Helen Stevenson, 1935-2008
The woman, at least 15 years past any formal ballet training or performance, moves her feet along with the music. Combinations come back to her as though they were executed the day before. They’re not done well or thoroughly, but the memory lives in her sole and soul, and she feels a familiar lump in her throat over her childhood and the artist she once foolishly considered herself to be, hours spent dancing, gossiping, competing, sometimes dramatically weeping over lost roles or friendships or inferiority. Watching live performances still moves her to tears, whether it’s an old friend, his talent never failing to astound her, or a professional company on tour she’s fortunate to see. The music swells within her and she tries, unsuccessfully, to hold back the emotion.
I was never a great dancer. If I were being completely honest, I’d say on a good day, I was marginally okay, and on a bad day had all the grace and talent of a toddler learning to walk. I went to endless rehearsals and classes, sometimes wishing I had an excuse not to (and sometimes resorting to outright subterfuge; Halloween night 1983 comes to mind). I rarely practiced at home. I showed up late. I’d fall behind during difficult combinations, or gloss over steps I hadn’t mastered yet. But still I persevered. World-class ballerina wasn’t in my realistic sights, though I did (and sometimes still do) dream about it. I was never the Sugar Plum Fairy or Snow Queen or soloist, and my heart ached for those roles. But persevere I did, and it was all for the big payoff: Opening Night. I drank up every minute of live performances. I loved the backstage prep: makeup, warm-up on stage, giggling in the locker room, putting on tights and tutus and pointe shoes. Standing in the wings, heart pounding, palms clammy, mouth dry, until that magical moment when wham! I was under the hot lights, in front of the audience, smiling enthusiastically if it was called for; attempting (not always succeeding) serenity or poise or agony if it was not. Quick changes, role changes, shoe changes, running behind the backdrop to get to my entrance on the other side of the stage, quiet as a mouse and pressing my costume down at my sides, lest I give away the myth of the scenery. Every performance ended too quickly. Once the cast party had ended, my thoughts raced ahead to the next night’s performance. Immediately upon the curtain falling after the last show, right after the glorious curtain call, tears were shed for graduating friends, great parts swept up with the fake snow and the general drama of it all. More than that though, the tears were shed for the doneness of it all. Another show has ended, go in peace.
But this story isn’t about me. Rather, it’s about a Director, Artist, Visionary and Friend, and, apart from my family, the greatest single influence in shaping the person I turned out to be: not a principal with the New York City Ballet, or even a part-time dancer with a local company. But I am today a person with music, art, and dance in her soul, if no longer in her feet, and I have Helen to thank for that.
My mother and I disagree on when I first started ballet; she thinks it was at age 4 or 5, I’m pretty sure it was 7. Regardless, a local woman had started a ballet company and my mom thought I’d enjoy it. She enrolled me in a class and signed me up for a role in the Nutcracker. I was hooked from the first, and in the Company’s first home, the town rec center, Helen created magic and art from an amazingly talented pool of people in a small town. Nutcracker was her annual standard, but lengthier and more difficult ballets were performed in the spring. It might be an original work one year, or the full-length Sleeping Beauty the next. There was always a Spring Gala between Nutcrackers, and I, along with people I still count among my dear friends, ate it all up.
My early memories of Helen are of her sitting in her chair, calling out direction, speaking the steps in time with the music, and, wonder of all wonders, smoking. I’d dash in 5 minutes after rehearsal had started, and she’d bark out my full name, followed by, “you’re late!” without missing a beat of the music. She sometimes wore preppie ponytails in her hair and when she was amused, which was often, there escaped a loud cackle of a laugh that I can still hear clearly. She had high standards, likely because she herself was so dedicated. As far as I knew she ate, slept, and breathed ballet and expected us to do the same. She was occasionally visited by her son in those early years, a student at a local prep school where her husband was a teacher.
The Company would move to another recreation center in town, but not before Helen and her husband experienced unthinkable tragedy: losing their only son in a motorcycle accident. I don’t remember specifics of that time, but knowing the adult members of the Company, my impression was that they rallied around her, kept the classes and rehearsals going, and slowly she eased back in. Presumably, she focused her energies on her art, but I would never dare to assume what was in her head then, just that it was a very dark time for her; the depths of her pain I can only imagine.
I stuck around another few years a little ways into high school. A more devoted ballerina would have sacrificed social life and sports for her art, but I found it too difficult to balance endless rehearsals with what I imagined would be my insanely busy social scene and budding athletic talent. As it turns out, neither lived up to my high expectations.
Fast forward to me at the age of 20 or so, living at home with my parents, taking what would become a very long break from college, missing my friends who still had another few years before they’d graduate. I decided to take a ballet class at my old company; a lot of my dance friends were balancing work, school, and for a few, families, to take classes and continue to perform. Dancing as an adult was worlds apart from dancing as an adolescent. I was a little more responsible about attending, I managed to work in a social life on top of dance, and most of my angsty drama was gone, replaced by dancing for the sheer love of it and challenging myself more than I ever had. I still didn’t get those plum roles I’d always dreamt of, but I did learn how to make it through rehearsal with a hangover which, sadly, I did with more frequency than I care to admit.
Helen had gotten a little older too, and as an adult, I began to think of her more as a friend than an authority figure, though my respect for her did and does run deep. Cast parties were riotous affairs; once the Company’s youth went home for the night, the wine would flow for some, and the stories from everyone. Helen had such a wicked sense of humor, delivered with an old-school preppie inflection, followed by a giggle that grew to her trademark cackle. She had the greatest memory for everyone who’d ever passed through her Company, and those who’d never left. Some of those stories I tell and retell, but once we began to relate as adults, much of it stays in the vault, where it belongs.
Over the years, Helen began to pass a lot of the directing and staging responsibility along to her teaching staff, some of whom had begun with the Company as wee children, and had grown into beautiful dancers and great directors. I only stayed a few years as an adult, moving onto my life with John and eventually our two children. I attended as many performances as I could and wallowed in the swelling music and remarkable talent of those onstage, though admittedly was always left with the bittersweet sensation of a performer who sits in an audience. I was under no pretense that I could return, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t miss it.
The last time I saw Helen was at her retirement party in 2007. It was something of a mini-reunion of our cast of characters, former dancers wishing her well, coming out of the woodwork to celebrate her immeasurable artistic accomplishments. Helen was suffering from some health issues then, and though it was a fun night, seemed exhausting for her. I didn’t get to talk to her as much as I would’ve liked with so many people there, but I did lamely try to choke out something about how much she meant to me, and how grateful I was to know her. I doubt it was even that eloquent. Along with my love for drama comes great passion, and my ability to talk through strong emotion has gone downhill with every year I age.
I’ve thought about Helen often since then, and like a lot of people do when it’s too late, wish I’d kept in better touch with her than just sending Christmas cards. She and her husband and a few friends from the ballet attended my wedding nearly 12 years ago, and aside from making the rest of us look bad on the dance floor, completed my circle of friends and family, and it wouldn’t have been the same without them. Helen and I (and anyone else who knew her well) had a few private jokes, and she and I used to hold out our index fingers as if something delicate was dangling from them, and we called it ‘giving you the finger.’ I’ll admit, its origin is a little foggy to me, but when I said goodbye to her that last time, I looked back, and we both simultaneously gave each other the finger, and cracked up, me through my tears and her from a chair where she was growing weary.
Better words failed me that night, and I couldn’t say what I really felt, so here goes: Thank you, Helen, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for teaching me to feed my soul through art, music, and dance. Thank you for laughing out loud, for bringing your passion for artistic pursuits to a small town, which you left the better for it. Thank you for insisting on impeccable timing, sharing the stories, and passing on the lessons I didn’t realize I was learning.
Most importantly, thank you for your friendship. I will treasure it always.