A young Jewish boy in shorts stands shoulder to shoulder with his blonde curly-haired sister. The pair beam out from a sepia photo as they lean against one of the lions in Trafalgar Square.
Sitting round the corner, in the ICA, more than half a century later, I feel more than privileged to be watching the world premiere of Second Breath, part of the UK Jewish Film Festival, an acoustic tribute composed by the legendary Balanescu Quartet, which mixes family photographs, film and archive footage to tell the life story of sculptor and holocaust survivor Maurice Bilk, the little boy in the photo who first came to London as a refugee.
As a child Bilk was taken from his home in Amsterdam, to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Many of his relatives, including his father, were murdered. Maurice, his mother and his sister, survived and were liberated by the Russian cavalry whilst on one of the last trains to a death camp. After arriving in England he trained as a teacher and then found his vocation as a sculptor.
This musical oeuvre tells the story of his life and uses one of his works, Second Breath-a massive gilt sculpture of a man, with his muscular back arched, pushing his body skywards, to inhale all the clean fresh air he can-as the springboard for a performance piece directed by Gillian Lacey. The highlight of which is the masterful score choreographed by virtuoso violinist and composer Alex Balanescu, celebrating Blik’s life and alluding to the ways in which such a past continues to influence the present, showing how this near death experience was also a rebirth.
The video projections are spread across four different screens, which display shifting vignettes of footage. The performance starts with images of Bilk walking down a stair well followed by a montage of old photos, group family shots taken prior to the war, an animated show reel which ends with the unforgettable picture of siblings in London.
The performance that follows tells of the cruelty and horror of the intervening chapter when the family was trafficked to the camps. Flickers of disturbing archive footage of train doors slamming, striped camp uniforms and train tracks flash up so quickly you almost miss them, as if the world has temporarily re-tuned into this nightmare, and then just as quickly lost the frequency.
As well as via these haunting signifiers, the holocaust is alluded to, by the black spaces, the moments in this production were the video projections cease and the masterful, and soaring voice of Balanescu’s violin is used to great emotional effect.
With strings fraying on his bow, Alex Balanescu conjures up the dissonant screeching of thousands of door hinges to produce a soundscape that stretches back in time bring forth the terror and fear of such internment, leaving ripples that are both harrowing and haunting. But at other moments, the quartet, glide through the composition, buoyed up by survival and success that are represented by Blik’s survival.
Second Breath is a deeply affecting body of work, it is a celebration of life, that by focusing on the living not the dead, on achievement rather than loss, adds a strand to the holocaust discourse which constructs survivors not as victims but as individuals that have shaped the world around them, and it is in their success, as well as the retelling of their story that form a tribute and testimony to all those who lost their lives.