Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Remembers Holocaust Hero Florence Waren in Jennifer Archibald’s Sounds of the Sun

October 23, 2023

In a large studio at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, corps member Amanda Morgan penchés forward slowly. Her hands pad across the floor quietly, searching, then her partner gently lifts her to her feet. She takes uncertain steps forward on pointe, blinded by her partner’s hands, which are placed across her eyes. She is dancing the role of a Jewish woman in hiding during World War II.

Morgan and the PBT company are rehearsing Jennifer Archibald’s Sounds of the Sun. The world premiere, fashioned as one of Archibald’s signature docu-ballets, tells the story of Florence Waren, a Jewish dancer who worked with the French Resistance during World War II. With multimedia design by Guy De Lancey, the ballet integrates film and photograph projections, as well as rare clips of Waren’s voice, taken from a private documentary shared by the Waren family. Running Oct 27–29 at Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater, Sounds of the Sun closes PBT’s Light in the Dark program, which also features Sasha Janes’ Loss, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Lacrimosa, and the company premiere of Barak Marshall’s Monger. It will debut on the fifth anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre.

In a brightly lit ballet studio, a group of five female dancers rehearse together. On the far left, a soloist sits facing the camera, twisting her body toward the other dancers with a concerned look on her face. The other dancers, separated in two pairs, kneel on the floor facing each other and embrace each other, heads down.
Tommie Lin O’Hanlon (far left) and members of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre rehearsing Sounds of the Sun. Photo by Aviana Adams, courtesy PBT.

Florence Waren, born Sadie Rigal in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1917, was a famous dancer known most for performing in the ballroom duo Florence et Frederic with partner Frederic Apcar. Throughout the 1940–44 Nazi occupation of France, Waren performed for German officers at Paris’ famous Bal Tabarin while hiding her Jewish identity. She also hid fellow Jews in her apartment and helped usher them to safe zones, smuggled supplies for the French Resistance, and illegally distributed letters from French prisoners of war to their rightful recipients. She died in her home in New York City in 2012 at the age of 95.

“What I love about the documentary form is that history becomes this reality,” says Archibald, who spent months researching Waren after PBT approached her with the commission in January. “My first step,” she says, “was to find someone who was related to her.”

A close-up of a female ballet dancer in rehearsal. She holds her arms above and below her face, fingers stretched out, as if pulling apart the space in front of her head. She looks afraid.
Tommie Lin O’Hanlon. Photo by Aviana Adams, courtesy PBT.

After wading through archival materials and scouting several social media platforms, Archibald connected the dots until she was put in contact with Waren’s son, Mark, who directed the 2003 documentary, Dancing Lessons, on his mother’s life. To view the documentary, which is not accessible to the public, Archibald located a physical copy with the family’s help.

“I thought that using the documentary was an authentic way, an emotional way, to grasp the audience,” says Archibald, who spent hours weaving in clips of Waren’s voice from the documentary into the ballet’s score. “I wanted to use Florence’s voice—for her to connect the lineage of her story.”

PBT principal Tommie Lin O’Hanlon is one of the dancers portraying Waren as the lead in Sounds of the Sun. To prepare for the role, she researched Waren extensively and watched the documentary several times. She and the company also participated in training on the impact of antisemitism and the Holocaust. During this training, done in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, the dancers heard from a child of Holocaust survivors and two survivors themselves—an experience O’Hanlon described as sharply breathtaking, and deeply personal.

“I cannot begin to relate to what Florence went through,” says O’Hanlon, “but her using dance as her saving grace…a lot of us know how that feels, in some way.”

When the ballet begins, the mood is light for Waren’s arrival in Paris. Couples swing-dance and revel; Waren’s voice recounts fond memories from the beginning of her dance career. The tone then shifts suddenly, marking the outbreak of the war. The dancers lean into each other, lift each other up, huddle together, and, in a particularly tense scene, stand stock-still, anxiously anticipating the opening of Waren’s apartment door. But never does an antisemitic character enter the stage. “We know the contrast is there,” says Archibald. “We don’t need to magnify it.”

A large group of dancers huddle together in an ascending shape in the middle of a bright dance studio. They face toward the back right corner of the room; some reach toward it, and all lunge forward.
Members of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre rehearsing Sounds of the Sun. Photo by Aviana Adams, courtesy PBT.

The most emotional part, says O’Hanlon, comes at the very end. For Sounds of the Sun, PBT has partnered with Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh, a community project that offers educational programs and exhibits, and preserves instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. One such violin belonged to the late ballerina, Hollywood actress, and Holocaust survivor Joyce Vanderveen; PBT associate concertmaster Rachel Stegeman will play Vanderveen’s violin onstage to close the ballet.

“I get chills every time I think about it,” says O’Hanlon. “That final solo, with the violinist walking towards me—it is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Archibald explains that the sound of the violin carries a message of hope, both historically and in present time. “For so many people [of the Holocaust], that was that one instrument they were able to carry with them,” she says. “I think it was a sound of comfort, strength. I hope we can bring that to the theater on opening night.”