Dancing in the Dark: Steps From Grief

As a boy, my younger brother resembled one of the delicate dolls with which he populated his early, private life. Sitting up in bed when I arrived home from school, he was something beautiful, paradoxically aloof and vulnerable — beckoning the most protective response, isolated by the silent, knowing calm of the childhood sick. He lived a much longer life than anyone expected; “anyone” meaning his family and the community of doctors that constituted the larger part of his social circle. His death from complications of hemophilia at the age of fifty-two catapulted me into one of the most profoundly sad periods of my life, the complexity of which I was unable to understand or begin healing, until I choreographed a ballet in his honor in the spring of the following year.

The project actually started the previous spring, when I learned that a former colleague at LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York had written a sonata for trumpet and piano to which he wanted me to choreograph a ballet. Maurice Byers’ “Titone Sonata” is something rare and masterful – bold, sweet, timeless – the title of its opening movement: Playing in the Hills of Tuscany. Kervin died in the August after my first hearing Maurice’s sonata, and thereafter my partner and I were invited on a retreat to Tuscany. Overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Tuscany I mourned my brother’s absence. Why hadn’t I brought him to this place? Why had we never spent a boozy afternoon adoring the countless shades of gold, sienna and green? I might not have thought so, but I could have afforded it? Couldn’t I? When I returned to New York that fall, the yearning music, its title and the mourning of Kervin’s absence began to merge. Aching to be with him I decided to dedicate this new ballet to his memory.

Each year at LaGuardia the senior dancers present a graduating concert. Choreographer’s must integrate vocabulary into style and composition that compliment the dancer’s abilities. LaGuardia’s dancers are well trained in ballet, modern and jazz. They are intuitive, dynamic and sensitive, but only a few have bodies of sculpted refinement required to create a ballet of resonant beauty. I chose the dancers that would give this ballet life.

After saturating myself in the music, deciphering its structure, heeding its delicate arc, I was unable to decide what form the work should take. I had cast it carefully and absorbed the music, but to what choreographic end? Should it be an abstraction? A narrative? Would it speak of my brother or of our relationship? Would it be realized by expressing something of his essence? If the ballet could, in some small way, speak of our relationship, what would it say? Was I a good brother?

Perhaps that seemed like a big leap. It wasn’t for me. I felt remorse about Kervin, not only because of the conditions of his death, but because of the conditions of his life. He had been so afflicted. Why had I not been asked to share in his burden? Why did I feel this guilt? Why was I so stuck?

The opening trumpet call of the sonata urged me to listen carefully. Expansive, conquering, celebratory, it is young and confident.

Imagining how we — Kervin’s siblings and our friends — appeared to him, I thought that he must have wished to be stronger, straighter — to move freely without fear of stumbling. Why not simply have the dancers reflect the magnificence of young bodies dancing in space and time – the way I had always imagined my brother should be able; the way I imagined he saw us?

I played with phrases of movement that turned, soared and fell, knowing that to reflect our gang of family and friends, the movement had to be big – running with and toward each other, away from restraint and sometimes, reality. By associating images and feelings with physical memories, phrases of movement were formed. Small groups were established, although haphazardly and the opening movement began taking shape. I was soon surrounded by choreographic representations of the alliances and betrayals, the comings and goings that Kervin must have witnessed. It was a strangely uncomfortable homecoming.

The dancers seemed to enjoy the process , although they were patiently curious. What was this about and why had I not yet found a place for one male dancer? I didn’t know? How had it happened? Jose is a wonderful dancer, with amazing ability in a variety of styles. Lean and innocent, he is not like the others. There is nothing overtly aggressive or competitive in his nature. He is noble and I realized, very much like my brother. Kervin was an outsider among the children of our family and that’s where I had unintentionally placed Jose. I had not wanted to create a representation of my brother. It was a slippery slope down which, if I slid, expressing the universal experience of loss would easily devolve into a personal melodrama; but here was my brother, he deserved a beautiful ballet in his honor and I had no choice but to move forward, even if blindly.

I staged a slow walk across stage for Jose, to establish his presence in the first movement, then listened intently to the music that awaited. The opening trumpet stretches of the second movement are reminiscent of the sun setting on a beautiful place, serene and slightly sad. Unexpectedly however, the movement that sprang forth was angular and collapsing. Then with effort it stretched and collapsed again – my brother determined to feel his length, overtaken by adversity. The effect was haunting, not what I had envisioned. Melancholic undertones emerged and the mood inside the studio changed. I began having memories of my mother reminding me upon coming home from school to go in to be with my brother. He had been alone all day. Why did she have to remind me? Other memories came to mind, like that of my father standing over him screaming – no effort to control his temper with a boy unable to protect himself. Why was I returning to this place? Why couldn’t I stay with the sweet memories? Why so dark?

I had meant to choreograph the angelic beauty surrounding Kervin when we were all young – beautiful, joyful, full of hope and wonder. I did not want the result to be sorrowful. I tried distracting myself with funny memories, but despite my best efforts the sorrowful ones refused to go. Relationships in the ballet began to shift and there was an intertwining of arms, a braiding of bodies that began to dominate the second movement. The resulting tapestry would come to represent our family ties – generations of them.

Family lineage is the largest determinate of hemophilia. Women are known to be the carriers and often carry an accompanying sense of guilt. By the time of Kervin’s birth my grandmother bore not only the scar of her son having hemophilia, but the scar of his death at the age of seventeen. He too had been named Kervin, an archaic French name first given to my paternal grandfather – unusual even for southern Louisiana, where we were raised. My grandparents were proud of the fact that despite their many trials and humble beginnings, they were respected in the community, had built a beautiful home and put all of their children through Catholic school. But they did not understand my mother’s choice of a husband. They had disapproved of my father and my parents had bonded around his protection. That bond kept them together through sixty years of marriage, even as he became increasingly cruel and she learned to retaliate. But there was a countering bond that brought my parents and grandparents together, one in which my siblings and I were enlisted – the protection of my youngest brother. Kervin was at the core of our family unit, so at the climax of the second movement that’s where I placed him.

All of these issues were not clear to me when I started choreographing this piece. I had certainly used work as an escape before, but I had never considered that it could be therapy. By representing my family in a choreographic work, I was making sense of our unsettling dynamics. I was also beginning to understand my enormous guilt at Kervin’s death. I had let him get too sick. I had let him be lonely. I had let him die. I had let everyone down.

At the end of the second movement, Jose leads the cast in a sumptuous passage of turns and arabesques, he stops as two dancers pass by to check-in before a circle is reformed with Jose at its center. The dancers exit in small groups, this time much more slowly. Jose has a small solo in which he repeats the opening stretches and collapses until he is on the floor. Finally he stands full length and makes a triumphal circle around the stage and off.

In retrospect, I know that my brother never blamed me for anything. I had only blamed myself. I had in fact, helped organize Kervin’s fiftieth birthday party and flew down from New York to celebrate with him. He so appreciated it that I will never forget the one small moment when he came over, put his arm around me and leaned his head on my shoulder. Then he quietly walked away. It was a gesture of such complete love that I could not put it into the ballet. I did not want to share it. It was mine.

When it came time for the final movement, I had begun to understand my personal and choreographic blocks. That understanding facilitated a flow of ideas and phrases that came without hesitation. The music was a coda, bouncy and light, and the dancers celebrated. Then suddenly slowing and intensifying in strength, everyone moved together in canons. They became a tighter and tighter unit until they went down onto one knee on the floor. Jose circled in a series of grand jetes and tours, then ran off. On the final beat of the music the dancers looked up to realize that he was gone.

A wise friend once told me that I was becoming a better choreographer, but that my ballets lacked conflict. Without conflict there is no reference, nor a place from which resolution can arise. He was right, and in every ballet choreographed since, I’ve attempted to deal with the problem. That usually means creating a strong aesthetic counterpoint to the central theme. I suspect that most of us look for the harmony in life. We take the path of least resistance for so long that it is possible we become unaware of the obstacles in our path. If we take time to consider the obstacles, we begin to understand ourselves. We begin to understand why we are standing where we are standing.

I had the opportunity to not only consider, but to enact and replay the drama of my upbringing. I do not know that many people get such an opportunity, such a blessing. I still miss Kervin, but I know now that I was not at fault for his death and that he loved me. I look forward to dancing with my brother again.


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3 Comments on Dancing in the Dark: Steps From Grief

  1. Gorgeous. What a privilege to view the dance with the accompanying essay. Through choreography you embody the meaning of Kervin’s place in your family, in your heart, in the world in his delicate beauty. Jose is perfect as Kervin. And the dance is lovely by itself but your generous writing gives us a way to incorporate this dance into understanding of our own lives. Thank you.

  2. This is an insightful exploration of the link between the physique and the psyche, made more intriguing by the choreographer’s artful links and distances from the instrument of expression.

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