Friday, June 25, 2010
I went to see the musical Billy Elliot yesterday, courtesy of a generous friend from California. I loved it, of course, but the highlight of the entire show was a scene based on Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, in which the young Billy dances with the adult version of himself, at one point literally soaring above the stage on an invisible wire, and the spirit of the audience soars with him.
But it brought back memories of the greatest epiphany I have ever had, and I feel like relating it again, here.
It all began on July 3, 1978 when I met a beautiful (to me) young man by the name of Ray Lopez in the Silver Dollar Bar in Los Angeles. Ray was a hopeless alcoholic and the story of our relationship is the stuff of which bad soap operas are made. But what I want to address here is the astounding power of epiphany, and how deeply we tend to hide things from ourselves.
When Ray died of AIDS (contracted, I am sure, as a result of his alcoholism) in Los Angeles in, I think it was 1994...that I can never remember the date for some reason probably has significance of some sort...my first thought was simply, “Oh, Ray!” I was truly sorry, but it was an oddly detached feeling, and I was proud of myself for handling it far more calmly than I would have imagined. Later, when I thought of his death, the feeling was primarily of frustration and anger: how could he not have saved himself? How could I not have saved him?
I truly consider Ray to have been the love of my life. When he was sober, there was no one on earth more kind, caring, or sweet-natured. (The character of Jonathan in my Dick Hardesty mystery series is based a lot on the sober Ray.) But when he drank...and in the eight or nine years (on and off) we were together the longest he went without drinking was eight months...he became a tortured animal, lashing out at everyone and everything. Knowing that many others who have alcoholics in their lives have gone through basically the same thing didn’t make it any easier.
At any rate, time passed after his death, and while I thought of him and our relationship often, it was still almost always rather as though I were viewing a display case of beautiful (but of course dead) butterflies skewered on a pin. Real but not real.
And then in June of 1999, a friend called me to tell me that PBS was doing an all-male version of the ballet Swan Lake that night, and insisted I watch. I’d seen the Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo group…men with light beards and hairy chests dressed up in tutus and tiaras and toe shoes… a couple of times, and while they were mildly amusing, I have never cared for men in tutus. But since I’d told him I’d watch, I did.
From the minute I turned the program on, I did not move from my chair: I was transfixed…overwhelmed. This was no silly story of men pretending to be women: the swans here were all powerful, fascinating, alternately beautiful and threatening, and the love story between the lead male swan and the prince nearly tore my heart out. It was, I still feel, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
When the production ended, I went directly to the phone to order the VHS of the performance, which I watched at least a dozen times. And when I heard the production…Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake…was opening on Broadway, I drove to New York for three days to see it: three times! And each time I was overwhelmed by the power and beauty…and ultimately, the tragedy…of it. Because of the sheer physical demands of their roles, the lead dancers could not possibly do eight shows a week, so they had two alternates for both the Prince and the Swan, and I did not get a chance to see the two from the video--Scott Ambler and Adam Cooper--dance together.
So I returned to northern Wisconsin, still enthralled, still watching and re-watching the video.
And then I read that Adam Cooper, the Swan from the video, was leaving the show, that his last performance would be on December 19…and that he would be dancing with Scott Ambler, the video’s prince. I knew I had to be there, and (flying, this time) I returned to New York to see the show four more times, including Adam Cooper’s last performance.
The story of Swan Lake, as you know, concerns the love of a prince and a beautiful White Swan, who later becomes an evil Stranger. The Prince and the White Swan are reunited at the end of the show, but the indescribably bittersweet reunion ends in their death. As one review of the production stated with total accuracy and total understatement: “Simply heartbreaking.” And coupled with Tchaikovsky’s almost unbearably moving score, the result was breathtaking every time I saw it.
And then as I was leaving the theater after the last performance, I had my epiphany...why I had not realized it before, I don’t know. (I’m sure you already know what it was.) But not until that moment did I realize that I was the Prince, and the Swan/Stranger was Ray--my own beautiful, loving Swan when sober, the inconceivably cruel Stranger when drunk. And most significantly I also realized at that same moment that I had never allowed myself to grieve for Ray, and that each time I watched this production I was in fact finally doing so after five years.
Somehow, that epiphany lifted an indescribable weight from my shoulders...and my heart, and I have been able to finally say, maudlin as I'm sure it sounds, "I love you, Ray. Good-bye."
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