March is a month of mirth and melancholy for me. The mirth comes first, with my husband’s birthday on the first day of the month. But soon after, on the fourth, comes the anniversary of my mother’s death. Two more March dates are associated with a close friend, Joaquín Silva—born on the sixth, died on the twenty-ninth—thirty years ago—of AIDS.
Deaths are something one can get past, but not over. My mother is still with me, every day, in some fashion, after more than a quarter of a century. So is Joaquín, though the relationship was quite different. We became close in the short time we knew each other—the last four and a half years of his life. We were eighteen years apart in age, and I met him not long after I had started my second adulthood—as a gay man.
He taught me much, and we experienced many things together. He introduced me to such cultural touchstones as the films of Pedro Almodóvar, the paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, the saloon singer Sylvia Syms. I took him to concerts and the theater and, in his last year, to Europe. We saw Follies in Concert together, one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences of his life. We saw Phantom of the Opera twice: in London and, seven weeks before he died, in New York. Shortly before then, we shared an early performance of Into the Woods, whose late second-act song “No One Is Alone” would both comfort and haunt me.
I had developed an enthusiasm for the Paul Taylor Dance Company before we met, and it turned out Joaquín liked them, too. We attended a performance or two together. His favorite of Paul Taylor’s dances was “Arden Court”—less, I suspect, for the choreography or the music of William Boyce than for its emphasis on the shirtless, chiseled physiques of its primarily male ensemble.
My husband, Ray, square dances, and I don’t. I gamely gave it a try, and it just wasn’t for me. He gave it up for a while when we got married, to focus on doing things as a couple, just as I gave up my heavy schedule of culture consumption in favor of evenings at home with Ray and Netflix, and only the occasional weekend night out. A few years on, though, we decided we could give each other a “night off,” so on Tuesdays he dances, and I usually stay at home, though twice I’ve made it to the opera.
Early on, Ray attended a Paul Taylor performance with me, but it was just as much “not for him” as square dancing was “not for me”; thus, it had been several years since my last date with the Taylor company. However, this season’s opening night fell on a Tuesday, and all tickets were five dollars. It also happened to be Joaquín’s birthday—he would have been eighty-two—and the program would open with “Arden Court.” With trepidatious anticipation, I bought a ticket.
What would I feel as I watched “Arden Court”—happiness, at seeing my favorite choreographer’s work again after so long a time? Sadness, at not being able to share it with Joaquín? Guilt, at being able to see it when he couldn’t? Fear, at the possibility that, after my having skipped several seasons, Taylor might not hold the same significance for me? Or—worst of all—nothing? In the weeks leading up to the performance, it was questions like these that danced—no, ricocheted—in my head.
I entered the theater that evening a stranger, when once I had been part of the “in” crowd. Yet I fell into familiar patterns—examining the program to check up on the new dancers, and other changes (live music was a big one—the last time they had an orchestra, Joaquín was still alive). The lights dimmed; the conductor entered the pit (Donald York, as it had been three decades ago); the music started; the curtain rose.
Old habits kicked in again. For the duration of the dance, I observed. There were the trademark Taylor steps and patterns, as individual a stamp as a composer’s preferred rhythmic and cadential gestures. One dancer was new since the last time I saw “Arden Court”; how did his execution fare in comparison to that of his predecessors? (Harder to recognize individual dancers from the greater distances in Lincoln Center’s Koch Theatre, versus the more intimate space of the company’s former home, City Center.) How different did the choreography seem for being performed to live music?
The finale drew to a close, and the last dancer (the new one) exited exuberantly in what I (lacking the language of dance) can only call a tumbling crouch. The curtain fell, and my eyes filled with tears. It was over.
What had I expected? Joaquín had been with me constantly since I bought the ticket, but during those thirty minutes, it was just me, the music and the dance. “Arden Court” was one of my favorites mostly because it had been Joaquín’s; but I couldn’t watch it for him—I could only see it with my own eyes. Undoubtedly, he was there, in the recesses of my mind, as I watched it; but I didn’t need “Arden Court” to summon Joaquín to my consciousness.
Two more dances followed, both of which I had also seen numerous times. My perspectives on them hadn’t changed and, as they were composed long after Joaquín had died, I could only imagine the conversations we would have had about them.
I got home before Ray. When he arrived, I asked, “How was the dance?”
“Good,” he replied. After a beat, he asked, “How was the dance?”
Daniel Guss earned the degree of Master of Music, but is still a slave to it. He is a native New Yorker, a published composer, an avid culture consumer, and a recovering record company executive.