Over many decades of creating choreography that conveys an emotional story, Elbert Watson, Norfolk Academy dance director, has covered many searing topics. Most notably, he has developed dances that explore aspects of African- American history, from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.
Although Watson possessed an active interest in exploring the role of prejudice and ethnic hatred in creating a climate in Europe that led to the persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, he had never created a solo dance about the Holocaust.
This summer, Watson attended the Educators’ Conference at Norfolk Academy, which was sponsored by the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater. The creative spark was kindled by one of the authors who spoke at the conference: Alexandra Zapruder, who spent more than a decade creating Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust.
Watson began reading the volume and got hooked. He decided to create a dance inspired by the diary entries of Klaus Langer about a young German girl’s experience of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. In November 1938, Kristallnacht was an organized wave of anti-Jewish attacks that took place in Germany and Austria, when rioting mobs looted thousands of Jewish businesses and pillaged or torched 267 synagogues, with an estimated 30,000 Jewish men arrested by the Gestapo.
The dance was featured in Norfolk Academy’s fall dance concert with Mary Alice Russell ’18 as the soloist. Russell has acted in school plays and taken dance lessons with Watson since her Lower School years. She performed last year as Glinda the Good Witch in Norfolk Academy’s Winter Musical, The Wizard of Oz. Watson says that Russell’s experience was crucial.
“I needed a dancer who could act,” he says. “Many dancers are afraid to immerse themselves in the acting process.”
Still, the harrowing aspects of the situation posed an incredible, even exhausting challenge, Russell notes. “I am usually a happy, positive person. I have played happy roles and some sassy roles. I had never played someone who faced, and will face, oppression.”
The dance takes place on a bare stage, save for a large, plush armchair at the center, where a young girl reads a magazine. She seems entertained, until something catches her eye as she flips the pages, and her mood briefly darkens. After an interval, she puts down the magazine and twirls around the room, seeming to delight in her solitude; at one point, she seems to hear some disturbance but decides to ignore it.
As she returns to the chair and appears to doze off, the theater fills with the sound of shattering glass; as the girl leaps about the room in panic, the audience shares her fear, as the crackling, crunching sound of glass continues for several unbearable minutes. When the girl tips over the chair and hides behind it, the audience fully appreciates the depth of her terror.
Watson acknowledges that those moments, and the actions of the dancer stuffing her suitcase frantically and then heading out the door, are not beautiful to watch. “I have seen pieces done about the Holocaust, and some of them are moving, but they are also sometimes pretty,” he says. “You have to bring the ugly! You have to do that to create the empathy.”
Watson says that he plans to continue developing the dance about Kristallnacht, and perhaps get one of the dancers in his professional troupe to perform it. For Russell, even after stepping out of that character, the impact of the dance shapes her thinking about world events and even personal activism.
“It is hard for me to think about how the character is fighting for her life.… Her life, as she has known it is over,” she says. “It was a terrible, terrible thing. It cannot happen again.”
– Esther Diskin