Exhibition and MADCO production bring the fall of the Berlin wall to life for UMSL, community
Wentzville Holt High School student Alicia noticed a familiar name – Bernhard Becker – while reading a banner that was part of the “Long Live Freedom” exhibition at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis on Thursday.
Becker, a Nazi resister who had been arrested as a spy and then died in Hammelgasse Police Prison, had lived in the same town as Alicia’s family. She texted her mom, who consulted her mother.
Turns out there was a connection: Becker was a cousin of Alicia’s great-grandfather Harry.
Alicia never imagined she’d have such a personal tie to the exhibition that brought her and roughly 800 other area high school students to the Touhill over three days last week as part of the UMSL German Culture Center‘s commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event brought in students from as far away as Carbondale, Illinois, and Washington, Missouri.
Students first visited an exhibition on the youth resistance in Nazi Germany and then saw an exclusive screening of the Modern American Dance Company’s production of “Wallstories,” which MADCO performed for the second time after debuting the German choreographer Nejla Yatkin’s composition at UMSL five years ago.
The event was organized by Larry Marsh, the UMSL German Cultural Center coordinator, with help from Express Scripts Senior Project Manager Bob Case who helped import, translate and print the banners created by Studienkreis Deutscher Widerstand 1933-1945.
“The exhibit outside is really about extremism on the far-right, fascism, communism and how difficult resistance was,” Marsh said. “Inside, then, they’re going to be talking about East Germany and East Berlin and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is extremism on the far right hand and far left hand side. So you got both of those. I think the significance of doing both is to remind people of a younger generation who had no experience with this the dangers of totalitarianism, authoritarianism.”
Yatkin set the dance in “Wallstories” against a multimedia collage of sound – snippets from Bach, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album and recordings of personal testimonies – against a projected backdrop of news footage, images of the wall and graffiti. One particularly moving anecdote at the end recalled the death of Peter Fechter, a teenager who was shot while attempting to cross into West Germany.
“I was there – this was shortly afterwards – and saw flowers and a small cross marketing that spot,” Marsh recalled. “Berlin really was a place where you could compare two systems. Anyone who traveled there described that same thing, but coming back through Checkpoint Charlie, there was a yellow line. When you walked across that and you were back in the West, there was a a feeling of relief and I would say gratitude living in a free society. That’s my connection.”
Throughout the performance, the dancers interacted with the back wall of the theater as if it were the Berlin Wall. They threw their bodies against it, kicked and pushed it and used the fabric draped over the wall as an extension of their movements.
Afterward, Nicole Whitesell, the artistic director of MADCO, and Emilee Morton, the managing director of MADCO, took questions from the high school students and asked them about their experiences at the show. The students were curious about the symbolism of some of the dance moves and what each performer enjoyed about the dance. Morton also asked the students in a show of hands how many felt something during the performance. She wasn’t disappointed.
“Really nice,” she said. “I am so glad to see so many hands up in the air, and I’m very glad this being, for many of you, your first dance concert that so you felt moved. We are bringing a historical topic that still remains relevant today to life on stage through art and dance, and we hoped that it would spark some sort of thought and conversation in you.”
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