Dance meets diary

Amber Robins as Anne Frank in The Attic, being performed by Center Dance Ensemble Oct 13-16 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (Photo: Tim Fuller)

Frances Smith Cohen, artistic director for Center Dance Ensemble of Phoenix, remembers a “rumor” she found especially chilling. It was the mid-1990s, and some people were actually speculating that the Holocaust never happened.

Cohen knew better, and she took action — fueled in part by her observation that young people in junior high school had no concept of the Holocaust. “It was outside of their whole experience,” she says.

In 1996, Cohen created a dance work titled “The Attic,” which Center Dance Ensemble will be performing Oct. 13-16 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix as part of a program titled “A Time to Dance,” which also features the work of other Valley dance groups.

Cohen recalls reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” during 8th grade and wants to be sure today’s youth don’t forget the story of Anne, her family and those who hid them from the Nazis. She recommends “The Attic” for junior high age students and above (best not to bring elementary age children along).

“How would it feel,” wondered Cohen, “if eight people were confined to a small space.” That’s exactly how Anne Frank and those around her lived while in hiding. Cohen recognized, from reading Frank’s diary, that the experience of confinement and hiding grew worse over time — and it’s reflected in the work.

Still, says Cohen, the dance “isn’t all grim and grimy.” Frank went from being 13 years old to 15 years old while in hiding, so her diary includes some experiences not uncommon for other girls her age — including her very first kiss.

D. Daniel Hollingshead and Sally Hogan as Otto and Edith Frank in The Attic by Frances Smith Cohen (Photo: Tim Fuller for Center Dance Ensemble)

Cohen says that Frank’s own words convey “a clear preference for her father” and frustration with “her mother nagging to her.” Cohen credits Frank with describing those in the space “beautifully,” and says she created dance movements to reflect the idosyncracies of each person.

“The Attic,” a 38-minute ballet, comprises the second part of “There is a Time to Dance.” The first includes a piece danced to the music of Vivaldi, plus performances by several guest artists (which alternate for different performances).

Before “The Attic” begins, audience members see a two to three minute film featuring footage graciously offered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. It’s a collage of snapshots showing Adolf Hitler and members of his Third Reich.

The film clip shows cheering crowds, the shattered glass of Kristallnacht and more. There’s reporting by Edward R. Murrow and a newspaper headline about Nazis invading Poland. Then, the dance.

As “The Attic” begins, audience members see a staircase leading to a loft where Frank used to look outside. A dancer portraying Frank’s spirit comes down that staircase to the main room, straightening papers that are strewn across the floor. It’s the diary of Anne Frank.

The program for “A Time to Dance” features a chronology to help viewers understand what was happening in the world while Frank and seven others were holed up inside the attic undiscovered until the day members of the Gestapo entered the home of her protectors and moved a piece of furniture that revealed light streaming down from the attic.

“It’s a hard sell,” admits Cohen. In “The Attic,” she says, “art approximates reality and truth.” Those who’ve seen the work performed often get teary-eyed, experiencing what Cohen calls a “total catharsis.” Cohen shares that “teens have really connected with it.”

Throughout the dance, there are readings of Frank’s own words from her diary. It’s powerful, and important. I’ll be visiting the Anne Frank Center, which moved just this week to a new location, when I am in NYC next week and hope to share pictures in a future post.

The following resources can help you learn more about Anne Frank:

To learn more about “A Time to Dance” or other offerings in the 2011-12 Center Dance Ensemble season, click here.

— Lynn

Coming up: A dangerous fashion statement?, Women finding their own goodness and power


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