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'Shadows of the Dreamers' dance performance recalls Holocaust liberation

A Sunday dance performance will reprise a piece choreographed last year by a University of Arizona professor to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Amy Ernst, a UA associate professor, crafted the dance to commemorate the Jan. 27 event.

The piece, "In the Shadows of The Dreamers," is being brought back and UA dancers will perform the piece as a fundraiser for the Tucson Jewish History Museum. 

"We are thrilled that a program at the UA has recognized the importance of this center for the community," said Bryan Davis, the executive director of the Holocaust History Center at the museum. "Dance opens up different possibilities for understanding something about this catastrophe that happened and opens up new possibilities for connecting with this history."

 Ernst said that while this piece is about the events that occurred 70 years ago, it has a broader story and hopes to inspire a remembrance of the entire history while focusing on the liberation of Auschwitz. 

"Now and then there are very direct references, in the beginning of the piece you'll see search lights on the dancers and the dancers are being pushed back against a wall," Ernst explained, "but it doesn't stay in that arena for long. It moves in and out of memory and reality."

Inspiration for the piece was rooted in the music that accompanies the dance. In 1996 Hila Plitmann wrote a series of poems, "Five Hebrew Love Songs." Pitmann's husband, famous choral composer and conductor Eric Whitacre then wrote music to accompany the poems.

"The music that he composed was just so exquisite that I just had to use it for my new piece last year," Ernst said

The piece was well received last year, inspiring its reuse in this year's dance program. All of the dancers involved are dance majors at the UA. Zachary Birdwell was one of the principal dancers from the original cast last year and he was chosen again to be a part of the piece.

"It's been pretty cool to be able to do a piece of choreography and then go away from it for a year and then to come back to it and be able to make it new again, that has been pretty exciting," Birdwell said.

He went on to explain the challenges behind portraying a story with such impact.

"There's no way that we will ever feel the gravitas of what we are doing, but to try to emulate some of the emotions, trying to put yourself in those shoes is a delicate balance. I have learned how to take a very serious subject that has a lot of weight to it, and use that to drive my movement," Birdwell said. "It's an honor and a privilege to be part of this."

The dance itself is a modern dance piece comprised of two principal soloist and 10 supporting dancers.

"Everyone has their own set choreography, everyone is heavily involved in the piece to make a story within a story," said Birdwell.

The dance will be held at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, with proceeds benefiting the Jewish History Museum, 564 S. Stone Ave. The Holocaust History Center is part of the new expansion of the museum which opened Feb. 21 The first iteration of the center opened in October 2013 in a 400-square-foot annex of the museum. It was only open for 18 months but attracted over 5,000 visitors. 

"There was a real community push to do something more which lead into the whole capital expansion project last year," Davis said.

"We think that the center can have a transformative impact," said Davis, "and we want it to be a center of conscience."

The new center's focus is primarily on education. Organizers hope that local middle and high schools will take yearly field trips to visit the museum.

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"Every five tickets that are sold guarantees 50 students will visit the Holocaust History Center," Davis said. "It's going to be a moving experience for everyone that attends, but at the same time that they are having this encounter with art and history, they are also supporting Holocaust education and enrichment of community."

Ernst said that last year after she created her piece, she was surprised to learn of the many Holocaust survivors who live in Tucson. For her this added as aspect of locality and highlighted the importance of sharing knowledge and recognizing the importance of this history.

"Its so important as a society that we don't forget," Ernst said.

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Ed Flores

Dancers premiered In the Shadows of the Dreamers at last year's spring collection performance.

If you go

  • "In the Shadows of The Dreamers" dance performance
  • Stevie Eller Dance Theater, 1737 E University Blvd.
  • Sunday, 4 p.m. A reception will follow.
  • Tickets: $54, available from Jane Scott at 577-9393 or jscott@jfsa.org