By Amy Sorter
Dance professor Martha “Suki” John, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, is taking her 30-year-old choreodrama depicting the impact of the Shoah on her family to film.
The Sh’ma Project: Move Against Hate is a filmed presentation by John, associate professor of classical and contemporary dance with Texas Christian University’s School for Classical and Contemporary Dance. It is based on a modern ballet she developed in 1990 and has produced in Europe and New York over the years. Now in its third incarnation, the art education film could be available as early as 2023 to school districts, community organizations and others to use as Holocaust education. The Sh’ma Project has already cemented support from the Texas Jewish Arts Association, TCU and the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, the last of which has officially adopted the program.
“Telling the story of this family and expanding on it, and using the arts to convey a lesson that needs to be taught, is novel,” said Barry Abels, the Federation’s executive director. “It will be spellbinding, and will hold people’s attention.”
Seeds of a legacy
John always knew she wanted to be a dancer.
“At 2 years old, I was dancing around the living room,” she said. “By the time I was 5, I was taking creative movement. At age 7, I studied ballet in the basement of the Lincoln Center Metro Opera House.”
She credited her love of arts and education in general, and dance in particular, to her parents, who created an ideal environment in which she learned and grew. And as she grew older, she learned that her mother was a Holocaust survivor.
John’s mother’s family lived in Budapest when the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944. Children and parents were separated and sent to Bergen-Belsen; the children were eventually released as part of a special transport program to a refugee camp in Switzerland, while the parents remained in the death camp until they were liberated.
The family was reunited after the war concluded, with the experience shaping all involved. “My mother devoted her life to social justice and education,” John said. “So did my grandmother.”
John ended up at the University of New Mexico, earning a BFA in Theatre Art. Afterward, she spent years teaching movement and dance at her alma mater and at schools and organizations in and around New York City. Then, in 1990, John traveled to Europe as an independent choreographer hoping to find work in the many dance companies.
While visiting her cousin in Hungary, she learned of the People’s Theater of Yugoslavia in Novi Sad, Serbia, and made the trip to present her body of work. The company directors liked what they saw, asking John to choreograph and present a one-act choreodrama.
During the three-hour train ride back to Budapest, John pondered the idea, thinking about the right topic on which she could build a 90-minute performance. Then the light bulb came on: She would portray her mother’s and family’s experience with the Shoah. Sh’ma was created almost in its entirety while John traveled the rails linking Hungary and Serbia. “I realized presenting the story in the language of dance would speak to people differently than other means typically used to tell the story,” John said.
Returning to Novi Sad with the Sh’ma libretto and choreography, John had access to enthusiastic and experienced dancers, scene builders and costume designers. Also involved was Yugoslav Mitar Subotic, who created an original score for the program. “We had Serbians, Bosnians, Croatians and others, all working together to produce this,” John said.
The New York state of mind
Following her first venture with Sh’ma, John returned to the United States, where she earned her master’s degree in dance history and choreography from the Gallatin School of New York University. She also traveled throughout the United States and Cuba to perform, direct and choreograph at schools, universities, arts organizations and agencies. John was also a prolific writer, authoring dance-specific articles and a book, “Contemporary Dance in Cuba: Técnica Cubana as Revolutionary Movement.”
And she kept track of the horror of the Yugoslav Wars, particularly the war in Bosnia. “The people I’d worked with there [on Sh’ma] were no longer working together,” John said. “They were now divided into separate tribes, and fighting against each other, whether they wanted to be or not.” One set designer, who still lived in the region, called John on the phone in tears, saying everything portrayed in Sh’ma onstage was happening again, but in real life. “Even down to the concentration camps,” John said.
Dismayed by the news, John was determined to produce Sh’ma, this time in the New York City area. The 92nd Street Y provided support and a rehearsal space, while the Washington Irving High School donated performance space.
During its New York run, Sh’ma was performed at the Washington Irving High School, as part of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center’s Jewish Voice Series, and at the First New York Festival of Jewish Culture, YIVO. But assistance and resources for Sh’ma’s U.S. debut were meager. “I called it an artistic success and a commercial disaster,” John commented, saying that the dancers barely earned enough to cover their transportation expenses to rehearsals and performances. Still, “I’m proud of what we did, and what we accomplished there,” she added.
Deep in the heart
of (North) Texas
Shortly after Sh’ma ended its New York performances, John attended the University of Connecticut, earning her doctorate in comparative literary and cultural studies. “A week after defending my dissertation, I was driving cross-country to take this job at TCU,” she said, with a laugh.
John also raised her son, while continuing to keep track of world events. And, in 2018, “zero-tolerance” news and headlines arrived from the U.S.-Mexico border. Undocumented immigrants had always been detained at the border as they awaited trial. But rather than their being detained as families, the “zero-tolerance” policy took children away from their parents. These children, many of whom were infants and under the age of 5, ended up at Office of Refugee Resettlement Shelters, miles away from where their parents were incarcerated.
“This was toward the end of my mother’s life,” John said. “She’d wake up in the middle of the night, remembering knocks on the door in Budapest. She’d then think of what it was like for those children, hearing their own knocks on the door.” As a result, “I felt like I had to do this [produce Sh’ma] again,” she commented.
John gave a great deal of thought to Sh’ma’s third incarnation and what it would look like. When COVID-19 hit, she realized that producing the work as a film, as opposed to mounting a dance tour, would allow the work to reach school districts and local organizations, starting with the Fort Worth Independent School District.
A tentative timeline
Armed with support from the Texas Jewish Arts Association, John approached the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County in early 2021, gaining positive feedback from both Abels and associate director Howard Rosenthal. By fall 2021, the Federation formally adopted the program, making it the primary fiscal agent and organization providing administrative support, Abels said.
The Federation and Texas Jewish Arts Association continue raising funds and accepting donations; the Federation is also drafting grant proposals. TCU has also stepped up, donating rehearsal and filming space. According to Abels, there is currently enough money to offer contracts to dancers, and John is reaching out to find the right ones.
Abels noted that the Sh’ma Project’s method of showcasing the story in the form of dance brings a unique perspective to Holocaust education.
“In terms of methodology, you’re not giving lectures and you’re not learning these problems in a cold, gut-wrenching set of visuals,” he said. “Rather, this is a visual medium that shares compassion and tragedy in a captivating way. It also exposes the kids to arts and dance as a medium through which values can be shared.”
As for John, the process and production remains highly personal, while being necessary for education. “Part of what the ballet tries to get across is how some people continue after a tragedy like this,” she said. Some always don’t, she went on to say. But still, “the piece ends on a hopeful note,” John commented. “It shows my mother, her brother and her mother moving forward.”
For more information about the Sh’ma Project, visit www.theshmaproject.com. To donate, visit the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant Count (www.tarrantfederation.org/) and specify that you wish to donate to the Sh’ma Project, or log on to the Texas Jewish Arts Association at www.texasjewisharts.org/shma-project.html.