‘Sh’ma’: the historical story with meaning today
Photo: Bob Shaeffer 
Dancers from the New York production of Sh’ma in the Train scene

Rehearsals are underway on a filmed choreodrama that examines hatred and intolerance

By Amy Wolf Sorter

The scene opens on a young woman, who is soon joined onstage by her daughter, son and husband. This is clearly a happy family, one that participates in parties, dancing and Shabbat celebrations. As time goes on, joy darkens into terror and fear. The darkness eventually gives way, as the family moves into the light, and ultimately, a new life.

The above is the story of “Sh’ma,” a dance drama created and directed by Suki John, associate professor of classical and contemporary dance with Texas Christian University’s School for Classical and Contemporary Dance. The plot is autobiographical, following John’s family as Hungarian Jews during the 1940s, detailing the rise of fascism, the family’s internment in Bergen-Belsen and eventual release and arrival in America. Rehearsals and filming are underway for the choreodrama, which will eventually be made available for viewing to school districts and community organizations. The piece is part of an overall educational program, with the tagline “Move Against Hate,” which includes educator workshops and an online book.

“The question of tribalism, of who we are, who they are and how much we are made into enemies by language, by bigotry, by border wars — all of these questions pertain to very serious current situations,” John said. Tribalism and bigotry are why John wrote “Sh’ma” and helped spearhead its production in Yugoslavia right before the 1990s Bosnian wars. It is also why John oversaw a New York production of the work during the late 1990s. And it’s why John is bringing the script to life once again.

“Suki has made this project her mission, to be sure that the work being produced is timeless,” said Kira Daniels, a dancer and rising senior at TCU, who portrays Olya in the work. “It doesn’t only relate to the Holocaust and what happened in World War II, but also addresses issues going on right now.”

Putting it together

To find the right performers, John invited TCU alumni, recent graduates and rising seniors to a casting call. She also reached out to dancers with the Texas Ballet Theater. The result is a cast of excellent dancers and outstanding actors. “We’re telling a story. That can be more important than specific dance steps,” John explained.

And for the dancers, “Sh’ma” is more than interesting entertainment. “I believe, as a humanist, that there is much more that we have in common, that unites us rather than divides us,” said Keith Saunders, TCU’s assistant professor of professional practice, classical and contemporary dance. Saunders is the production’s ballet master, and also portrays the father in the production. He’s also familiar with the work, having worked on it with John in New York City.

“That’s why I do work like this,” he went on to say. “Our job as artists is to shine a light on issues that are important for society to acknowledge and for people to acknowledge and see.”

John is also happy that the cast is ethnically diverse. “I’ve always wanted that for this piece,” she said. Her mother, grandmother and uncle were civil rights and human rights activists. “I know my mother, grandmother and uncle would be proud of this,” she said.

Moving it forward

Though John has the experience of two productions behind her, she explained that moving the piece from stage to film is a different proposition. “It gives us the capacity to direct the viewer’s attention toward a facial expression, gesture or a moment that you might miss in live theater because there’s so much going on,” she said. “I can bring the viewers’ attention to the fascist guard standing in the back, who is omnipresent, but oftentimes still.”

Filming also allows the opportunity for different environments and backdrops. For example, there is a very powerful scene in which the dancers — as concentration camp inmates — are marched up interior stairwells in three-step time to their doom. Other scenes take place in a freight elevator (mimicking a boxcar) and among the seats of the audience. “This has given us amazing options,” John said. “Things we couldn’t do with an audience in place.”

The process is also providing growth opportunities for the dancers. Daniels said working in the production is training her as a storyteller, as well as a dancer. “This project is so much more than movement,” she commented. “There’s a story to be told, and I’m working hard to tap into the emotional side of it. That emotion makes it more powerful, and something that the audience will see and tap into.”

The importance of remembrance

“Never forget” and “never again” are phrases often associated with the Holocaust and other genocides. The problem is that society does seem to forget and to perpetrate the same horrors as before. This is why those involved with the “Sh’ma” choreodrama believe it’s hugely important as a reminder about the dangers, bigotry — and yes, tribalism.

“The importance of never forgetting, clearly it’s an understatement to say what went on in the Holocaust is horrific and never to be repeated again,” Saunders observed. “Yet, we must needs find ourselves remaining vigilant and never forgetting that history. Even as generations pass and we’re further removed from those terrible times and those direct experiences, we must remain vigilant lest we be doomed to suffer this again.”

For Daniels, who was born after the Bosnian wars, the piece is allowing her to consider her behavior to others. “When I step away from this, I want to be more intentional and caring about how I approach people, and to meet people where they’re at,” she commented. “I want to be willing to lend an ear, a hand, and love as openly and wholeheartedly as I can.”

And for John, the descendant of Holocaust survivors, witness to the Bosnian atrocities and the increasing violence, polarizations, hate and misunderstandings encroaching on today’s society, “Sh’ma” takes on an even larger meaning.

“Never again means never again for everyone,” she said. “Not just our own people.”

For additional information about “Sh’ma,” visit www.shmaproject.com.

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