Artist House choreographer Asya Zlatina didn’t tell her dancers the inspiration behind their show “Maybe Even Higher” until they were only a few weeks away from opening night.
“The movement was pretty set in my body at that point, which was really great, but the emotions behind the movement changed once I learned what was going on. It just made the motivations for the movement clearer,” dancer Casey Van Newenhizen said.
Every dance scene in the show represents one or more images created by children imprisoned in the Terezín Ghetto that Zlatina chose from the archives of the Terezín Memorial.
“The show tries to imagine, ‘What would the selected artwork be like if it came to life?’” Zlatina explained.
The choreography emphasizes the children’s creativity and resilience amid the horrors of the ghetto. The dancers wear colorful tutus inspired by the young artists’ bright color palettes and use playful, carefree movements. However, their whimsical interactions are often disrupted by the reality of their surroundings.
A soldier barks orders while the dancers frolic, and desperate screams interrupt a playful wrestling match. At one point, the audience laughs at a comical game, only to fall silent when a gunshot sounds and a player drops dead.
At the end of the show, the dancers shed their colorful costumes to reveal striped shirts. They join hands, turn away from the audience and walk slowly offstage.
“Maybe Even Higher” premiered in October 2019 and was scheduled for another staging at Multicultural Arts Exchange on May 17. When coronavirus made live theater impossible, Zlatina decided to use the recording from the premiere to create a virtual viewing and Q&A session scheduled for the same day. She also made the children’s drawings available to view in an online gallery.
After the virtual event, Zlatina realized that many people had missed the viewing due to “Zoom fatigue” but were still interested in seeing the show. She decided to make the recording available from July 19 to July 31 so people could have more flexibility and view it at their leisure.
Tickets cost $11.50 and proceeds went to supporting the company dancers, who have been unable to work for months.
Most of the drawings that inspired the dances were produced by students of Austrian artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who used art to help traumatized children cope with horrific conditions in the ghetto and separation from their families.
According to Yad Vashem, the artist gave a lecture in the ghetto in 1943 explaining her teaching methods. She declared that her purpose was not to train the children as artists, but rather to “unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe and endure.”
Zlatina said she couldn’t imagine the saintliness of the imprisoned artists and teachers who continued their life’s work in “the pits of hell.”
“Can you imagine how hard it was for the teachers to work in their new reality, where they worked their whole lives to become something in the arts world and now they’re beneath human dignity?” she said.
Zlatina has been to various Holocaust memorials and museums and felt strongly that the artwork on display could play an educational role outside museum exhibits.
“I don’t want them just to be things that live in a museum — I want to bring it to the forefront of people’s lives,” she said. “Not only to help the children’s memory live on but for people who don’t realize there was such a place as Terezín.”
Her dancers took the message to heart.
Although Van Newenhizen is not Jewish, she minored in Holocaust and genocide studies in college.
She found the source material inspiring and viewed it as a reminder that joy can be found even in the most dire circumstances.
“During that time, they created that art that brought a little bit of light to them, and then we used that art to create more light,” she said. “Creativity from our darkest times can continue to bring light to other people.”