For many of us, history was an integral part of our academic experience. As children, we read our history books and learned of the formative years of our nation, of wars that forever changed the socio-political climate worldwide, and of the trials of the oppressed as they fought for freedom. But the past is doomed to repeat itself unless we take that knowledge, combine it with deep reflection and introspection, and turn that potent mixture into action. While that action can take place in courtrooms and protests, it can also find its home on a proscenium stage. Art, and more specifically, the art of dance, has at its heart the the power to keep the past alive and give voice to its stories. Through thorough research, reflection and creative development, choreographers can shed new light on some of history’s darkest days. But that ability is an art in and of itself, and few are as well equipped to shine that light as Ballet 5:8 Artistic Director, Julianna Slager.
In past interviews with Julianna, we’ve taken a deep dive into the world of Ballet 5:8 and of the mastery of Julianna’s choreography and storytelling ability. With each of the company’s passing seasons, the technical and artistic prowess of the dancers has continued to grow in tandem with Julianna’s abilities as an artistic director and choreographer, making each production that much more emotionally impactful and socially relevant to all who have the pleasure of being in the audience. This is certainly true of Ballet 5:8’s most recent, original full-length production, Butterfly. This story of hope in the midst of chaos, danger, and oppression is inspired by a publication titled I Never Saw Another Butterfly—a collection of artwork and poems by children living in the Terezin ghetto during World War II. The ballet is a harrowing and heartfelt reminder that hope can exist no matter the circumstances.
DancerMusic Editor Kristi Licera was able to catch up with Julianna in the midst of the company’s busy touring and performance season to get an inside look at Butterfly. Here’s what she told us:
Evil is but a small part of this story; it does not deserve to be the focus, but rather a footnote to the courageous stories of the Jewish men, women and children under their oppression
“The story of Butterfly is set in the World War II ghetto of Terezin under the Nazi regime. In this story—though in history the Nazis were numerous—I cast the Nazis as minor characters. Evil is but a small part of this story; it does not deserve to be the focus, but rather a footnote to the courageous stories of the Jewish men, women and children under their oppression. It would seem obvious to cast the Nazis as pure evil—as inhuman monsters. To do this would be to take the easy path out instead of reflecting on the humanity that we share and refuse to consider the possibility that the same proclivity to wickedness is inside me as well.
The movement for the Nazi characters juxtaposes a rigid goose-step with a twisted and warped classical vocabulary. The outward appearance is that of a trained soldier, while the inward soul is diseased and deformed. Instead of a balletic elegance and control, I exaggerated the use of the spine and pelvis to create an uneasy twisted quality that tells the story of how racism snuffs out human dignity. I created a grotesque version of what was once beautiful to evoke the decay of bigotry and the callous disregard for human life displayed in the Nazis.” – Julianna Slager
That desperate clinging to hope can be a great act of defiance against injustice.
“The story is told through the eyes of Helga, one of less than 150 children to survive Terezin. She currently lives in Prague, and the ballet begins there with Helga remembering the beautiful, yet deeply painful memories of Terezin. On a parallel timeline appears a younger Helga. She’s confused and naive, unaware of the immense burden about to be placed upon her shoulders. There’s a depth of understanding in the older Helga, a sober recognition of what is about to change in her younger self. There will be much to forgive and she sends love, comfort and courage, wishing she could cradle her younger self and tell her that she will make it through. She holds onto memories of loved ones that have perished. She holds onto life itself. She holds onto hope of a better world set right. That desperate clinging to hope can be a great act of defiance against injustice.
This story of the Holocaust ends as most do, with the majority of characters being sent to their deaths. The weight of this story hit us after our first full run through; the full company was in tears. The names of our characters were read, along with the time and location of their murder. It was heart-wrenching to understand the magnitude of all of the human lives unjustly snuffed out.” – Julianna Slager
It is the sacred responsibility of the artist to bring a ray of sunshine into a dark and troubling forest.
“We can’t turn away from the darkest moments of human history. We are sobered by the depths of sorrow in the Holocaust and draw courage to stand up to injustice and say, “Never Again.” As Winston Churchill once said, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” I fear we may be forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust and sleepwalking our way toward a world where racism is tolerated and bigotry praised, where dehumanizing our enemies and bending the rules to our own advantage has become a tolerable ‘casualty of war’.
In my experience, when we remove ourselves from our own cultural context and visit a far off destination with fresh eyes, we actually see ourselves much more clearly. It’s why art and creativity are such a powerful force for good in society. We have the capacity to imagine better and bring hope, meaning, and beauty into the chaos of the world we live in. It is the sacred responsibility of the artist to bring a ray of sunshine into a dark and troubling forest. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”” – Julianna Slager
As a child in Auschwitz wrote, “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when no one’s there. I believe in God even when He is silent. I believe through every trial there is always a way.”
“As artists, we cannot allow ourselves to become swallowed up in the darkness. It is our sacred duty to reveal the beauty that is obscured by the darkness. In order to keep our sanity during the Butterfly creation and rehearsal process, we had to find moments of levity and joy. The people of Terezin were much the same, but on a totally different level. They would say to each other that without humor, death was certain. They had to keep laughing, loving and hoping in order to stay alive.
In this story, we find hope in the heart of a child sharing his bread with a friend. An art teacher bringing paint brushes in her suitcase instead of her own possessions. A matriarch teaching the children to celebrate and protect the life of a small tree even as their friends are dying. A composer daring to defy his captors with a breathtaking performance of “The Defiant Requiem” taught from memory. A young man and woman falling in love. A mother taking delight in the smile of her young child and toiling into the night to make the world a better place to live. They found hope in the most unexpected places. Personally, I find that hope in God. I believe that He is good. Even in the darkest moments, He is behind the scenes mysteriously bringing good out of evil. As a child in Auschwitz wrote, “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when no one’s there. I believe in God even when He is silent. I believe through every trial there is always a way.”” – Julianna Slager
Ballet 5:8 presents Butterfly on Saturday, March 7, 2020 at 7:30pm at the Studebaker Theater (410 S Michigan Ave, Chicago). For tickets and more information, visit www.ballet58.org/chicago.
For more information on Butterfly, including video excerpts of the work, visit www.ballet58.org/butterfly.