My friend Katie will be eighteen forever. In a few years, I’ll be twice her age, and yet I still feel like she’s older than me.
Katie was a senior in the Governor’s School for the Arts dance department when I was a freshman, and she was one of those golden, incandescent people who light up the world, on stage and off. I remember the first time we sat in the messy dressing room in the Virginia Ballet Theatre building on Olney Road and she listened seriously to my thoughts and dreams, even though I was so much younger and shy about talking to the confident, brash older dancers. I remember when we were performing Balanchine’s Serenade and we were the short girls together, one of the jumping entrances was so beautiful that as we waited to go on we would stand in the wings and squeeze each other’s hands out of unabashed joy at the music and the steps we were about to dance.
Everyone had memories like these about Katie. That’s the kind of person she was.
When she was on the way to begin her freshman year of college with a dance scholarship to Butler University, she died in a car accident. At fourteen, I hadn’t realized yet that eighteen-year-olds could die. Katie’s memory has walked with me as I’ve grown up and experienced things that she never had time to.
I’ve been thinking about memory lately. In the studio concert series that the company is performing this weekend, Joni Petre-Scholz has a dance called Echoes about how ghosts of the people in our lives linger on in our minds. We’re ourselves, but we’re also a conversation with all the voices of those we remember.
So much of dance is about passing things down. In dance companies and academies, the students become the teachers, and the folklore and artistry and technique are passed from generation to generation. Some days as I work my way through the barre exercises in ballet class or floor work in modern class, I hear in my head the echoes of corrections of the teachers who have filled the last several decades of my life. The familiar physical routine of the dance class is a house for the voices of the past.
Along with wisdom, roles are passed down through the generations as a work of choreography is repeated. Some roles are handed down through centuries of dancers. Often when you slip into the bodice of a costume, the names of all the dancers who wore it before you are written on the lining in fading ink, a list of Emilys and Saras and Marys who were about your size and danced the same steps as you. This weekend when I dance in Todd Rosenlieb’s wry and joyful Suite Sammy, I’ll be performing a role that was danced by many talented dancers, some of whom I know and some I don’t. Over time the role took on the jaunty humor of Kathryn Finney, the elegance of Krista Zomar. Perhaps it will carry a little of me into the future.
And then of course there’s muscle memory, that strange process by which the body comes to bear our knowledge. There’s a moment in learning a piece of choreography when suddenly your brain is not the one telling you to reach with your left hand and step on your right foot. Your body just remembers what to do. It’s a lot faster without the verbal list of steps getting in the way. In the middle of my performance last Saturday, I had a horrifying moment when my brain tried to take over and I couldn’t think of whether I used my right or left hand to begin the final piece of the night. “Shut the hell up,” I told my brain, and I stopped thinking as the music began. My body knew which hand to move.
I was reading a book last summer called Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel about memory and art in which some of the early scenes take place in a theater. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, is a former dancer, and she describes the stage as “a room with cavernous space instead of a ceiling, fathoms of catwalks and lights between which a soul might slip undetected.”
I know just what she meant. Before every show, I look up into the wings of the theater, into the twilight dimness where the ropes seem to ascend forever. I whisper Katie’s name into the dusk, and conjure her memory in that world of shadows and light.
Come see us dance! Todd Rosenlieb Dance’s 10th anniversary season will continue with the second weekend of the Studio Concert Series, a mixed bill concert of ballet and modern dance presented by Todd Rosenlieb Dance and Virginia Ballet Theatre. The concert includes works by Todd Rosenlieb, Ricardo Melendez, Joni Petre-Scholz, and Janelle Spruill. Performances are at 8 p.m. on May 6 & 7, and at 5 p.m. on May 8 at the Benjack Studio Theatre at TRDance at 325 Granby Street. Tickets are available at the door. For tickets and information visit trdance.org, go to www.showtix4u.com, or call 757-626-3262.