Saturday, May 15, 2010

Indeed We Do

Spring shows are an integral part of every dancer's world. When Exhibit A was young, as I've mentioned before, I used to dread sitting through the one and only recital in which her class performed. I just didn't get it on so many levels and watching all that flounce and twirl while waiting for my precious angel's 4 minutes on stage seemed like a colossal waste of my time.

As she matured as a dancer and I started to understand more and more about the techniques and processes, I began to enjoy every minute of every show and appreciate the work, dedication and passion that goes into producing them. When you can watch the three year olds take the stage and do what three year olds will (or in many cases will not) do one moment, and in the next be wowed by a senior taking the stage for her final senior solo, you see where your child has been and where she's going, and you simply can't help but be a little inspired.

This year marked a big milestone for Exhibit A in that it is the first time she and her company have performed on stage en pointe. She's had her toe shoes for fifteen months... fifteen months of technique classes, ouch pouches, tying ribbons, retying ribbons, countless battements, cutting V-s in toenails, moving straps, moving them again, breaking boxes, pancake spray, new auditions, lengthy fittings, private lessons, stitch kitting and ankle strengthening... and the moment finally arrived.

The dance was beautiful, of course, but what struck me more than the movement itself was the change before me. It was, afterall, as if I was watching her grow up right there in front of an entire audience full of folks who didn't even know that they were bearing witness to such a profound moment. It is true that we watch our kids grow, on some level, day in and day out, but it's not often that time is suspended for us just long enough to recognize it in the here and now, but this performance afforded me that opportunity and there's no pirouette-ing back. My daughter has crossed the threshold as a dancer and, really, as a young woman.

The opening number this year was one of the most beautiful dances I've ever had the privilege to see. It was Bollywood-style, complete with coin skirts and ankle bells. They used every inch of space on the stage and took to the aisles of the theater, completely surrounding the audience at several points. No one there will soon forget the crispness of the movement or the level of energy the dancers created. One of the other fun pieces was a video about flashmobbing. It explained what a flashmob is and showed a clip of one of our instructors participating in a flashmob gig at Philips Arena. Oh, and then, of course, we got to experience a flashmob firsthand as our attention was drawn from the screen to what was happening in the aisles and rows all around us.

Throughout my daughter's dance journey, I've developed an eye for and appreciation of brilliant choreography. I've come to understand the subtle differences among the choreographers I know and can generally identify their work when I see it. I've learned how they each express a broad range of emotions through their art from sheer joy and whimsy to contentment to fear to utter despair and many things in between.

This weekend, however, I also learned how they, as well as a group of young girls, and even a few boys, express their grief.

As you may recall from a previous Hissy Fit, my daughter's modern dance teacher, Mr. A, passed away last summer leaving a huge void in the lives of many aspiring dancers. It's been a tough year not only for them but also for the parents and other teachers. The Nutcracker production this year was dedicated to his memory, but as the spring shows approached, it became very apparent that his picture and some lovely lines on a page in the Nutcracker playbill simply wasn't enough of a tribute to this man.

Therefore, at one point during the show, the bed used in the Nutcracker dream scene was wheeled onto the stage. An instructor, Ms. P, who, incidentally, was Mr. A's best friend, was in the bed. Cue music. "This Woman's Work". Dammit. That song makes me cry just because it is what it is and I feel connected to it on a number of levels, plus, it conjures up images of a tormented Kevin Bacon in that scene, though I suspect that image has now been replaced with this new one. So yes. The music. And then the dance.

Ms. P, in the aforementioned bed, appeared to be restless and dreaming. From stage left, comes RD, his dark skin juxtaposed against his bright white tank top and pants.

RD is a graduating senior whose senior page in the spring show program read, among other things: "Thank you for the gift you gave me. Mr. A, you are the reason I push on when times get rough because you never allowed me to settle for anything less than great". RD is an inner city kid who had a scholarship to our dance program for the past two years. Attending classes every day except Sunday, he relied on public transportation to get to and from the studio, a couple of train and bus transfers, each way. Mr. A used to teach at the arts magnet program in the city. He recognized the talent and potential RD possessed and made it his business to ensure that this young man had an opportunity he would not have otherwise had. RD was very hard hit by Mr. A's death and even performed a gut wrenching dance at the memorial service, another fact readers of both HF and BT may remember. RD resembles Mr. A not only in his physical traits but also in his dry humor, his movement, his dance style and, most certainly, his aura. None of this was lost on those in the audience who knew Mr. A.

And it hit me. I knew immediately what this dance was about. Ms. P was dreaming of Mr. A. RD appeared as an angelic Mr. A, and Ms. P was happy. They danced together. They smiled, they hugged, and then he ripped himself away from her. She collapsed on the stage in a breath-taking moment of pain. Out of the darkness, one by one, other female instructors took to the stage to "heal" her, to support her, to help her, to turn that moment of grief back to one of joy. Through their dance, they shared memories and happy thoughts.

RD suddenly returned to the stage and the women were elated, but it was short-lived. Sadness ensued as RD slowly did "the Mr. A modern walk" off the stage, a move we all recognized. Ms. P crawled, quite literally, back to bed, her friends surrounding her, their heads resting on the bed. And as they paused there, just breathing, comforting each other, doing what women do, RD returned to the stage and stood, perfectly still, at the head of the bed. And just in case anyone had any doubt about the meaning of this dance, in which not a word was uttered, RD was holding a Starbucks cup.

And the stage went dark.

The instructors involved in this piece were emotionally spent after each performance of it, often dancing through tear-filled eyes. Many of the company members barely made it on stage in time for their next act due to the amount of cosmetics touch up required. Runny mascara doesn't look good under the spotlights, it seems.

The show must go on, and so it did. It kept going right through to the finale.

"Breaking News" began with a newspaper girl shouting out the headlines... "Extra, extra, read all about it! War rages in the middle east... the economy tanks..." and so forth. She continued on while the dancers milled about on stage, ignoring her, until the moment when she called out "Beloved teacher Antonio S. dies at age 35, studio devastated, dancers vow to keep dancing..."

And dance they did. A joyful dance full of twists and tumbling passes and flexi-bendy poses. The newspapers became an integral prop as they threw papers into the air as if it was confetti to celebrate a life well lived. They performed to the song "Live Like We're Dying" because really, we should, and in many ways, Mr. A did. At one point the kids came off the stage and stood all over the theater throwing out into the audience red construction paper hearts. Each of the hundreds of hearts had a personalized message to Mr. A hand written on it by members of the company... the one that landed on my lap read: "Mr. Antonio, You told the best stories. I miss you." He did. And I miss him, too.

Returning to the stage, they sat in a row with piles of newspapers stacked neatly in front of them. Simultaneously they each picked up the first newspaper in their individual stacks and held them in front of their faces as if they were reading. A large, black letter appeared on the back of each paper and, down the line, a message appeared. "Dear Mr Tony", it said. In perfect unison, they put down the papers and picked up the next papers in their piles. "We Never Got". Next papers... "The Chance". Next... "To Say". Next... Goodbye". And then "We Miss You". At which point the letters M-I-S-S were put down and replaced with the letters L-O-V-E. "We love you".

We miss you, Tony. We love you.

Indeed, we do.

Fade to black.