Wednesday night's agonizingly beautiful performance of "The Theater of Needless Talents" at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre by the Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater blended movement and music into an unforgettable assault on the conscience.
The work, directed and choreographed by Donald Byrd, was inspired, he says, by the story and music of the Czech Jewish composer Erwin Schulhoff who died of tuberculosis in the Wülzburg concentration camp.
Schulhoff's works are critically acclaimed, but little known. But what a stellar choice for this performance of dance, cabaret and vignettes that unflinchingly addresses the impact of the Holocaust.
Many who were in concentration camps were artists and performers and they continued that even behind the barbed wire. Often it was for themselves, an expression of humanity, sometimes rebellious but one of the few ways to maintain hope. Sometimes, though, their art was perverted and they were made to perform for their captors, or to humiliate themselves.
One particularly infamous facility was the TerezIn camp that was used in a Nazi propaganda film that endeavored to show to the world how well-treated the Jews were. The imprisoned artists were forced to perform for the documentary and the ploy worked — human rights organizations were duped and later the performers were sent to Auschwitz and died.
"Needless Talents" begins with 10 dancers in place, reciting statistics of how many were murdered by the Nazis in various countries. Gestures, signs, movements and foot stomping begin to increase as the litany continues. Each dancer stays in place but builds up the energy.
This introduction leads to the rest of the performance, which is emotionally striking and vivid as it unfolds. The dancers are uniformly disciplined but distinct in their interpretations. Byrd's brilliant choreography is a wonder, fluid and economical while never failing to be fully expressive.
Schulhoff's extraordinary music is suffused in sophisticated jazz influences, full of wit and hope, but never simplistic. The musicians perform on piano, violin and cello and absolutely nail the tone of the piece and complete the performance.