Dancing in the Dark
By Hilary Thomas:
Sunday night, I had my very first performance without her. I braced myself. Embraced myself with my dancing. Tomorrow is her birthday. Her first without us. I brace myself. Wednesday’s my birthday. Without her embrace. My first without her.
I only have one voicemail from my mom, forever saved on my phone. She left it for me on my birthday last year. "Hi, my girl. Happy happy birthday, sweetheart. I hope you have a lovely day, and I know that the year will be so exciting and marvelous for you. So much is happening this coming year." You can say that again. If only she knew that the "so much happening" would mean tremendous, overwhelming grief, followed by a mass pandemic . . . and that's really just the beginning.
In two weeks, we’ll stumble through the anniversary of her death. But before that, there are a million markers along the way. That Wednesday morning in November when we found her, disoriented and confused. That Sunday night when I first slept by her side. Sterile white, tubes, beeps, and an unconscious mother filling the room with the heaviest grief I’ve ever known. In the very same hospital where she brought me into this world. That Sunday morning just one week after she taught me how to open a bottle of champagne. When she looked at my Day of the Dead shrine, asking me about each and every photo, every loss—near and far—from my life. Clearly fascinated by the possibility of being the next potential star in this cast of ghostly characters, she asked which photo of her I might use when the time came.
Yesterday, the time came. Mazzy and I spent an hour or so going through photos, deciding on the perfect one. Mazzy insisted on a more recent picture while I dwelled on some of the classics from her twenties. In the end we chose two beauties. Her more current self is lying next to her mom and stepfather while her youthful image, leaning up against a gorgeous tree in Lacy Park, flirts casually with her old friend Sydney Lasell and rests below my high school friends Ochari and Brandon. Mazzy asked if she could lay the sparkling purple fidget spinner that Gran had once given her on top of her photo. I tell her it’s a perfect idea. My gorgeous Day of the Dead shrine tells a marvelous story of life and loss. I’m shocked to see that I have so many people represented here. My mom came in at number 20.
I’m surprised by the physical, visceral depths with which these upcoming anniversaries (death-iversaries) are acknowledging themselves inside me. Sometimes it’s in my chest. A heavy, threatening force that can feel breathless and scary. That very same I miss my mommy feeling that goes hand in hand with being put to bed by a babysitter. Sometimes it’s in my stomach, more of a longing, like that spending-the-night-syndrome foreboding from my early days at overnights and camp. Most of the time it’s just in my head. A total, utter disbelief. I suppose I’m just describing grief, an experience that is no stranger to me, or to most people for that matter. I’ve always been obsessed with the pain of grief and death. Ninety percent of the dances I create are about processing grief in one way or another.
As a child, when I was in pain—whether physical or emotional—my mom would lay me down, tell me to close my eyes and visualize the pain as a hot, red light. Then she’d guide me to imagine a cool, healing blue light washing over the red, healing me from within.
Motivated by this brilliant act of mothering, I called my first full-length performance, my first foray into grief dancing, Healing Blue. This was a show inspired by the true stories of women in their struggles and triumphs over cancer. I’ve performed versions of this show all over the country for the past fifteen years. It all started with a rockstar named Rell Sunn.
Sometimes a movie changes your life. In 2004, I stumbled upon a film called HEART OF THE SEA, a documentary by Lisa Denker and Charlotte Lagard about a fierce Hawaiian surf champion named Rell Sunn. She was a pioneer for women surfers in the late seventies and was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32. After fifteen years of fighting the disease, still surfing regularly, raising awareness about breast cancer (which was quite revolutionary back then), raising her daughter, inspiring hundreds of young kids to surf, and living her life with infectious strength and grace, Rell died way too soon at the age of 47.
The moment I first saw Rell Sunn, I felt drawn to her power, strength, beauty, grace, and of course her deep connection to the ocean. I remember as a child being deeply drawn to the ocean. Only in the past decade have I specifically become aware of the fact that it is my magical place, my soul, my grace, my peace. I think Rell gave me that. But I digress.
When I hear a story that I find particularly compelling, I tend to visualize its arc, its emotion, its vibe in the form of movement. The first time I really remember that happening to me was while watching Rell surf. And fight. And live. And die. Immediately, I began to choreograph a dance. That same week, my mom played a piece of music for me by Robert Schumann. "Honey, I really think you need to do a dance to this. Isn’t it just beautiful?" I remember that moment in her bedroom so vividly, listening to the hauntingly beautiful violins. My mom watched me, clearly seeing right through to my brain as Rell’s developing movements landed effortlessly upon each note. She made such an impact on me that I later ended up naming my daughter after Rell. Mazzy Rell—a name that imbues her with ferocious beauty.
We first performed Healing Blue in 2005, featuring Rell’s story along with those of six other women who each shared intimate details about their cancer experience. Of course, my mother sat proudly in the audience, thrilled to have been matchmaker between my movement and my music. From living room Nutcracker concerts for her and my stuffed animals in the early 80s to the premiere of Healing Blue for an audience of 1,000, my mom has always been my most important, most cherished, most necessary audience member. She was always my number one supporter, often armed with an honest critique but mostly loaded with deep love and adoration. Her investment and support was like creative breath for me.
Like every other child, I used up lots of emotional space worrying about the death of my mother. When I would spiral down, indulging those thoughts, I would often find myself panicking about the day I would have to perform without my mother there. It feels so childish and shallow to say out loud, and yet I think this is really about something larger. It’s about suddenly existing on this planet without your number one fan. And that’s just a tiny piece of the crazy grief puzzle.
Sunday night we performed Healing Blue, celebrating 15 years since its inception. That was the last show my mom ever saw. And now it’s my first performance without her. When the opening segment began, I sat on the stage in complete darkness, listening to the first of seven women express powerful words, perfectly embodying their cancer fight. I suddenly felt my mom’s spirit in a crazy, powerful way. I waited for the lights to come up and the emotions overwhelmed me. This was our first performance in the brand-new performing arts center that we’ve been building all year. My mom just missed getting to see it. This was our first performance since the pandemic (my mom just missed that whole deal too, thank God). As such, there was no audience—just a presumed Zoom filled with people on the receiving end. There was an eerie silence that has never been a part of the performance experience. It felt deeply spiritual, spirit-filled. In that moment, I felt more connected to my mom’s spirit than I had since she died. I felt more connected to Rell than ever before. I felt the deep connection between Rell and my daughter. Between Rell and my mom.
I’ve been skeptical about afterlife and ghosts. I desperately want my mom to be aware of all this life I continue to live, to be watching every show, taking in every moment of my existence. I try to take the “she’s there with you right now” approach that so many people tend to offer as hope. Somehow, it feels too crazy to believe. And yet, at that very moment, my movements, my music, my lights, my spirit were being transferred through the ether system into a home computer somewhere, to people all the way across the country! That to me feels way more improbable than a touch of silly ghost energy coming down, around, through, or whatever. How do we blindly accept the existence of the crazy magical internet, yet we just make brazen assumptions that when you’re dead, you’re dead?
In three hours it will be her birthday. I feel a deep desire to call her and leave a message. I’ll be making her a lemon cake—her own secret recipe. Mazzy and I will be sprinkling a pinch-full of her ashes in the giant bush by our old house. We’ll meticulously rub her back and forth between our fingers until she has seemingly absorbed herself directly into our skin. Perhaps I’ll need to dance for her. Perhaps I’ll need to imagine her as the healing blue light that wipes out this raw, red grief.
Perhaps I simply need to write this for her, and that will be enough for now.
Hilary Thomas is the artistic directory of the Lineage Dance, a contemporary dance company dedicated to raising awareness for nonprofit organizations and to making the arts accessible to all. In 2010, the company opened the Lineage Performing Arts Center (LPAC) in Old Pasadena as a community hub designed to encourage community awareness through the arts. LPAC created the DANCE FOR JOY free classes for those affected by Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimers, Stroke Recovery, Cancer, and Autism. Hilary has also been on faculty at Flintridge Preparatory School, teaching science and dance since 2001.