Mary Lou Sanelli
First published Fall 2018
It would be easier to write about something else today.
The problem is, I can’t. My friend David died last month.
David’s been struggling for years. And, well, he just couldn’t struggle anymore. And I’ve delayed too long trying to find the words. I consider myself a seasoned writer, but the responsibility of paying proper tribute to David scares me to death.
Oh, David! I should have found another way to say that. But you would have laughed. And that’s what matters.
I have always needed to shape a story out of life’s most painful occurrences. When I’m nothing but a great big quivering mass of anxiety, that’s when my fingers fly over the keys as if rediscovering what they are meant to do.
Still, it’s the most grueling work to reopen a wound intentionally, to let the pain become its most imaginable again. To go in deep.
And yet, the deeper I delve, the steadier I become. It feels awful at first, and then just trying to express my loss can calm me down. In spite of the hurting, something loosens in me, and I am lifted.
As I write this, another hour has passed. And I’m no closer to telling you a story about one of my favorite dance friends. I’m telling you, it’s so hard to start the digging. You think you’ve found a soft place to begin, but you don’t begin. It’s too tough. I sympathize with how hard it must be to be, say, eighty or ninety; to routinely say good-bye to all your beloved friends, one by one by one. It must be devastating.
It is devastating.
The last time I saw David, he’d been working on choreography for a show somewhere in Oregon. Ashland, I think he said. I mostly remember the look in his eyes. A look that refuses to remember how difficult setting a piece is because we are always more passionate about the process than the performance. We used to joke that being a choreographer is like giving birth for others. If we remembered the pain, we’d never go near a studio again.
After he left for Oregon, I could have called to see how things were going, but it was more fun to speculate, and hear about it later, once we were sitting in our favorite café on Fifteenth Avenue, cupping a glass of Pinot Noir, when everything he said was probably a little more accentuated and less exciting than what he’d actually been through. Which, of course, is the point of Pinot Noir.
“Remember the year we took our bows to I Want to Dance with Someone?” I said.
David winced, clearly still troubled by what happened to Whitney Houston in the end. “Never bring that up again,” he said.
Time fogs memory, so I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember thinking, “Feel, feel, for that troubled singer with every nerve in your body, David. It’s what makes you such a great performer.”
There are many things that make someone a great performer, but there is one that stands out: heart. And when David performed, he had both the heart and the insight to let his audience feel not only the energy expanding inside of him, but also the energy inside of them. To watch David perform was like eyeing a natural phenomenon.
“You’re amazing!” I yelled to him once, over the roar of the audience. I was waiting in the wings, trying not to bump into him as he came flying off stage. But there was no way to avoid him, his enthusiasm was that big.
“I know!” he shouted back, and then he ran back out to take another bow. He was on fire that night.
Giving so much, but not overdoing, is a difficult balance. Most of us have to fight against presenting ourselves a little shyly on opening night, feeling too nervous to really go for it. But from the moment the lights came up, David would absolutely grab you.
And the golden rule of performance is that it has to grab you.
Like me, dancing was just the biggest part of the image David had of himself from the very beginning.
We didn’t agree about everything, though, not even close. Disagreements came often, more often during recital season, and they were always intense, always justified, always his best intentions clashing with my own. We’d eye each other from across the studio for an hour, or a day, or most of the week, and then he’d tell me that while he appreciated my input, he liked his own idea better. And nine times out of ten, his idea was better. More than once, we argued about costuming, never important to him. “It’s not what I want people to focus on,” he’d say. “Let’s just wear what we wear to rehearsal,” he said about a duet we performed together. “Actually, I want you to wear that,” he said, pointing to my crop top camisole and sweats. “I don’t want to costume the piece.”
“At all?” I said.
There was a silence as he stood at the barre, balancing in relevé — tall, confidant, muscular — as if with a sense of awe that he was who he was.
“But a good costume helps knit the dropped stitches together,” I said, repeating something one of my earliest teachers had said. But what I really wanted to say was that I was too afraid to expose so much of my midriff on stage.
“No it won’t,” he snapped back, sinking to his heels. “A masked mistake is still a mistake.” Then he wrinkled his nose at me. And while I hate to think he enjoyed his own authority too much, I wrinkled my nose back, agreeing silently.
One other thing comes to mind.
What David and I shared was being wholly involved in, and fascinated by, our own creative work, a luxury not everyone can claim. And sometimes, I like to imagine what this world would be like if everyone was able to work this way. Even for just one stage of their life.
Okay, so that’s one of my many David stories. Enough story for me to balance on for now, fully en pointe, relaxed, lifted.