Shaping the Arts: Suki John


Dance professor Suki John has developed “The Sh’ma Project: Move Against Hate over the last 30 years.

The Shaping the Arts series highlights TCU College of Fine Arts faculty and alumni who are at the forefront of their fields and who Lead On creatively.

“It’s the oldest story I know,” said Suki John, a professor at the TCU School for Classical & Contemporary Dance. “I don’t remember not knowing about my mother’s history.”

Suki John, left, coaches Kira Daniel during a Sh’ma rehearsal.

Suki John, left, coaches Kira Daniel during a Sh’ma rehearsal.

Over the last 30 years, John has developed “The Sh’ma Project: Move Against Hate,” a body of work that includes “Sh’ma,” a choreodrama documenting her family’s traumatic experience and survival of the Holocaust. The piece is from the perspective of Veronka Polgar, the mother of John.

The project includes “The Holocaust: Remembrance, Respect, Resilience,” a free online textbook John wrote with Michael Polgar, a cousin and professor of sociology at Penn State Hazleton. She also developed upstander workshops with Theatre Professor Lydia Mackay. Each element is designed to educate high school and college students on the Holocaust and serve as a reminder to never forget or repeat harrowing tragedies from the past.

We spoke with John about developing the choreodrama that shares her family’s history and resilience.

Early Beginnings of “The Sh’ma Project: Move Against Hate”

“I was one of those kids who danced around the living room,” John said.

John’s natural talents were encouraged by her parents. Her mother had studied creative movement and aspired to be a dancer before the Holocaust. John began studying ballet professionally in the basement of The Metropolitan Opera and earned prestigious performance opportunities, including dancing in Cuba, at 14 years old.

John developed “Sh’ma” when she received an opportunity to create a ballet for a dance company in the former Yugoslavia. The choreodrama recounts the stories John heard throughout her childhood of her family’s experience in the concentration camps and life after the war.

“I realized this was the story I had to tell,” John said.

John returned to New York and received a grant to continue developing the ballet from “92nd Street Y, New York,” a preeminent Jewish organization promoting cultural and community connection. After a successful premiere, John had the opportunity to showcase the choreodrama at the Joyce Soho Theatre. She reached out to her friend Keith Saunders, a member of the globally renowned ballet company Dance Theatre of Harlem, to serve as ballet master for the production.

Following a distinguished performance career, John applied for a faculty position at the School for Classical & Contemporary Dance at TCU. John has worked on developing the choreodrama into “The Sh’ma Project: Movement Against Hate” during her time on campus.

Remembering History Through Dance

“It’s been 30 years of me working to share the story and the talent of the participating artists on a level they deserve.”

Suki John first created Sh’ma for the People’s Theater of Yugoslavia in 1990. A film version, performed by Fort Worth-based dancers, debuted this year. Courtesy of Suki John

John reached out to several alumni and current dancers from Texas Ballet Theatre to participate in the “Sh’ma” film, including Samantha Pille, who portrayed her grandmother. Saunders portrayed her grandfather, who she never had the opportunity to meet.

“This is the third performance of the choreodrama. The performances have been completely different because each dancer brings so much of themselves to the process.”

John collaborated with Production Designer Bob Lavalllee to create a timeless set design and help viewers truly understand the production’s gravity. She also worked with Rebecca “Rivkah” Cannon to design costumes that advanced the storyline of each character and complemented the dance movements.

The Sh’ma choreodrama film recently had a private screening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, with plans to enter the piece in upcoming film festivals, distribution to schools, and hopes for ultimately showing it on PBS.

Leonard Bernstein said art can’t change the world, but it can change people,” John said. “We can do this through education and the arts.”

Read more about John leveraging the arts for social change.