Past Perfect

Don’t stop believin’— yes, the now-famous power ballad by Journey originally airing in 1981, speaking to my state of mind then, before cell phones and emails, before AIDS and HIV, before lovers and husband, before believing in bald, before dancing with Ed Mock, Margaret Jenkins and Joe Goode, before meeting Anna Halprin and Lucas Hoving, before founding Dancers’ Group and the Footwork Studio.

It was a time when dancers taught high-impact aerobics classes that were cash-cows. That was how dancers made livings, now it’s Pilates and yoga. Dancers wore tights, leotards and unitards to class, teachers scolded or threatened to kick-out the baggy-clothed, and a select group dominated modern dance training in San Francisco.

Margaret Jenkins and Joe Goode taught Cunningham-based techniques imbued with their own aesthetic sensibilities. Then there was the camp of students being inspired by José Limón’s legacy. Aaron Osborne was the leading proponent of this, ballet meets fall and release technique, with a healthy dose of Lar Lubovitch’s style and a big smattering of the teachings of Maggie Black.

Not to glorify the past, but it was an easier time for artists—especially dancers—to live while exploring their lives, craft and sexuality: a room could rent for around a hundred dollars, and a flat for the current cost of a room.

From sometime in the 70’s until 1982, another nonprofit, Dance Spectrum operated the studio that was to become Dancers’ Group’s home at 22nd and Mission Street. When staff creatively forgot to pay payroll taxes, the IRS shut down the organization. This folly, which many nonprofits have fallen victim too, opened the door for a few eager individuals to start afresh.

The basic idea was to have Dancers’ Group, the non-profit entity, support choreographers and present performances while the school, Footwork, would offer classes and workshops. Drawn to this model was a group of highly respected teachers, choreographers, community activists and students. Three primary founders emerged, providing the vision and skills to create and sustain the new entity: Vernon Fuquay, executive director, Aaron Osborne, teacher, choreographer, artistic director and me, a dancer and the school manager.

This creative playground sat in the still-gritty and dangerous Mission district. Serving as our home for the next 18 years was a light-filled space, with a stunning wood floor, known as Footwork Studio and later, Dancers’ Group Studio Theater.

The first years were invigorated with a solid roster of teachers creating public programs allowing us to approach local funders and build the institution’s trajectory. Naïve and exuberant, we did not mind the long hours and for the most part, lack of pay.

Buoyed by cheap beer and no television, we spent our evenings imagining the new programs to enliven the space. In between classes and meetings, we painted walls, typed programs—on an electronic typewriter—served janitorial duties, answered phones, signed in classes, then started all over again. Fueled by optimism, it grew to have a thriving community of supporters.

The stress of navigating a new arts organization tested personal relationships. Aaron and Vernon had been close friends in New York City, and in the early years we lived together in a one-bedroom apartment like a family business. We shared work, ideas, meals and beds—well, maybe not exactly like the typical family.

The pressure tolled for Aaron as he decided to move on after a few years into our partnership. He left his role as artistic director of Dancers’ Group to teach exclusively at the New Performance Gallery, what is currently the ODC Theater, then jointly owned and operated by Margaret Jenkins’ company and ODC Dance.

Not having Aaron’s artistic leadership prompted us to forge new alliances, the first was with Ed Mock, an influential and eclectic teacher and performer who had recently lost his own studio and was looking for an artistic home. The students in Ed’s modern jazz classes were a wide-ranging mix, a melting-pot of students that still go un-equaled. Ed attracted misfits, dancers that didn’t have the perfect ballet body or were too diverse—ethnically or otherwise—to fit into the usual company structures of the time.

It is wonderful to remember dancers from that period: the quicksilver Pearl Ubungen, turning with precision and grace; the silkily fluid Amara Tabor—currently back in the Bay Area with her own Deep Waters Dance Collective—offering an enigmatic virtuosity; and buxom Melanie Casey, with a grand and flexible style.

In my office currently hang Ed Mock & Company pictures and posters reminding me of a shared, vibrant legacy for those he taught and danced with. Ed died in 1985.

In 2004, and excerpted here, I wrote him a letter, as part of the Estate Project for artists with AIDS.

Dear Ed,

I want to thank you for giving me something the last day I saw you. It was a grey, gloomy, day in San Francisco when I visited you at your home. Not one of our foggy days but real gloom. You were not feeling well and had lost so much weight that you weren’t able to get out of bed—I think that you were being given morphine to take away the pain. As I sat next to you, only one of your eyes was able to open and the look I saw was a look of such tenderness and one that said, “Damn you boy, you better dance because I’m gonna kick your ass if you don’t do that—you hear me,” and that look was full of love and fear and light and certainly death.

I will always cherish that you gave me that look and that I was able to carry your spirit into so many of my dance moments. Yes, I danced for you Ed and our friend Vernon and Aaron and Rodney and Joah and well, I could go on but I just want you to know that I miss you. Thanks for all the looks because they made me fly.

The work shifted as AIDS unrelentingly impacted our personal and professional worlds. Tinged with sadness and the loss of leaving early, David Gere documented dance artists grappling with the pandemic: How To Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS. Re-reading David’s book, in which I re-visit this period, challenges me and I continue to think of all of the dances never made, never danced.

I get stuck, lost in despair, longing to be with friends whose dreams were dashed.

After Ed died, two new lights entered Dancers’ Group. Lucas Hoving, a former star of the José Limón Company, moved to San Francisco with his ailing wife Lavinia, and with the enticement of free rehearsal space, he began to teach at Footwork, drawing dancers into his clean and erudite style.

The other light, Joe Goode, came with the moniker of the rising bad boy of modern dance. He was poised to launch a new company reflecting a burgeoning style of choreography—one with voice, gesture and other theatrical elements. His work continues to draw fans.

As an artistic associate, Joe worked with Vernon to launch his seminal site-specific piece, The Ascension of Big Linda into the Skies Montana, and the award winning Edge Festival, which for eight years showcased and commissioned works from other bad folks of the time—Tim Miller, Anna Halprin, Rhodessa Jones, Elizabeth Streb, Keith Hennessey, Rachel Kaplan and Colleen Mulvihill.

Excerpted from Joe Goode’s letter to the Estate Project regarding Vernon Fuquay:

As far as he was concerned, most of what he saw was just showing off its skill. It wasn’t wrangling with anything or risking being indiscreet or bold in a way that Vernon cherished. Even when I asked him to comment on one of my own pieces, he would name one of the moments that somehow spoke to him, stood out as being bold or truthful or unexpected. This would usually be only one tiny instant of a forty-five or fifty minute opus. And when I asked him, “Well, what about this part, or this, or this?” He would shrug and wrinkle up his nose and say, “You can do that if you want to, I don’t care.” Not exactly a resounding endorsement, and, needless to say I approached a rehearsal visit by Vernon with a dose of trepidation. Was he just making himself superior? I think I understand now that he was not. He felt that his taste was low and common and that most of what he saw was going over his head. He was just looking for that moment when there was a break in the bullshit so that people like him could be allowed in.

AIDS branded the time, and for me it was duality. With my dance career blooming dancing with June Watanabe, Ed Mock, Joe Goode and Margaret Jenkins, and for the first time I had two primary jobs: teacher and dancer.

My third job was caring for Vernon, with whom I still lived, now a former lover fighting HIV.

In 1988, while off contract, I was asked to create a work for a shared program on the Edge Festival with another Jenkins dancer, Mercy Sidbury. The duet paid tribute to my feelings about death, the death sentence that seemed only a matter of time. Two Falling took on the themes of Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, images of bodies falling from heaven were realized by physical falling, resonating with the immanence of death. In the middle of the work, I asked “How do you tell someone you don’t want them to die?” wanting an answer to the question I knew has no perfect response.

I straddled the guilt of survival, of being a healthy dancer; joy and sadness and anger prevailed simultaneously.

On December 11, 1989, sitting in Vernon’s room in the intensive care unit, I watched the nurses unhook him from life support, his skeletal body falling easily on the sheets, his last breath lurching from his lips, the moment crisp and quiet, every action and word sluggish, hyper-real. An odd shift took place, as I lost my best friend and I remained alive and in charge of Dancers’ Group. In a flash, I was back in class, teaching, rehearsing, performing, with no time to grieve. I felt constant sorrow as another dancer died and dances waited to be danced, grants to be written, meetings to be attended and feelings to stuff.

For the next eleven years, I served as Dancers’ Group’s executive and artistic director, but the heartache of survivor’s guilt gnawed at me and shortly after Vernon’s death I stopped dancing with Joe Goode. How could I dance for joy with all that unhappiness? Grief is a demandingly wicked landscape to maneuver.

Activities at Dancers’ Group focused on expanding resources for artists and art groups in our community. The performance series’ thrived but waiting in the wings was a new death, one that influenced the organization’s growth and development. Dance Bay Area [formerly the San Francisco Bay Area Dance Coalition], the region’s service organization, could not sustain operations due to management and money problems, formally dissolved. In 1992 Dancers’ Group was approached to take over Dance Bay Area’s services, but not wanting to take on too much, the staff and board decided to administer a few vital programs: the Parachute Fund, a group health insurance policy, and the print publication, In Dance; two of these three services continue today. In Dance, which took six years to secure resources for has stayed in constant print and has expanded from a small six pages to its current 12 pages featuring six to eight articles each issue.

Dancers’ Group became a hybrid organization, providing direct services to its members and the community, while maintaining our popular presenting programs—Local Choreographers Showcase, Bread & Butter Series, and the Edge Festival—along with summer workshops, daily classes, subsidized rehearsal and office space.

Over the remainder of the 90’s, Dancers’ Group instituted a fiscal sponsorship program that now supports over 100 choreographers, dance companies and community projects. During this period of organizational expansion and with the help of friends, I discovered I still had something to say through my dancing and was invited to join Joe Goode’s company again and danced there for the next four years.

As I rebuilt my performance career, the stature of Dancers’ Group grew also. I juggled artistic and administrative duties with the support of a new relationship and a newfound fortitude. I often tell the story of funders questioning me, asking, “How a professional dancer also runs an arts organization?” My deadpan, smart ass, response was always, “I am a genius.” After sharing laughs, I would remark about why we question the capacity of dancers/artists when we don’t question young entrepreneurs running million dollar companies. The reason these corporate workers are successful is that they are smart or talented; we, in the dance world are equally clever. The nods and shrugs from my speech gave way to curiosity and respect for the organizations management and guidance. I strove to piece together grants to help along our underfunded work in order to address so much need in the community.

The variety of projects and services Dancers’ Group created for dance artists reflect the breadth of dance in the Bay Area; this diversity continued to sustain us and helped us wade through another challenge; the technological boom of the
dot-com era.

The expansion of the Internet took hold, shifting how we communicated with audiences and ourselves. As the wonders of this new-found growth in the Bay Area became evident—with fancy restaurants in the Mission district and rising rents—the number of students taking class increased and new artists moved to the region.

It became evident that the hungry maw of the growing economy and the do-it-yourself ethic of the arts community would come to blows: spaces carved from store fronts and other make-shift theaters, studios and art enclaves were bought, rental rates skyrocketed, for rent signs disappeared in a day along with the once easy access to inexpensive apartments.

Dancers’ Group anticipated the expiration of a three-year lease in 2000 and then the building went up for sale. The structure quickly sold and the new owners expressed interest in having us stay and quickly informed us that rent would increase 500%, from $3,000 to $15,000 a month.

After a mixture of laughter and tears, we assumed we couldn’t afford the increased rent and yet scrambled to see what might be done. Working with a pro-bono real estate lawyer, meeting with the owners, and after talks with funders and the community, it became clear we would not be able to generate the kind of income—from classes, ticket sales and grants—needed to stay in our home.

In addition, our resident company, the Joe Goode Performance Group, could also not sustain a major rental hike.

We lost our artistic home.

When the lease ended in August 2000, the community, spearheaded by Keith Hennessey and Rachel Kaplan, catapulted our story to the national media. Not only were we facing this crisis, but hundreds if not thousands of other, well-respected, long-historied, arts entities were being forced from theaters, studios, galleries, and loft spaces. Our story, front-page news and the topic du jour for all connected to the arts, ended with a party in the space and an artist sit-in that stopped the landlords from entering our former home, for a few days.

Like a Greek parable, the dot-com bubble burst and the landlords were not successful renting the second floor studio for over two years. Karma is a bitch.

Our work continued over the next years in a variety of office spaces. Our public programs, classes and workshops were held at existing studios and theaters in the Bay Area. While the board and staff were dedicated and resolved to refining our services and programs for the growing community, I was looking at joining another arts organization.

Just before closing our space, Dancers’ Group presented Anna Halprin’s 80th performance retrospective at the Cowell Theater, the unequivocal success that allowed us to forge a presenting partnership with Halprin. A few months later, I received word that the theater was looking for a new director. I applied and was offered the job as director of the Cowell Theater. After working for Dancers’ Group for 18 years, 11 as executive
director, I made the move.

Two wonderful administrators, Tanya Calamoneri and Patricia McCarthy, served Dancers’ Group well for the next six years, bringing considerable skill and energy that benefited the organizations programming, keeping the books deficit-free.

In 2006, after three years at the Cowell Theater and three years working with the enigmatic Margaret Jenkins as an arts administrator, I returned to again lead the organization.

At this, the 20th anniversary of Vernon’s death, it was important for me to remember, to say how much I miss him, how much I love the mission of what we do, and cherish the connections we make, and the resources we bring to the creation of new dance works. While there is so much more to say, it will have to wait. I am grateful for the opportunities that dance provides me; I am blessed with a husband that supports my work.

I wonder if there is a cosmic link between me and Dancers’ Group. This is only one version of its history, but it is deeply entwined in mine. May the many smaller, more intimate stories of all those involved with this organization’s timeline, continue to be told.

Lost friends cling to my heart: Vernon’s witty trust, Aaron’s graceful passion, Lucas’ sensorial style and Ed’s soulful abandon.

Don’t stop believin’.

PUBLISHED December 1, 2009

POSTED IN In Dance

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