refused to take on such a project: “It’s
hallowed ground,” Mills said. “You can’t wrap your mind around that
much destruction and pain. And to distill it down to a theatrical
experience felt like it would be insulting.” However, Warren
disagreed: “I told Stephen he must make this ballet because he has
the stage, the platform, to do it.”
For Warren, and ultimately, Mills, while art cannot fully capture the
scope of the tragedy, something is better than nothing. Mills had a
platform, and Warren expected him to use it to remember something.
The ballet attempts to focus on human perseverence in the midst of
suffering – but some may say that is not what the Holocaust was. But
no one is interested in suffering for the sake of suffering and so the
ballet is the carrot that lures the viewers in while getting them to
at least appreciate some of the depth of the message of the Holocaust.
However, before one can pass judgment on art and its attempt to
express even a small aspect of a tragedy so big as the Holocaust, one
must attempt to understand what the purpose of art is. A humble
defintion of art is: expression through limitation. A painting,
limited to paints, brush-strokes, and the length of the canvas, cannot
recreate the majesty that is the alps. And yet we so appreciate an
artist who tries. We appreciate an impressionist who dons further
limitations to create a masterpiece. We applaud the ballet that seeks
to tell only a copy of a copy of a story through movement. The
limmerick, the haiku, the sonnet… For some reason, the ability for a
human being to express meaning, emotion, the world of the spirit,
through a limited medium, is impactful. It is not just artistic, but
is the only way we communicate. Language, film, oratory, dance, is
expression through limitation, and therefore art.
There is no way to communicate the horrors of the Holocaust on all
levels. Forcing someone to watch documentaries, to listen to the
accounts of survivors does not transport the spirit and have them
contemplate the emotion as well as a movie, a haunting song or a
meaningful ballet. Even if those forms of art focus on human
perseverence, they cause those who interact with the art to identify.
Without identification, the listener or observer is merely an
audience. But when art causes identification, then the audience
becomes a part of the work.
Artists such as Mills and Spielberg should therefore be applauded for
their work. While one may point to the Hollywood character of
Schindler’s List, or the shortcomings of the audience in a film like
Life is Beautiful, all one is pointing to is the limits of humanity at
processing tragedy. The artist seduces the spirit to identify with the
victims and expresses a taste of the meaning of the tragedy while he
has his audience committed.