A copy of “I Have Lived a Thousand Years,” a Holocaust memoir by Dr. Livia Bitton-Jackson, sits on a bookshelf in my parent’s house in Michigan. Last Saturday, while there to teach and visit, I picked it up again, remembering the few times I had devoured its contents as a middle-schooler, perversely fascinated by that disgusting chapter in history. At the time, I was unable to believe that a girl my age had endured such horrors and still held onto hope, but in other ways I had found I could relate to her experience. Running my thumb over the book’s pages, I knew that the next day I would be back in LA at Studio A, attending Stretch Dance Company‘s premiere of a dance by the same name, based on the memoir and endorsed by Dr. Bitton-Jackson herself.
A single dancer entered the space with Bitton-Jackson’s memoir and read in the first person–a structural aspect that would carry through the entire piece–describing life as a twelve-year-old girl in 1943 in Somorja, Slovakia.The space soon filled with other characters, dressed in period-appropriate civilian clothing. The music was bright, with an Eastern European influence, and the protagonist, Elli, entered, armed with notebook and pen: an aspiring poet. Immediately the dancers’ strong expressions and choreography motifs identified who was who: here was Elli’s mother, her father, and her brother. Artistic Director and choreographer Lyndell Higgins had introduced the work before it began, saying she intended to convey the spectrum of emotions communicated in Bitton-Jackson’s novel. Tragedy and unspeakable suffering were indeed present, but so were joy and an undying thread of hope. It may have been that Elli’s youthful naivete, however squelched during the war, may have been a boon to her situation and ultimate survival.
The mood quickly dampened when a red, swastika-emblazoned handkerchief was presented to the family. The dancers cleared the stage, and a new scene began, based on another chapter from the book. A new character read the text each time, integrating the story into all of the bodies that were enacting it, regardless of gender or the class their costume indicated. The third scene transported all to Auschwitz, and those who entered were utterly changed–makeup had transformed them into sun-blistered, shrunken, and weary inmates, and their uniforms, shapeless collared dresses, were stained and thin. I began to think of these vignettes of dance as the written passages themselves–it was a powerful way to bring a text to life. I had been moved by this book before. But now before me was a cast who literally embodied it. The choreography was not abstract, but rather a physical translation of the work.
The choreography itself contained some memorable details. I was enamored by the smallest gestures, like hands slowly opening to feel rain during the excruciating roll call, and I appreciated Elli’s nostalgic refrain of a phrase from the opening sequence when she first encountered her reflection, in an imaginary mirror, after several days or weeks had transpired in Auschwitz. Though certain transitions abrupt, the movement ideas were well-developed and gripping. In an interesting contrast, the movement was firmly lodged in the western, contemporary style of jazz, while the music, an original score by Robby Greengold, seemed to draw more from the time and place of the story.
The piece ended with Elli’s journey to New York–her father had perished in the days before liberation, but her mother and brother survived, and reunited, the three left Europe for a new beginning. Elli seemed nearly as fresh-faced and exuberant as she had been when her story began, but one detail of Bitton-Jackson’s story adroitly revealed what she had suffered. Upon liberation, a German woman had approached the survivors, insisting she had had no idea what had transpired in the camps. She said to Elli, It must have been so difficult at your age. To which Elli responded, My age? How old do you think I am?
I’m 14. I’m 14, and I have lived a thousand years.
Hearing those words brought back my experience of reading them, many years prior, in a very visceral way. The intimacy of the space also brought me closer to the characters and their depth of emotion. Learning about the Holocaust, or being reminded of it, is always a welcome lesson in tolerance: of others, of discomfort, and of uncertainty in our own lives. But we must also be intolerant of similar horrors committed by governments against citizens, a reality in Syria and elsewhere in our present-day world. I’m not sure that I have any power or efficacy in that particular situation–our Congress is deciding how to act–but I do hope that this work, when brought to student populations across the country as the group plans to do, will be accompanied by a discussion that delves into the present. However historical, Stretch Dance Company has created a heroic work whose relevance should not be ignored.