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'I was born because my father went through hell'

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Choreographer Allen Kaeja is a "2 G." Colloquial for "Second Generation," the term refers to children of Holocaust survivors. "2 G's involved in the arts all seem to share the same need," explains Kaeja, who is 40. "We have a strong desire to understand our own existence through the survival of our parents' existence, and this compels us to translate their experience into art. I was born because my father went through hell."

When Kaeja d'Dance premieres Resistance tomorrow at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre, it will be the final chapter of the choreographer's own seven-year Holocaust journey, and a testament to his remarkable father.

Kaeja's Holocaust works are divided into two trilogies. In Blood (1993), began as a male duet exploring a sibling relationship, but the piece took on a life of its own and became the artistic expression of his father's relationship with his brother who died in his arms in the death camp. At the time, Kaeja was experiencing another 2 G phenomenon -- irrational terror. His first daughter had just been born and he kept having thoughts about losing his family. Only when In Blood was finished, did he understand where the piece had come from. The solo Sarah (1994) was based on his father's first wife.

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"The urge to make these works was so strong that I didn't even apply for any grants. I just choreographed them. At that point, there was no question that I had to pursue a complete investigation of the Holocaust through dance," Kaeja says. The final work of the first trilogy, Old Country (1995), examined the day before/day after phenomenon, when long-time neighbours become enemies overnight, and a community is changed forever.

The first trilogy had looked at the Holocaust from the viewpoint of personal experience. In the second, Kaeja took a deeper and more universal approach to the issues. Zummel (1996) showed a bleak quintet of people thrown into chaos, and was inspired by families being rounded up on short notice and then torn asunder. The quintet Court-Yard (1997) was set in a ghetto, and focused on moment-to-moment survival. The final work, Resistance,puts Kaeja at the very core of human nature.

"The will to resist is part of the universal experience," he explains. "We're here today because of resistances that occurred thousands of years ago. Nothing exists without causing a chain reaction and all actions have ramifications."

Kaeja's father was born Mordechai Nosal in Kutno, Poland, which became Canadianized to Morton Norris, and the Holocaust experience of this man reflects both the tragedies and the miracles of that evil time. Mordechai was first a PoW because he fought in the Polish Army, then after his escape, became a partisan in the Resistance. When he went back to his town to find his family, he was picked up by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. Because he had been a butcher, he was put to work in the kitchens, and being able to forage for extra food probably saved his life.

As the war ended, Mordechai was one of many Auschwitz survivors forced on the long death march to the camp at Nordhausen. One day, Mordechai and a friend spotted an untended potato truck and began stealing food for their barracks. When they were caught, his comrade was shot. Just as the Nazi soldier was about to smash his rifle butt into Mordechai's skull, the British bombed the camp and the guard was killed. Mordechai pulled off the soldier's boots and ran through the open gate to freedom.

He returned to Kutno after the war but discovered that none of his large family had survived. After three years in a displaced persons camp, he arrived in Canada in 1948, sponsored by relatives in Kitchener, Ont. He later married Ruth Wiedman, and Kaeja and his four siblings were raised in Kitchener. Mordechai/Morton died 15 years ago, fiercely independent to the end.

The name Kaeja was invented by the former Allen Norris and his wife, dancer/choreographer, Karen Resnick, as an appellation that would be uniquely theirs and their children's. The two began Kaeja d'Dance in 1991.

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Reflective of the theme, Resistance is what Kaeja calls "dangerous dancing." His technique rests upon contact improvisation, where dancers manipulate each other through weight transfer, balance/counter balance, and elevation. Like all his works, the piece was created through structured innovations where Kaeja gives his six dancers very specific instructions, and they then create movement that he shapes.

"I just used to make up dances," explains Kaeja, "but after a choreographic workshop with Tom Stroud in Winnipeg in 1990, I could never again create something that was not essential to my being, and the Holocaust works are essential. I had no choice but to make them." Unlike the previous five works, Resistance is also about hope. "You don't resist for the hell of it," adds Kaeja, "but for future generations." The Kaejas have two daughters, Aniya and Mika, each given their own unique name.

Kaeja personally knows about resistance. A former champion amateur wrestler, he took a dance class at university to help with his balance and discovered his calling. When he decided to make dance his career, his father withdrew all financial support, and Kaeja was secretly helped by his mother who became her own resistance unit.

"Resistance happens because a bigger idea forces it to happen." Kaeja d'Dance performs at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre from tomorrow through Saturday, and then tours Resistance to Brock University, St. Catharines, Ont., Feb. 17; Jack Singer Concert Hall, Calgary, Feb. 20; and L'Agora de la Danse, Montreal, March 1-3. The work will also be performed at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, June 9-17.

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