Anne Frank’s diary reinterpreted, in dance

After Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shut down their company, choreographers Offer Zaks and María Barrios staged their new work in Tel Aviv.

By Ruth Eshel
Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s diary unfolds on stage. Photo by Diego Zaks

It’s impossible to review “Anne Frank” without mentioning a few words about the events that led up to the show’s production in Israel. The work’s choreographers, Israeli-born Offer Zaks and his wife Venezuelan María Barrios, co-founded one of the leading dance companies in Caracas.

But when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez heard about rehearsals for the company’s new work, “Anne Frank,” he ordered the subject be changed to the Palestinians’ suffering. When the choreographers refused, he dispatched soldiers to shut down their company, Ballet Contemporaneo de Caracas, and confiscate its equipment and costumes. Zaks and Barrios fled to Israel to stage “Anne Frank” here as part of the National Youth Theatre Festival.

The Holocaust, and particularly a well-known story such as Anne Frank’s, is a complex theme for any choreographer. Her story cannot be made abstract or transferred to another time or place, as is the trend with many post-modern dance productions that draw inspiration from the past. Anne Frank’s story, recounted from the perspective of an honest and innocent young girl, demands artistic treatment that avoids over-sophistication and excessive dramatization. Zaks and Barrios manage to do just that.

They have succeeded admirably in portraying life in the “secret annex,” the tiny apartment in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid during World War II, where the majority of this production is set. The movement language of Zaks and Barrios, familiar to us from past performances in Israel, is solid and expressive with a foundation in classical ballet. As befits the subject, the movement reflects fear and emotion. Moments of tension contrast sharply and vividly with moments of catharsis and joy. These, in turn, feel like a type of escapism from the dreary, claustrophobic reality inside the annex.

The production’s originality finds its strongest expression in the direction and design. Some of the highlights include readings of Anne’s diary by Ilanit Gershon, whose fresh voice and clear diction evokes the enthusiasm of a young girl, and video projections of historic footage of a speech by Hitler, aerial bombardments of the Netherlands, radio broadcasts from London and photographs from the concentration camps.

The historical documentation provides a chilling context for what goes on in the annex, reminding us that despite the artistic representation of the Franks’ private lives, we are still watching events from a true story. The relationship between private and public is effectively conveyed as pages of Anne’s diary unfurl like a scroll on the annex walls throughout the performance. The pages increase as time passes, reminding us that the occupants endured in their environment for years.

All of the dancers act and perform skillfully. Emily Meghnaci, particularly charming as Anne, combines vitality, vulnerability and resilience. Veteran dancers Zaks and Barrio are also a pleasure to watch. They radiate authenticity and simplicity.

Realism only becomes too overpowering when S.S. troops, portrayed superficially, break into the annex. The performance could have effectively concluded with film footage from concentration camps, the unfurling of a giant Nazi flag and barbed wire spreading across over the diary’s pages. These symbols are powerful enough. Seeing Anne being escorted by two soldiers was unnecessary. Still, the ending, in which her father, Otto Frank, returns to the secret annex, tears down the Nazi flag and discovers the diary, is moving.

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