The Austin Chronicle

Moving Toward the Light

On the heels of its balletic colleagues, Chorus Austin melds movement with music to voice the unutterable

By Adam Roberts, March 30, 2012, Arts

Those who did not attend Ballet Austin's remount of Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project last weekend missed an unmistakably transformative experience. Choreographed with searing rawness by Stephen Mills, who conceived and first programmed the work with his company in 2005, Light refused its audiences the usual comfort of an evening at the ballet. Instead, we were confronted with the lens of the bystander; remaining safely in our seats and unable to tear away from Mills' kinesthetic interpretation of the atrocities at the core of what is unspeakable, a hailstorm of questions flooded the collective consciousness of Dell Hall. At this moment, it became clear that the message was not to be found only onstage but also in the house, where each of us had been forced into the position of witness. And it was startling.

Choreography holds the remarkable capacity to express with the full instrument of the body what the tongue alone is often inadequate for or incapable of conveying. As a choreographer for the musical theatre, for instance, my work should serve to excavate the story behind the lyrics being sung, to provide subtext through movement that is not as readily transmittable in other ways. Indeed, prose surrounding the Holocaust is often peppered with adjectives like "unspeakable" or "unutterable," and Mills' ballet delivers that alternative language with which to examine its impossible topics. But Ballet Austin's project also extends far beyond the Dell Hall stage, reaching into the city with a robust network of partnering community organizations through a three-month initiative of which last weekend's ballet was a central event.

As it turns out, Mills is not the only one who's using the medium of choreography to probe the depths of the Holocaust this month. The work of Chorus Austin – one of those community partners in this year's Light – is moving, too.

"Ballet Austin made the initial invitation to Chorus Austin to be a collaborator in the larger project," says Artistic Director and Conductor Ryan Heller, who didn't have to think twice about saying yes. The result: In Remembrance, a concert this Saturday at Congregation Agudas Achim with Rabbi Neil Blumofe as soloist. The concert's details were left in Heller's hands, who knew immediately that he wanted to commission a cornerstone piece for the event. He also knew without hesitation whom to call: Robert Kyr, professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon and featured composer of Conspirare's highly acclaimed Renaissance & Response festival last year.

"I knew I wanted to talk with Rob about this piece for Chorus Austin's chamber choir, the Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble," Heller recalls. The resulting collaboration between the two has yielded The Unutterable, a bold and provocative new multimedia work that hits its composer close to home.

"The Unutterable is deeply personal for me," Kyr explains by email. "My mother was in the Red Cross immediately following World War II and was assigned to duty in Germany, where she was one of the first Americans to witness the atrocities of the camps. She was an administrative assistant and took notes for top military officials as they moved through the rooms of the camps and were told about the horrors that had occurred there. She transcribed the notes into reports that became part of classified archives; and later, she was assigned to do the same for facilities where biological and chemical weapons (including nerve gas) were developed.

"I only heard her speak about this once in her lifetime, when I was 16; and she recounted her experience to me alone and only for about 20 minutes because she could no longer speak about that which was 'unutterable.' In part, this is the meaning of the title of my work, which represents horrors so extreme that they cannot be spoken but must be fully witnessed (in this case, through art) so that the atrocities are exposed and never repeated."

Just as Mills' work moved metaphorically through the house on that air of collective consciousness last weekend, so, too, will Kyr's. On Saturday night at Agudas Achim, though, that choreography among the observers will be literal.

"The movement and staging of the piece are a crucial part of the musical experience for the listener," says Kyr. "The audience is literally in the middle of the performance with the singers moving around and through them and some of the instruments playing from above them in the balcony and others in front of them. The staging and movement are not an effect but are directly related to the poem 'Death Fugue,' by Paul Celan, who was forced to work in a labor camp and [whose] parents died in a Nazi concentration camp. His poem reflects his experience and the suffering of his parents, as he imagined it. The German title of the poem is 'Todesfuge,' which resembles the word 'Todesmusik' or 'Death Music,' suggesting the music that prisoners were forced to play for those who were being led to the gas chambers.

"For me, the intense topic of the work demanded a completely unconventional and innovative approach that was nevertheless totally accessible, a kind of synthesis of concert music, theatre, film, and ritual."

What's remarkable and so fitting about Kyr's vantage point is how closely it mirrors that which the Austin arts tend to do best: advance the unconventional. Our city's audiences are constantly challenged to observe, interact with, and otherwise experience artistic ideas and contexts that one may be hard-pressed to find collected in other individual markets. This is a creative community bursting at the seams with cross-connections, one that consistently etches its own new and diverse definitions of artistic media. As artists, we tend not to gravitate to the usual here. The magnet that seems to pull the Austin arts toward it is that of the unique, participatory gaze, the innovative hybrid modality for investigating ourselves and what we can do about us – the provocative new way to share the unutterable.

Heller is on the same page: "Perhaps what speaks to me most about this project is that it provides a lens for us to view mankind's remarkable ability to come out of something so horrific and unimaginable with the possibility of growth, compassion, and greater love toward one another. In experiencing the work, the listener is both in the performance and watching it at the same time. Through the performance, the audience and the performers are taking the journey of the work together, and I hope that it is meaningful and healing for everyone involved."

In Remembrance will be performed Saturday, March 31, 8:15pm, at Congregation Agudas Achim, 7300 Hart. For more information, call 719-3300 or visit

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