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Shadows Behind the Dance by Maddy Tongue: A remarkable life from Auschwitz to Belfast

Holocaust survivor Helen Lewis brought the holistic and uniting ethos of modern dance to Northern Ireland

Helen Lewis: Shadows Behind the Dance
Helen Lewis: Shadows Behind the Dance
Author: Maddy Tongue
ISBN-13: 978-1-8382018-9-0
Publisher: The Irish Pages Press
Guideline Price: £25

Czechoslovakian dancer and choreographer Helen Lewis (1916-2009), survived the horrors of Auschwitz, to end up, through an unlikely twist of fate, bringing the holistic ethos of modern dance to Northern Ireland. It was her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Harry Lewy, who was in the linen business, that brought her to Belfast, where she would pick up the lost thread that Irish-German modern dance pioneer Erina Brady started in Dublin in 1939. This was neither ballet nor Irish dancing, but something new, enlightened – and controversial.

A powerhouse of creativity, with an Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm, Lewis brought her Laban training to Yeats’s Plays for Dancers at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, formed Belfast Modern Dance Group in 1962, and when the Troubles broke out, continued creating choreographies with dancers from both communities who realised “they were working with someone who had survived the Holocaust and lived through times much grimmer than anything experienced locally, someone moreover who was not consumed with bitter resentment”.

Lewis may not have spoken publicly of her Holocaust ordeal until her 1992 book A Time to Speak, but it was omnipresent in an abstract way throughout her choreographic output

Offering insight into Lewis’s stoic personality, author Maddy Tongue, a physiotherapist and choreographer who trained and danced with Lewis, chronicles and immortalises this important tale from an embodied perspective. (Her husband, the conductor and former BBC musical programme producer Alan Tongue, also composed for Lewis). Lewis may not have spoken publicly of her Holocaust ordeal until her 1992 book A Time to Speak, but as dance can express what words cannot, it was omnipresent in an abstract way throughout her choreographic output. From There Is a Time, and a 1970 collaboration with Seamus Heaney on his Lough Neagh Sequence to Phases and the 1993 Anne Frank, Tongue recounts creations she was part of, providing an overview of Lewis’s artistic achievements – and her challenges.

In keeping with its artistic subject, Helen Lewis: Shadows Behind the Dance opens with a poignant folio of poems by Michael Longley about his extraordinary friend’s Odyssean journey, illustrated by his daughter, the artist Sarah Longley, who also attended Lewis’s dance classes. Lewis’s own words, in an interview with editor Chris Agee, round off the book, recounting how Belfast became home. Both capturing the personality of an exceptional woman and copper-fastening her artistic legacy, this wonderful book is a crucial contribution to the history of modern dance in Ireland.

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Deirdre Mulrooney is author of Irish Moves: An Illustrated History of Dance and Physical Theatre in Ireland (Liffey Press, 2006), and director of documentaries Damhsa na hÉigeandála (TG4) and 1943: A Dance Odyssey (RTÉ)