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Two years ago, Norfolk Academy Dance Master Elbert Watson had a revelation while attending the 2017 Educators’ Conference organized by the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater: He heard for the first time about Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

The details of that long night, which many historians consider the beginning of the Holocaust, stunned him. On Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazi paramilitary forces and civilians carried out organized attacks on Jews and their way of life; more than 1,000 synagogues were set ablaze and thousands of businesses had windows smashed and the contents looted.  91 Jews died and about 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. The name Kristallnacht arose in the aftermath, taken from the sound of shattering glass as Nazis smashed windows of buildings.

After the conference, Watson kept reading and researching, including primary source material such as diary excerpts. “I knew about the Holocaust, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of the evil and narcissism,” he said. “The systematic nature of it shocked me.”  

First, he created a single dance about Kristallnacht. That piece—performed twice last year to acclaim—gave rise to a bolder concept: He decided to create a series of dances that limn the brutal reality of the Holocaust, using music, stage lighting, photography, and physical movement to convey the emotional bleakness.  

Watson’s creation, “I Flutter My Wings, But I Can’t Get Away,” was performed Tuesday, July 30 by the Elbert Watson Dance Company as the opening event of the Holocaust Commission’s 2019 Educators’ Conference in Norfolk Academy’s Johnson Theater. The packed audience, which included many teachers attending the conference, sat motionless and silent as each segment unfolded, erupting in a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion.

The opening piece, “The Rise of a Narcissistic Evil,” had Watson on the stage alone, dancing in a sleek, sinister style to the voice of Max Lorenz singing Wagner—an artist and composer loved by Hitler. That flowed into “Welcome to Nazi Eugenics,” which started as a festive “dinner party” that swiftly turned to terror for the unsuspecting guests, as Watson—the demonic host—shows Nazi propaganda films portraying Jews as rodents and parasites.
Dances 3-6 dealt squarely with the actual events of the Holocaust. That series begins with “Kristallnacht,” a solo piece danced with a combination of desperation and elegance by Lauren Sinclair, portraying a young girl whose evening of reading is disrupted by the prolonged sound of shattering glass and the equally terrifying sound of glass shards crunching under the boots of the Nazis.  The dances then moved rapidly through the arrival of dazed families at train stations; the confusion as families board the trains to a destination unknown to them; and the tearing apart of families upon arrival at Auschwitz, the most notorious death camp. One section of the dance even dealt with the branding of numbers on the arms of the camp’s Jewish prisoners—an astonishing and daring feat of choreography.

The seventh dance, “Let Us Never Forget,” featured a solo flutist onstage, playing an original melody by Watson; as the tune repeats and grows more fervent, dancers appear on the stage carrying points of light; the movement and music offer a muted reprieve from all of the previous horror.
After the performance was over, Watson and the dancers did a Q & A with the audience. Watson explained the intensity of the dancers’ preparation. In addition to rehearsals, Watson gave them readings about the Holocaust. For some of the dances, they used improvisational techniques to consider their physical reactions if they were separated from family members. He repeatedly told the dancers that they had to feel the emotions and be honest as dancers, rather than trying to “act it out.”

“What would you do if your mother was taken away from you?” Watson said. “The hard part is not the technique. The hard part is the emotion.”
Several of the dancers expressed their appreciation for being part of such a groundbreaking creative work, even as they expressed the difficulty of doing it. “It was incredibly difficult,” said Sinclair, the dancer for “Kristallnacht. “I will always be changed from doing this.”

Shannon Allison spoke movingly of her young son’s reaction after seeing the dress rehearsal. He asked, “What is a gas chamber?” and she then had to explain it to him. She noted Watson’s creative gift at conveying the direct emotional force of events through dance. “When he choreographs, he feels it first, and then it comes out of him,” she said. “That is why you feel it.”

The dance performance was the opening event of this year’s conference, “Teaching Difficult History: How Our Past Informs Our Present.” Elizabeth Lodal, a member of the Virginia Board of Education who retired after serving as principal of several high schools in northern Virginia, gave the opening remarks. The conference was sponsored by Bank of America.

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