A story inspired by Nicholas Winton, who saved hundreds of children during the Holocaust, will make its way to the National Museum of American Jewish History’s (NMAJH) Dell Theater.
SHARP Dance Company, based in Philadelphia, will tell this story through dance in a show called 669, named for the number of children Winton saved. The company will put on two performances on April 13 at 6 and 8 p.m.
“Dance is the only language that everybody speaks,” said SHARP Artistic Director Diane Sharp-Nachsin, whose husband is Jewish. “It doesn’t matter where you are or what language you speak, you can come in and share an experience, and dance is something everyone can understand and take away something from.”
Sharp-Nachsin choreographed and came up with the idea behind 669. She learned of Winton, who died in 2015 at the age of 106, through a BBC video that she came across on Facebook several years ago.
In 1938, the London-born Winton set up an operation in Prague to find refuge in Britain for Jewish children threatened by the Holocaust. This operation later became known as the Czech kindertransport. Most of the parents of the 669 children Winton helped to save died in the Holocaust.
Sharp-Nachsin said it was incredible to her that, after World War II, Winton’s story was relatively unknown for about 50 years, until his wife found the notes from the kindertransport.
In the years following, Winton was honored for his work. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and was awarded the Order of the White Lion (first class) by Czech President Milos Zeman.
“We really wanted everyone to know what this man had done,” Sharp-Nachsin said.
When she first began working on it, she thought 669 would be a story about the children, but the longer it went on, the more it became about the parents. They were the ones who knew what was going on, Sharp-Nachsin said, while many of the kids thought they were going away to camp.
The first part of 669 is the parents’ struggle to give up their children in order to save them.
Linna Calzada-Charma is one of the dancers portraying a parent. She has a duet with another dancer portraying a couple facing the struggle. They also are facing the fact that their time is running out, she said.
“It’s hard to put yourself in those shoes,” Calzada-Charma said. “One, I don’t have children. Two, that kind of act is so unimaginable, sometimes it’s hard to fathom. To try to get yourself in that mindset is heavy.”
In the next part, she transforms into a role of a German spy and seductress, who changes her mind about her role in the war and decides to help Winton rather than work for the Nazi regime. Usually, Sharp-Nachsin said, this is portrayed with an aerial piece, but this wasn’t possible at NMAJH so she wears a giant skirt instead.
Despite that limitation, Sharp-Nachsin said the NMAJH location adds meaning to the piece.
“When we decided to do it in the spring, we wanted to do it somewhere that was more impactful, that people were going to visit the space during the day,” Sharp-Nachsin said. “When the museum is over, they can come and see the show at 6, which is why we did the earlier show.”
The ending is uplifting. SHARP Dance Company has done pieces on topics such as pollution, mental illness and misogyny, but the company always looks for a silver lining.
In this case, the end focuses on the children’s survival and their starting families of their own. Today, there are more than 6,000 descendants from the Czech kindertransport, Sharp-Nachsin said.
“Even though the piece is so serious about what happened, in the end, the last piece is about the children, and the dancers basically change over from being the adults in the situation to being children that were able to survive and move on,” she said.
669 premiered in 2017 at the Performance Garage in Philadelphia. Over the past two years, the show has gotten stronger, as the dancers got more familiar with their parts, Sharp-Nachsin said.
When the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha shooting happened in October, the dance company decided it wanted to help. In February, the group headed to Pittsburgh for a benefit show for the families of the Tree of Life synagogue.
The dancers weren’t paid for this show, Sharp-Nachsin said, and the community donated spaces for the performance.
“I’m not a surgeon and I can’t save the world,” Sharp-Nachsin said, “but if I can do something with my art that would be uplifting, we wanted to try and raise some money and have people come for an hour-and-a-half and see a show and have it be something positive.”
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