Drawing out memories of theft, loss and laughter

Twice a week, Serge Bennathan took a break from stealing motorcycles, pulled on a pair of black tights and went to dance class. He was 11 years old. "I used dance to save myself," he said. "Stealing motorcycles was...

Twice a week, Serge Bennathan took a break from stealing motorcycles, pulled on a pair of black tights and went to dance class.

He was 11 years old.

“I used dance to save myself,” he said.

“Stealing motorcycles was not what I wanted to do with my life.”

Now, 41 years later, the Vancouver-based choreographer, dancer, writer and director is bringing his first play to Whitehorse.

His theatrical departure from leotards and swaying bodies was inspired by a visit to his parents in France.

Bennathan saw an 80-year-old man on TV waiting to meet his sister at a Paris airport.

The two were separated during the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp after the Second World War. The young man went to France. His sister ended up in a remote Russian village.

“The man grew up and lived his life, but he had this parallel life of looking for his sister,” said Bennathan.

In 1998, he finally found her.

Two years later, they were meeting for the first time.

“I was totally astonished there were still these effects from this incredible event,” said Bennathan, in a thick French accent.

“How would they start to speak to each other?

“They would have to go back to all those memories they missed.”

The airport reunion haunted Bennathan’s dreams.

“I woke up with this character, Joseph Finch, in my mind, forcing me to write this play,” he said.

Based on the story of the estranged brother and sister The Invisible Life of Joseph Finch is a one-man account of a grandfather’s acceptance of death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and how, decades later, that acceptance becomes a precious gift for his son Joseph Finch.

“But the play is not about the Holocaust,” said Bennathan.

“It’s about how we pass on memory.”

Five years ago, when he was 46, Bennathan started mining his family’s memories.

“I sat down with my parents and said, ‘You know, you never told us anything about your own childhood.’

“And I forced them, one by one, to talk about it.”

Bennathan’s father cried.

So did his mother.

“People block those memories, because they can be painful,” he said.

“But what is painful is to hold it in.”

Bennathan did not always talk so candidly with his parents.

At 14, he left the tiny French village where they lived, and moved to Paris.

“Paris was a way to find my own independence,” he said.

And it got him away from the motorcycle thieves he ran with. “It was not a good life,” said Bennathan.

Male dancers were hard to come by in Paris, so the young Bennathan got to attend dance school for free.

And at 17, things came together.

“It was a combination of things,” said Bennathan.

“I had a great teacher who slapped my face—it was the best slap I received in my life.”

That year, he also saw Rudolph Nureyev perform.

“I started to understand what dance was about,” he said.

When he was 18, Bennathan was hired by the Ballet National de Marseille. Four years later he became an independent choreographer. But he didn’t know how to break down the walls he faced.

So, he left home a second time, by moving to Canada.

He was hired by an experimental company in Ottawa and eventually ended up as artistic director of Dancemakers in Toronto for 16 years.

The whole time, Bennathan didn’t speak to his parents.

“From time to time I would remember how we were able to laugh together, and one day, when I was out on the Pacific Coast, I realized there must be more to this story than sperm and blood,” he said.

So, Bennathan reached out.

“We’d fight and scream,” he said.

Then, then next year, he’d go back to France and try again.

“Both sides wanted this to succeed,” he said.

Seven years later, Bennathan was able to sit down with his parents and talk about their childhood.

“That’s what I’m most proud of in life, is this reunion with my parents,” he said.

And Joseph Finch touches on it.

“I hope it gives people the idea to tell more stories from their childhood to their children,” he said.

“It’s a very human piece. It’s a work in which you laugh and cry.”

Although it’s not a dance piece, Joseph Finch is quite physical, said Bennathan, who’s also worked with Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan directing the Canadian Opera Company.

And actor Jonathon Young brings the piece to life, he added.

Writing plays is just the newest branch of Bennathan’s creative life.

“I think of my life as a tree,” he said.

“Dance is the trunk—the branches are what dance has made me discover: opera, writing, drawing.”

It’s not money that makes a rich life, said Bennathan.

“It’s your creativity and emotion.”

The Invisible Life of Joseph Finch is at the Yukon Arts Centre February 4 and 5.

The shows start at 8 p.m., and tickets are available at Arts Underground and the arts centre box office.

Contact Genesee Keevil at