It’s not news to most of us that dance can tell a story, but we don’t necessarily expect dance to address issues as huge as the Holocaust.
Dr. Carol Press‘s “Splinter of Hope” defies expectations.
Press is a choreographer, dancer, writer, and teacher who delights in interdisciplinary research in creativity and psychology. In addition to being a lecturer in UCSB’s Theater and Dance Department, she teaches Dance History at Santa Barbara City College and is a dance artist-in-residence for the Santa Barbara County Schools in California.
In 2004, Press was approached by psychiatrist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Dr. Anna Ornstein and asked to appear on a panel at a conference addressing our need, as humans, to be creative. Ornstein’s central focus was on the fact that art was made by inmates in Nazi concentration camps, sometimes under penalty of death.
Ornstein had just written My Mother’s Eyes: Holocaust Memories of a Young Girl. A collection of stories to pass down to her children, the book contained an account of the day that she and her mother were branded in Auschwitz.
“I saw a very visceral choreographic image in response to this,” said Press, “and decided that as part of my presentation at the conference, I would dance my response.”
When she showed the work-in-progress to Ornstein, Press discovered that the young girl and her mother remembered the day they were branded with forearm tattoos as a day of hope, as it meant they were to be transferred to a labor camp rather than put to death immediately.
“She got up,” Press said. “This amazing woman-and did one of the movements from my dance. She said that this one in particular had really touched her and reminded her of the feeling that day–of a slight ray of sunshine coming through this incredible darkness.”
Press titled the work “Splinter of Hope.”
“The dance is about a journey,” she said, “an interior landscape. It’s about a woman dealing with trauma by reminding herself what it’s like to feel joy. And that makes it easier to confront the trauma. It’s a way to transform ugliness into beauty.”
On Tuesday, May 13 at UCSB, Press will present Moments of Meeting: Choreographic ‘Moments’ in Response to the Holocaust, a lecture, performance, and workshop where she will speak about the creative process in general and about her process of creating “Splinter of Hope” specifically. This will be the first time the dance has been performed by anyone other than herself; Press has set the piece on Santa Barbara Dance Theatre member Sarah Pon.
“In working with Sarah, and not performing myself, I had the opportunity to make the dance better, and to change parts of it as I went along,” Press said. “Sarah was wonderfully open to that.”
“At first I was a little intimidated,” Pon said of performing the piece. “I thought I didn’t have any tragedy in my life to pull from to find that kind of tortured feeling. But the human emotions of fear and pain and hope and strength are universal. Everyone has experienced them in different ways. So through the narrative and the movement, I’ve started to create my own emotional experience while performing it, even though it’s not the same way Carol has experienced it, with her background.”
After Pon’s performance, Press will facilitate a very simple movement workshop for all attendees, focused on paying attention to the present moment in everyday life, which Press calls “moments of meeting.”
Leslie Hogan composed the music for “Splinter of Hope,” which will be played live by cellist Virginia Kron, onstage in the performance space. It was Hogan and Press’ first collaboration, but they now work together regularly.
“She is amazing,” Press said of Hogan. “The dance was completely choreographed. Then she created the music, which fits like a glove.”
“It helps that I’ve worked with dancers off and on for the past twenty years,” Hogan said. “So it was a process I’d been through before, where the dance had been created in silence, and then I had to figure out what to do with the music. To be perfectly honest, when I first watched the dance I wasn’t convinced it needed any score at all. It seemed to me it was complete in itself.”
Sarah Pon will perform “Splinter of Hope” on Tuesday, May 13 at 5pm at UCSB’s HSSB Ballet Studio as part of Moments of Meeting. The event is free of charge, and is sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance. For more information, visit ihc.ucsb.edu.