Dancing into the past, dancing into the future

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Alan Brooks is one of the most experienced and renowned Community Dance Workers in Germany. For over 20 years he has initiated and directed dance projects in Germany, France, England, Wales and Scotland. He is a lecturer at Augsburg University and Eichstätt University and Community and Youth Dance Consultant for the National Dance Company of Wales.

By Alan Brooks

I am a choreographer and community dance worker. That means my focus is on helping groups of people to find movements and choreography that convey feelings and thoughts in both personal and abstract ways. The best case scenario in my dance work means the participants discover something new about themselves and the world through moving and dancing. I was honoured to be asked to lead a group of young adults from Israel in a creative dance process at Flossenbürg Memorial Camp last year. 

I take pride in challenging my pupils so challenging myself with a difficult subject matter and environment seemed daunting but fair. After a certain amount of hesitation I said yes. The hesitation was because convention dictates that dance has no part of concentration camp education. An art form that is usually seen as wild, loud and joyful could rightfully be seen as inappropriate and belittle the very history that the institutions are trying to promote. 

The theory is sound. Dance is a deeply personal form of expression as the instrument is ones own body. It is an incredibly powerful communicator that we use consciously and unconsciously in our every day life, among many other things, to appease, flirt and to broadcast our feelings and displeasure. Learning to use the body to explore themes and energies can bring us closer to our emotional core. It can show how we really feel about a subject as our body language is instinctively truthful. The problem is the same. By expressing oneself through movement, it becomes immediately personal, the emotional barriers between the dancer and the subject become paper thin and can all too easily overwhelm the participant. There’s also the scale of the issues we would be working on. The themes and history are so monumental, how can one begin to imagine that two days of dancing can do anything else than belittle the environment or experience of the men and women who suffered and died there? An entirely negative experience would benefit no one but I found it hard to justify producing anything joyous.

I felt clear that this process should evolve from what the group needed to express. The participants were excited to be there but nervous. They were all from Israel and in a Memorial Camp for the first time. They were very clear about the personal connections they had with the themes of the week and were full of questions and uncertainties about the coming work.

The key was watching them engage in the first 2 days of preparation workshops, on the guided tour and a talk about art work created by survivors of Flossenbürg from Dr. Christa Schikorra. The preparation workshops allowed a direct and personal connection with the history of the camp and the human beings at the heart of it. The guided tour wasn't just factual information, it allowed and encouraged discussion.

It was the art created by survivors of the Camp that became my primary inspiration. There were examples that showed vividly the physicality of the prisoners and guards, and showed us human beings in what were now empty rooms and spaces. Most importantly, they gave tacit approval to the idea of creating art on this subject. If survivors had found expression of their experience through art, then maybe we were allowed to too. Vitally, it gave us the positivity I was searching for as here was proof of life continuing after the camp. Maybe, in some small way, we could honour the dead and survivors with our choreography.

I ultimately had 2 days of process. The first day I kept fairly neutral but started the discussions about what themes could be explored physically. We worked on basic forms, developing trust within the group and combating any awkwardness that comes with "dance". We finished our first day with a discussion about exactly what we would like to explore, what we were afraid of approaching and what we were keen to explore and felt we could. We also went through the art work we had seen in the talk, chose 5 images we felt connected to and requested them enlarged and laminated for the next day. 

The second day was where we consciously dived into the themes and work. I had established a few ground rules on the first day, namely that nothing would be shown on the last day with which anyone was uncomfortable with showing, and we wouldn't create work to show rather we would explore the themes physically and decide later if we were willing or able to share it with an audience. 

They had also established the basic themes of the camp experience that they felt particularly connected to and we felt could be examined through movement and physicality. They were: 

  • Dehumanisation
  • The role of women in the camp
  • Communicating when no one else speaks your language
  • What does support mean and how to support each other in a brutal system
  • The meaninglessness of resistance when part of a system that actively wishes you dead
  • Hope
  • The ghosts of the past

The tasks were primarily undertaken by the individuals who had suggested them, meaning at any one time there might be 3 different processes going on in one room. I gave the impulse or the physical tasks, the participants themselves had to find a way through and define what they wanted to express through their choice of movement. My role was to inspire, develop and facilitate the journey. For example, to touch upon the theme of meaninglessness of resistance I gave a young man the task of finding a simple solo. He then repeated the solo over and over again, each time with one less body part working. The question became: when do you stop? When do you say “I can't do this anymore!” Can you still do the solo when pulling yourself forward on the floor because only your left elbow still works? It became an exercise about resistance and stubbornness. When everything has been removed, the still working lungs or stomach muscles or eyes become critical and celebratory. "No, I refuse to stop. I can still do it, I'm not beaten yet”.

Working directly from an image from the artist Richard Grune, who was a survivor of both Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg Camps, I had two young men melting down to the floor, as slowly as possible. They were both tasked with keeping the other up which meant that each time they helped each other, they slipped down a little further themselves. Again, the question became when do you admit defeat? The inevitable moment when they fell to their knees was incredibly moving, an admission that they couldn't return to standing again but the sense of victory in keeping the others head, despite the physical exhaustion, just above the floor was incredible. It became a visceral symbol of sacrifice and support and allowed an empathy rather than sympathy with the past. 

We worked on group images, duet images and solos, each time working directly with either a piece of art from a survivor or an image or question from the group from the preceding days.

The women were determined to find a way to represent the women who were held as sex slaves for the Kapos in a neighbouring camp. We developed three tableaux's, representing the women at different stages, before the camp, at the beginning of their time in the camp and at the end, manipulating the body to demonstrate the physical and emotional changes. 

I felt it to be vital to find a way to honour the dead and show that life goes on. I asked the participants to choose one of the people in the camp and sculpt their figures out of the air. It is an immensely personal exercise that requires intense concentration and engagement and the delicacy of touch from the dancers felt life ghosts had been built out of smoke but handled and smoothed with love and respect.

There were moments of extreme emotion. When we knew that we had to get out of the room, have coffee and cake in the cafe and we talk about anything other than the work. We also had to consciously break the tension sometimes, put on some other music and dance around like we were crazy, anything to stop being overwhelmed by the themes and worlds we were entering. But we always returned to the work with respect and humility. 

When the time came to present the results of our process there was nervousness within the group, not just because of the themes or material but also of human ego. They would be presenting something deeply personal to an audience of peers and a group of actors from Israel. They'd had no input from anyone except within the group and although they believed in the work we had done; it was a long way away from what they would consider a "dance performance". I felt strongly that they needed to bring the process to a conscious end and had gathered the material, that they felt comfortable with showing, into a running order. They performed beautifully. Through sharing their material, they communicated their humanity and compassion and allowed others to take a step closer to the men and women of the camp. I also feel strongly that they had earned the right to express their feelings to others and earned the audiences’ appreciation and tears not just for their dancing but for the courage and commitment they had shown to the themes and the work. 

I entered the camp with question marks in my own heart about the morality of dancing in a place of such inexpressible horror and fear. I left still felling that one cannot and should not try to "dance the holocaust". It is simply too huge and complex a theme to be reduced to one artistic experience. From my experience in Flossenbürg I now feel that dance can be a vital part of helping young people move beyond the abstract and help them better understand the human beings that were part of history. It has to be done carefully and well but, with care and attention one can use dance to honour the lives that were affected by the camp and offer a way to link history and the lessons of history to the future.




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