PEORIA — Central Illinois Ballet director Rebekah von Rathonyi has been wanting to create a ballet about Anne Frank ever since she started dancing at the age of 8.
Just a year before, she had visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam.
“When my parents took me to visit the annex, I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust,” said von Rathonyi during a phone interview Tuesday morning. “I remember vividly the whole experience, walking into the annex, walking into Anne’s room. There was something about it that struck a chord, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.”
The experience left von Rathonyi full of questions. She wondered how anyone could treat a young girl and her family with such disregard.
The Central Illinois Ballet will perform “Anne Frank” March 22-24 at the Central Illinois Ballet Theatre, 830 W Main St. in Peoria.
Von Rathonyi began working on the ballet about a year ago. Though it’s not a common subject for a ballet, Anne Frank’s story has been told a few times through the medium, said von Rathonyi. But there was no script or score available for her to use.
“I composed it from scratch,” said von Rathonyi. “I pulled different classical music from different places and put together my own choreography.”
The process included a lot of historical research.
“I read Anne’s book over and over again, and went through it with highlighter,” she said.
Von Rathonyi also consulted history books, several Holocaust museums, and the Jewish Federation of Peoria.
“They talked me through a lot of different aspects I wanted to put into the ballet,” said von Rathonyi.
While most of the ballet focuses on Anne, von Rathonyi also included scenes depicting the bigger picture of what was happening in Europe.
“There’s a concentration camp scene in the ballet, and another where a rabbi refuses to leave his children and ends up going into a gas chamber,” said von Rathonyi.
Classical music, mostly by Jewish composers, will accompany about 50 dancers from Central Illinois Ballet and it’s school, the Cornerstone Academy for Performing Arts, during the 48-minute production. Playing the lead of Anne Frank is Cornerstone student Coralie Zika.
“For being 15 years old, her artistry is beyond her years,” said von Rathonyi. “She’s done a ton of research for the role.”
Performers helped von Rathonyi create the choreography.
“It’s truly been a group process,” she said. The performance will feature contemporary ballet, which is more fluid and organic than classical ballet. And, in a nod to the fact that Anne and her family were forced to be extremely quiet through most of their time in hiding, dancers will wear ballet slippers, which are quieter than pointe shoes, said von Rathonyi.
Because the ballet addresses difficult topics, organizers have posted a warning on their website that the production might not be appropriate for small children. The topic has also been difficult for the performers.
“The emotional toll has been the most difficult part of the process,” said von Rathonyi. “Just making it through the different scenes without a flood of tears has been hard. It’s even been difficult for the parents. I poked my head out of the studio the other day and there was a mom out there in tears. We were working on the death scene of Anne Frank’s mother.”
Von Rathonyi also expects a strong emotional response from the audience.
“I think the audience will take it two ways. They’ll either be incredibly sad and never come back, or they will be moved to the extent that they will keep coming back for more,” she said. “We are hoping for more of the latter.”
To help soften the emotional toll, the evening will feature a much lighter second half.
“The second act is all contemporary works that my professional ballet company members have put together,” said von Rathonyi.
The performance has truly been a labor of love for von Rathonyi and her company. If the audience response is good, she may, in the future, expand it into a full-length production.
“I think it is important to remember any time in history when there has been human persecution,” said von Rathonyi. “It’s important to keep that memory alive.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.