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An interview with Holly Small these days is a vale of tears. The 48-year-old choreographer is frequently overcome with emotion when talking about her first full-length piece, Souls, a co-production with Canadian Children's Dance Theatre that opened at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre last night.

The monumental work featuring a transgenerational cast of 45 ranging in age from 10 to 70, is about the effects of war on non-combatants, and given the climate of the times, is all the more agonizing for Small the creator, because the barrage of media images since Sept. 11 has become real life mirroring her artistic vision.

"I was devastated over the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington," she says, "and while I mourn the dead, I grieve no less for other victims elsewhere in the world. Why should lives lost in New York be more precious than people killed in East Timor or Rwanda? It's very wrong that there are parts of the globe that are important, and other areas that we don't give a damn about. I'm against aggression, genocide and terrorism, no matter where they happen."

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Small's social conscience first came to light when she was in grade school in Ottawa learning about the Holocaust and reading The Diary of Anne Frank. "My brain couldn't take in the horror," she says. "Every day, I'd ask the teacher, 'Is that what you really said, that they rounded up Jews and put them in ovens?' At home, I'd sit on the edge of my bed and fret about it, and my teacher finally sent me to the school nurse because I kept asking the same questions over and over. This has led me to an important truth. I am no more deserving of my life of privilege, than people in other cultures are of their tragedies."

The brutal carnage of the First World War's trench warfare, the Holocaust atrocities, the psychologically disturbed Vietnam War veterans, the students being mowed down in Tiananmen Square, the squalid refugee camps that proliferate throughout the Third World -- these are only a few of the many images that have contributed to the genesis of Souls, a piece that has been simmering in Small's creative reservoir for over 14 years. In fact, Small's litany of humanity's horrors rolls off her tongue like a catechism.

Another influence is Ukrainian composer Lubomyr Melnyk's cantata Poslaniye which uses text from the 19th-century epic poem of the same name by Taras Shevchenko, and is a heart-rending cry against oppression. Small has also been profoundly moved by the eternal resilience of children who manage to play amid the ruins. Says Small: "I knew one day I had to do a piece about war -- not the actual fighting because I don't know enough about it -- but about the heartache of the innocent victims who are left behind after the young men go off to fight -- the old men, the women, the children."

Just as images from past history have informed Souls, so does the present history-in-the-making, and Small tearfully describes an Afghan woman fleeing the bombing, struggling up a mountain pass with her children with only grass for food, or a smiling Afghan child, perched on a ruined building, gaily swinging his feet and waving at the camera.

Small's episodic Souls includes a prelude and six sections, and the descriptive titles paint a graphic picture of what has motivated her creation: Darkening Sky, Hope Dies Last, Weeping Sky, Birth of Venus, Returning Soldier and The Haunted Square. From vanishing children, to couples parting, to the black humour one finds in desperate situations, to the dreams of young girls that will never be realized, to a damaged soldier who has changed forever, to a blood-stained square that was once the heart of a community -- these moving images are at the heart of Small's magnum opus.

Composer John Oswald, Small's companion since 1984, is functioning as music director on Souls with the daunting task of blending the live and recorded music of nine composers, spanning the 14th to 20th centuries, into a soundscape continuum. "Sept. 11 may have made other people wake up to realpolitik," he says, "but Holly has always been thinking about issues of life and death. Her dance is a microcosm of the world, and is an outcome of principles and values that she has always held dear."

Of particular interest is how Small's dancers perceive the work in light of Sept. 11. A thoughtful round table discussion after a run-through included a cross section of ages: Canadian Children's Dance Theatre's Sara Fegelman, 12, and Danielle Denichaud, 17, seasoned professionals Susan Lee, 37, and Ronald Taylor, 40, and senior citizen, Donald Himes, 71. Lee is a well-known independent dancer/choreographer, Taylor is artistic director of Camboulay Dance Theatre, and Himes was an original member of Toronto Dance Theatre.

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The dancers describe Small's collaborative process and their work in finding emotional motivation, about how she gave them provocative word images, and then wove their improvised body shapes into the dance. For young Fegelman, both the dreadful pictures of Sept. 11, and the horrific stories related by Bosnian peacekeepers who visited her school, brought home the terrors that young people her own age are going through. A wellspring of creative inspiration for Denichaud was having family friends in New York, and realizing their lives were in danger. "It brought fear to the surface," she says, "and a first-hand experience of things that used to happen far away."

For Lee, the piece post-Sept. 11 made the transformation from being about personal loss to a community's tragedy. Conversely, Taylor equates the larger issues of Souls to the atrocities individual people experience every day of their lives. And from the wisdom of Himes: "You physicalize ideas because you can't find the words to verbalize something that has touched the very depths of your soul. That is what dance is all about, and that's what this piece is about. It is expressing, in movement, the terrible beauty of both real memories, and memories yet to be."

Perhaps Small's greatest muse for creating Souls is her response to the eternal question, "Why are we here?" Her own life has been fraught with near-death experiences -- her pregnant mother almost being hit by a moving train the day before Small was born, her falling out of a second-storey window when she was an infant, the family plunging into the frozen St. Lawrence River when a sleigh plummeted through thin ice, a close call on a train trestle when she was 13, a miraculous escape from a car crash in her 20s. Says Small: "Life isn't beautiful, but human beings are, and since I'm meant to be here, and because I'm a choreographer, I have to do something meaningful. I make dances that reflect the world back to the audience. That is my role as an artist." Souls runs at Premiere Dance Theatre in Toronto through tomorrow. For information call 416-973-4000.

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