David Rakoff's Swan Song
I am driving in the dark, on a state highway in Maine. It is dark in a way that feels special and profound, and I’m listening to Nat King Cole croon.
When I’m alone
With only dreams of you
That won’t come true,
What’ll I do?
But I am not alone, my boyfriend Frank sits next to me, which means there are two of us feeling more than a bit pummeled by nature; that awesome force that is, at this moment, covering us with an obscene number of stars while we listen to how that same force of nature also took away the functional use of David Rakoff’s left arm. On road trips like this one, we save up podcasts of This American Life for the longer legs of the journey. It is something we have done for at least the last four years, a shared experience that bonds us. This particular episode, performed live on May 10th, stings. It’s delivered in anecdotal snippets that stick to our thoughts like so many bugs hitting the windshield. What we can’t see, as the music begins to play, is Rakoff dancing a solo choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes. I am familiar with Barnes’s choreography, having known her through one of her former dancers who helms ad hoc Ballet, a dance company I have performed for since 2006. Perhaps I was in a better place than most listeners to visualize what could be happening onstage. But with the audience completely silent, indicating the absence of Barnes’s punch lines or her actual punches in the air—two of my favorite motifs in her choreography—I can’t picture what he could possibly be doing. Instead, I feel a familiar, but until now, unidentifiable fear of death, grip my mind as the tires continue to pull us forward into the late night. When Rakoff comes back to the microphone, I feel relief that he has made it back from the brink, his voice stronger than ever.
I have been a fan of Rakoff’s biting essays and hilarious interviews since I began listening to TAL. The reading of this particular essay remained with me until his death for two reasons: his imagery pertaining to the limp appendage that was his left arm and his sincere appreciation for and knowledge of the art form of dance. He describes a dream in which his arm comes to life like one of those inflatable guys outside a car dealership; his approach to port de bras, the carriage of the arms, deadly serious and seriously funny in even measure. It is hard not to be personally bothered by the possibility of training for so many years to articulate a limb—in college he did train in ballet—only to have it die at your side, in a seemingly unfortunate foreshadowing of your own death. In his hard earned matter-of-fact tone, he describes the innumerable minor to major difficulties he endures in his daily life because of this new disability. However, by the end of his essay, I had the sense that he missed his arm’s artistic flourishes more than any utilitarian action.
In the days following the announcement of Rakoff’s death from cancer, when I finally watched the video of this live show (see below), his solo caught me completely off guard. The utter precision of his fourth position lunge, impressive turn out, playful phrasing, and commanding presence surprised and impressed me. I had to know more about what it was like to work with him in the studio and what led to the creation of such a lyrical swan song. I turned to Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass in hopes that they might shed some light on this singularly beautiful performance.
When I meet Barnes outside of 890 Broadway for an hour break in between her company’s rehearsals, she preemptively strikes; answering any question I might have as to the emotional impact David’s death has had on her before I have a chance to ask. After a strong hug she explains that she must “keep it together” in order to properly run her next rehearsal and that the absence of tears in the next sixty minutes would be no indication of how she really feels inside. In order to maintain control, we talk logistics.
Barnes becomes animated as she tells me how she met TAL‘s Executive Producer and Host Ira Glass when she was judging his amateur dance performance at a Brooklyn event called “The Talent Show”, which purports to “embrace[s] spectacle, surprise, zaniness, grandeur and commitment.” Barnes met Rakoff briefly the same night and admitted to being slightly intimidated by the fact that he was also judging the competition. Though she was initially hesitant when Glass first suggested she choreograph for Rakoff, her mind was immediately and irrevocably changed after two events: sitting down with Rakoff and seeing him read a Gertrude Stein poem at Symphony Space’s “Selected Shorts”. The latter was a performance with instincts Barnes found to breathtaking, including a final gesture and exit from the stage that was perfectly timed. This was the moment when she knew she could make this dance. She realized, “I just wanted to spend time with him [Rakoff] and that has always been one of my criteria when selecting dancers.“ For all of this, Barnes remains eternally grateful to Glass for the opportunity and his curating persistence.
Anna Bass is both one of Barnes’s dancers and her right hand woman. Bass told me of how they “had a movement phrase in our pockets for a long time that was not right for us.” But on the first day of rehearsal, they taught the phrase to Rakoff and it suited him right away. Barnes confirms with amazement, “I came into the rehearsal with about seven ideas and the first one worked. That never happens.” Rakoff drafted his essay as they developed the solo, working in one-hour increments, and the content of his drafts morphed as they progressed in the studio. Barnes and Bass both profess to being totally blown away by Rakoff’s work ethic in the studio. Bass noted his subtlety and stillness as he re-entered his dancer self with complete awareness and attention. Rakoff was prepared, punctual, and generous with the work and with them; a consummate gentleman and professional. Barnes was continually surprised by his giving nature, “He showed up on the nose [to rehearsals] with gifts for us! Donuts from some little known amazing bakery, the perfect grapefruit…I flatter myself in saying this, but the three of us really connected.” Hearing these episodes, my mind immediately went to a memory I, in fact, hold of Barnes, showing up to a technical rehearsal of a show I was in, carrying tray full of coffees for the director and cast, a gift for the long day she knew we had ahead of us. I want to tell her about this, but I am not wearing waterproof mascara and I agreed earlier to keep it cool.
Another similarity confronts me when we discuss an interview that Rakoff did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (you can hear this interview excerpt as part of the TAL show dedicated to Rakoff below). Gross asks him about a quote from one of his books, “Do you think of yourself as somebody who is the kind of fellow who is beloved by all, yet loved by none?” Rakoff tells her it is too personal but then answers yes, effectively ending that thread of discussion with a chuckle. When I ask Barnes about this, I am concerned with whether or not she identifies with the sentiment, given her chosen profession as a choreographer and performer, putting herself in front of an audience in her own work. Barnes confounds me with an answer of admiration for how Rakoff responded to Gross, being truthful but drawing a clear boundary at the same time. Yet, she acknowledges, “an inherent danger in psychoanalyzing what you love and do for a living.” Since I do not know how to effectively lead the witness like Gross, I just make a note and slide back into the topic of her process.
“I was approached by Doug Varone to be a part of Stripped. It is a show where the idea is to let the audience into the process. There is a Q and A at the end and I chose three different moderators for my shows: David Parsons, Pam McKennan, and Ira. At one point Ira asked me a question about one of my characters. I gave my usual response ‘this is me, this is what I look like, this is how my body moves’ and he wasn’t really having it.”
“Like he called bullshit on you?” I ask.
“Not really, he just said he didn’t believe me, that it could only be a representation of myself. And at the moment I realized, Ira is playing Ira, I am playing me, Anna is playing Anna, and the audience is playing in a part in us ‘playing’ process.”
“Wow, that is a totally meta experience.” We laugh.
There is no separation between the artist and the person for someone like Glass or Rakoff or Barnes or Bass…or me for that matter. The distinction and inspiration Barnes received from working with Rakoff came from the depths of himself he was willing to show; from what she calls, “his unforgiving assessment of the world, never shying away for the most painful version of reality we all know to be true, and addressing his own physical falling apart with clear eyes. This saved his performance from being sentimental. The only note I ever gave him was to take his time. I wanted him to give us time to absorb the meaning of his movement.”
Very few people knew Rakoff would be dancing for the live show. Many more also did not know the extent to which he was sick. For Bass, the show was “a wild experience. Being backstage watching him on the monitor, crying, and then being on standby to follow him.” Barnes and Bass performed a comedic duet “James Brown” after Rakoff left the stage. Book-ending Rakoff’s performance with Barnes’s company performing excerpts of repertory was part of a larger plan by Glass to keep a balanced mood for the show. While I am sure it was a good plan, for me Rakoff’s essay and dance still overpowered all that came before and after.
In choosing to dance, Rakoff showed the world a side of himself he had heretofore kept hidden and managed to mesmerize an audience without words. Tied to his own physical detritus, and despite the very obvious erosion of the mobility assumed to be a necessity to dance, he still managed to captivate and astonish. He maintained control of yet another representation of himself, evoked so purely in Barnes’s vocabulary. Like Barnes, his art has often revolved around the audience being allowed to laugh at the main character. This solo marked an unforgettable departure for Barnes and Rakoff, while wondrously allowing David to still play David, beloved by all.