Art is the exploration of beauty. Not beauty in the sophomoric sense but beauty as the exploration of the good. Art tells the great human story—the one story each one of us lives. It is both cosmic and personal. It is the story of the great struggle between the beautiful and the grotesque. Art helps us see, feel and understand reality in ways that mere information and words never can.
This weekend Amy, the boys and I went to a ballet performance of, Butterfly—hope in Terezin Ghetto. The ballet was produced and choreographed by Julianna Rubio Slager, and was performed by dancers from Ballet 5:8. I know little about ballet except that it is a form of art that moves my soul. It helps me understand the human story and my place in it.
Butterfly is a ballet in the tradition of classical art—it tells a haunting story of the Holocaust and the struggle between good and evil. The performance was inspired by the poems written in, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. One poem in particular stands as central to the ballet. Written by Patel Friedman during her time in Terezin, her poem explores the horror of nazi genocide and the beauty of the human heart. It is this poem by Friedman that the ballet explores:
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow. Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here, Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here. The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court. Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one. Butterflies don’t live in here, In the ghetto.
The butterfly has become the symbol of the 1.5 million murdered children of the Holocaust. The fragile but beautiful butterfly is completely free and its dance-like movement reminds us of unworried play. I have never seen a butterfly scared or rushed. Perhaps nothing more embodies the beauty, innocence and playfulness of youth than the butterfly. The butterfly then is the symbol of the good of the human soul exemplified in the young and the innocent.
The ballet first explores the theme of the butterfly from the vantage point of the nazi soldiers. The dancers-as-nazis strike elegant, long lines in their dance. There is great order, sharpness and similarity in their movements. There is a kind of allurement in their order. Somewhat frighteningly, there order reminds me of what humans seek in life—to be a part of a community that tells us what is expected and how to act. They are like us. This reality exposed in the performance is meant to be deeply troubling.
These doppelgängers of humanity continually smile in the performance. What do nazis have to smile about? It is not joy that turns their lips upwards but the satisfaction and power a bully feels when he harasses his victim. Underneath the veneer of order and civility is the chaos of human darkness. These very human soldiers want to destroy all that is beautiful, innocent and playful in the children of Terezin. They want to destroy the butterfly.
This is almost completely true. There is a moment in the performance when the ballet re-enacts the historical moment when a nazi soldier acted humanely. He gave a little tree to Irma Lauscher, a teacher who is the embodiment of hope in the ballet and real life. This little shrub survives the ghetto and is now a mature tree in Terezin today. It stands as a symbol of hope and life but also of human complexity .
It was a nazi soldier who unexpectedly acted humanely, perhaps if one is daring we might say he acted kindly. The moment in the dance between soldier and Irma is a human moment. A gift being given by one person to another, a thankful recipient. Yet, there is no doubt that in history this nazi soldier committed unspeakable atrocities. How is it possible to be both demon and angel? Perhaps the beauty of the butterfly awakens good in the worse of us. And sadly perhaps, the evil of the soldier can be awakened in all of us as well. We are both destroyers and lovers of the butterfly.
Then there is the power of relationships that preserves the butterfly. What a horrible place a nazi ghetto must have been. Everything designed to dehumanize the occupants. I can imagine it being very hard to even survive in such a place; it would be easier to give up and die. Yet Friedman writes this: But I have found my people here. One of the central elements of the ballet and perhaps its most striking assertion is the power of relationships to uphold the afflicted in the deepest darkness. Relationships are the guards of the butterfly.
In the midst of tedium, savagery, darkness and death, the ballet portrays moments of play, intimacy, laughter and love. This is of course true but still hard for me to understand. Viktor E. Frankl gives witness to the power of relationships in the horror of the Holocaust:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men
who walked through the huts comforting others,
giving away their last piece of bread…
They offer sufficient proof that everything
can be taken from a man but one thing:
to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one’s own way.
The nazis could take almost everything but the ability to choose the good of the butterfly. This ballet stands as monument to the resilience of the soul to stand defiantly in the face of evil and choose love. Perhaps the butterfly is not as fragile as we think.
Finally the portrayal of Judaism in the darkest moments of the ballet is beautiful. A small menorah acts as the central prop in these moments. The menorah is a symbol of promise, home and God’s faithfulness for the people of Israel. It is not the symbol of holocaust but of faith. It is this paradox that is holy and powerful. In the most mesmerizing moment of the ballet, the menorah is brought out and carried as if it has power to make its symbolic meaning true. In humble movement of both the dancers’ bodies and the collective movement of the dancers, dance becomes worship. This is honoring of the brave souls of Terezin; they know darkness and still they keep faith in their God. The moments of menorah, dance and worship clearly connect to the slavery in Egypt and the many historical moments of suffering the Jews have experienced. The ballet reminds us that this horrible story is not a new story but sadly the same bad story being lived out again. It also reminds us that for the people of a Israel, they believe in a God who created the butterfly and alone can preserve it. They know this to be true. This ballet honors this tried-by-the-fire faith.
There is one haunting line in Friedman’s poem: Butterflies don’t live in here, In the ghetto. Perhaps the meaning to find in this line is why this ballet is so important. Humanity can create places that destroy what is most beautiful about us. We have the power to destroy the butterfly. This isn’t something that is only for nazis but true for you and for me. There is darkness in each of us.
Yet there is great hope. Humanity, made in the image of God , can nurture and defend the butterfly as well. The story of the Holocaust is one of great horror but also a story of countless acts of beauty. Man can destroy the body but he has no power over the soul.
The ballet is now on tour throughout the United States but has future performance dates in Wheaton and Chicago. The Butterfly is a piece of art. If you are able, do not miss out on experiencing this ballet. It tells a beautiful story. It tells our story.