14 May 2021

Last Dance                   by Peter Sparling (from Confessions of a Dancing Man)

I danced with Martha Graham for 15 years. I danced with Bianca Jagger for 40 nights. 

New Year’s Eve, 1978. Studio 54.
The cranked-up crowd momentarily pauses in its disco finery as Donna Summer croons her sultry, swooning recitative.  Tulle, Spandex and oversized baubles mingle with the celebrity couture. I stand bathed in a swirl of artificial light, swaying with Bianca as we wait for the beat to kick in. A dreamy pastoral flute trills over shimmering strings and ooh-aah melisma, a wordless sigh. Donna’s S & M lullaby: “I need you by me, beside me to guide me. To hold me, to scold me, cause when I’m bad I’m so, so bad…” 

The oboe’s plaintive fermata reaches towards an innocent, pastoral infinity, or towards the limo ride home and a not-so-distant dawn. And then the throbbing beat kicks in, on cue with the strobe lighting; the crowd collectively catches the first pulse with a downward thrust, taut thighs and a charge up the spine. Donna forges ahead with guitar and strings full throttle into the main verse, a lively prod for the pelvic pendulum. Her voice assumes a more insistent edge; the strings repeating the build-up and funky, tight riffs.  “Umm, yeah, ooh, be my mister right… my appetite… I can be sure that you’re the one for me…all that I ask is that you dance with me…” And the first key modulation, a half-step up onto a higher plane, strings awash in a new light, new vistas, higher and higher, as she chants an even more emphatic “So let’s dance the last dance”, then up yet another notch, a terrace to the stars. A shower of glitter, silver balloons and rotating light prods descend from the mechanical grid above the sea of pulsing bodies. We bounce together like pumped-up puppets suspended on elastic filaments and ride the voice as it climbs to that one sustained note. The crowd soars into the ether, rides the head rush up past the electrics and into an icy post-midnight Manhattan sky before the final note and last octave chord. We touch down in perfect unison, defiant, exultant, spent.

That September, the performance with Martha’s company at the Metropolitan Museum had gone well enough. Members of the MET board and New York’s high society ascended the long central staircase or took the side escalator alongside movie celebrities and pop stars decked in their couture blacks and whites. Appearing from within the transplanted chambers of the Temple of Dendur, I could make out a few faces, flashes of color and cologne just beyond the glowing bubble of illumination we danced within. They stood out there, a privileged world, as we danced for them, sealed in the amber artifice of their elitist fancies. I thought to myself, “This is really something. I’ll remember this, years from now.” 

It was while ascending the escalator to attend the reception after removing my sweat-streaked make-up and changing into the classic tux I’d bought second-hand at a men’s formal wear shop near Covent Garden in London. I heard my name called from below and turned to see a dark-eyed woman in white gown, a sibyl wrapped in chiffon, lift her chiseled jaw up toward me to catch my eye. It was Bianca Jagger! Did I try to go down the up escalator? No, I probably gestured to her, beckoning her upwards while trying to be calm, cool: some elegant and dance-like sign language, signaling her to meet me on the floor above. 

I forget what happened next. An exchange of words about the performance, my accepting occasional words of congratulations from the guests, their attention magnetized to the woman accompanying me. She wrapped herself in an aura of electric yet unruffled attentiveness to the crowd around her and her own celebrity. Was it extreme self-consciousness muted by years of overexposure? It made the crowd want her even more. Could I even imagine how it would be to keep up with this, to attend to this high maintenance phenomenon? I had courted fame, prayed for rave reviews, received a few, and achieved a life among the Modern Dance greats. What was there to stop me from the final fantasy, of being courted by Bianca Jagger? Or was I courting her? 

Allow me to catch up to myself. By that summer, Martha’s dance company had completed a long tour of Europe and the U.S.  Thanks largely to Martha Graham and José Limón, my dance parentage, I’d seen the world, made a name for myself and managed to pay the rent. I was glad to be home and ready for the new season, and we began with a week of rehearsals at the E. 63rd Street studio. Martha (we called her by her first name, as did all the dance world, either out of fond adoration or jealous scorn for the grande dame of Modern Dance), had been commissioned by the Sackler family fortune (made on the marketing of opioids) to create a work for the opening of the newly reconstructed Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum. We had been working on the choreography in fits and starts while on the road, renting rehearsal space in Berkeley while performing at UCLA to spend long, tedious afternoons creating ponderous movement tableaux based on Egyptian tomb figures, all to the soaring voice of Leontyne Price singing arias from Samuel Barber’s bloated operatic spectacle, Antony and Cleopatra. I was cast as the young Antony in the first of two duets between the amorous couple. On one particularly trying afternoon, I sat sulking at the sidelines of a wooden-sheathed, Mission-style hall, awaiting my cue while Martha fiddled with the work’s tenuous transitional passages.

Afterwards, Martha, seriously arthritic at 75 and hunched in her director’s chair, called me over. “Peter, I’ve noticed you sitting there. You seem disturbed or sad.” I can’t believe what came out of my mouth in reply: “Martha, I’m not having a very good time of this”. Her sad eyes, floating in shallow saucers left from the latest face lift, grew large as she looked up at me in disbelief. “Well how do you think I feel?”, prolonging the “I” like a petulant child. Without missing a beat, she suggested I always carry with me a good mystery thriller to read while waiting. She always did. Such moments humanized the goddess for me, and I could better appreciate the distractions that allowed us to suffer through what Henry James dubbed  “the madness of art.”

For the MET commission, the fashion designer Halston was once again summoned to supply costume designs, fabric and his entourage of tailors and seamstresses to serve Martha’s vision of a torrid desert drama between the two sets of “doom-eager” (Martha’s term for many of her characters who were hungry for self-destruction) lovers, one duet the “before” and the other “after” being struck down by fate. We taxied from the studio on E. 63rd to Halston’s atelier high up in Olympic Towers, where he sat like the pope of 5th Ave. looking down upon the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As Joe Eula sketched his elegant, jazzy calligraphies while eyeing us moving Graham-style across the mirrored, red-carpeted gallery, we watched our personae come to life in the reflection of three-way mirrors that lined the east wall.  Sheathed in gold Lycra Spandex that gilded our honed physiques, we were transformed into archaic tomb figures a la Disco Deco. Celebrities wafted in and out and paid homage to “H” while waiting for their own fittings: Liz, Bianca, Lauren, Diana, Liza, and always the house models with their impeccably etched cheekbones, swan necks, and long languishing torsos on narrow hips and spindly legs made even longer by their spiked heels. 

I knew many of H’s girls from my gigs as model/dancer for his fashion shows. Flown to Acapulco by Braniff Airlines for the unveiling of H’s Ultrasuede flight-staff uniforms and Alexander Calder’s painted fantasies on the flanks of the planes, My Graham Company partner Janet and I navigated the runway stretched over the luxury hotel’s long reflecting pool. Guests were entertained by a display of the season’s collections: casual wear, swimsuit, chic leisure, formal, etc. We danced down the runway improvising appropriately to evoke to the collection’s theme between frantic costume changes backstage. For the finale, (I wore a silver mylar jumpsuit for the Futurist Disco theme), I remained at the far end to sweep the models off their feet one at a time, swirl them around then place them carefully on their heels without a hitch before swimming slow motion through zero gravity towards my final exit. 

If I wasn’t a real model or Hollywood celebrity, at least I could pretend I was Martha’s prized prince, the blond principal dancer delegated to help create and perform in her new ballets. I’d paid my dues, as they say, having worked my way up the ranks for the past six years, moving from chorus roles into the more substantial heavyweights such as Oedipus, Orestes, the Revivalist in Appalachian Spring, or Dimmesdale in the one seasonal clunker, Martha’s danced nightmare fantasy of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I’d taught Rudolph Nureyev that role and many others, assigned to be his personal coach during his guest stints over the past four years. Bemused, mesmerized and flattered by his animal charisma and dependence upon me, I saw it as an honorable duty rather than humiliating servitude. The arrangement even went so far as include my miming his roles in the wings while he soaked up the glory on stage, his left eye furtively catching my shorthand performance to cue him for his next steps.  Afterwards, he would hug me and call me his Maestro Pedro, pulling his strings for yet another puppet show. 

The evening rehearsals were held behind closed doors in the MET’s new Sackler Wing, and we were directed where we could tread among the slabs and columns of the reconstructed temple dedicated by Emperor Augustus in 15 BC to Isis, Osiris and two deified sons of a local chieftain. Our sleek unitards and red capes reflected in epic Technicolor in the mirrored wall of windows facing north into Central Park. I admired myself from afar, taking mental notes of the exact etching of my profile as I arrived downstage left and turned to my partner to acknowledge her regal presence with a grand gesture. We made our entrances through amber-lit portals onto a sprung floor laid for our performance. 

After notes from a weary Martha and a quick change in the makeshift dressing rooms, I returned, alone, as I did every night, to my one-bedroom apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and W. 95th Street. My cat, Ralph, greeted me at the door, and I heaped together in a large wooden salad bowl (the one wedding gift I’d inherited from the divorce two years ago) various greens, a can of tuna and cubes of tofu gathered from the corner Korean market downstairs. Famished from a day without lunch or dinner, I doused my dinner in Paul Newman’s Own dressing and sat down with a pair of chopsticks to eat slowly enough so I could sleep. Ralph watched from the sidelines. I scrubbed out my dance clothes while standing under the hot shower then laid them out on the radiator to dry in time for my ballet class the next morning and pre-performance warm-up at the museum. 

At the reception after the performance, Martha dazzled in her Halston caftan with jade breastplate. Caught up in my own celebrity swoon, I managed to exchange phone numbers with Bianca and we went our separate ways. A few nights later and long after my usual bedtime hour, I was summoned. We met at Halston’s and were taken by limo with his party to Studio 54.  Stevie Rubell patrolled the crowd from his perch outside the entrance, allowing only the chosen beyond the crimson ropes and into the long, converted theater lobby lined with TV monitors.  His nervous, mousy body was like a manic puppet version of Woody Allen playing Peter Lorre as Napoleon while directing his own crowd scene on a Manhattan film set. The throb and din of the music became louder as we approached the dance floor, an old Broadway theater with its seating removed, leveled and made into a disco palace. We were escorted to a banquette of low sofas at the rim of the dance floor, where we suavely stationed ourselves to survey the accelerating kinetics of the glamorous and the eccentric, the trust fund set, Wall Street bankers and the celebrity wannabes.  After a vodka tonic and a few dances, Bianca almost succeeded in assuming a certain anonymity among the democracy of gyrating bodies. But occasionally, I caught in her a slight wariness or self-consciousness, a twitch of her cheek at the corner of her mouth, an alertness to possible invasion. 

We were led by Stevie to the basement, where someone offered us Quaaludes, which made everything slow down and blur around the edges. We floated back onto the dance floor and danced until the DJ put on Donna Summer and we rode the score upwards on its ascending key modulations and swelling orchestrations. The rotating shafts of colored strobe lights descended from the fly space above like space-age phallic probes, and my body became weightless and supremely glamorous. On the last note, the lights went suddenly low and showers of balloons were released into the shimmering atmosphere made foggy by poppers.  We exited together out the back door into an awaiting limo and slipped like cat burglars into Halston’s townhouse. Bianca led me back to her guest quarters, and we quietly undressed, climbed under crisp, white sheets.  I found her waiting for me in silk pajamas, tentative like a quiet deer, all worldly-wise but strangely awkward, and I tried to negotiate with my naked, overstimulated body what was fantasy and what was actually possible between two lonely, exhausted people on a cold December Sunday at 3 a.m. 

The next morning, Bianca and I were on the cover of the New York Post. Studio 54 had been busted by the IRS for tax evasion. Shut out of our late-night haunt, we temporarily floundered, unable to make alternative plans. Bianca called, I came on command; she led, I followed. My infatuation kept me suspended through my days in class and rehearsals, and I led a secret life. A brief nap at the end of a long day, and I’d be dressed and out for drinks at the 21 Club with Claudette Colbert, dinner with Oscar De la Renta and the Herreras, a visit to Andy’s Factory off Union Square to see the Piss Paintings (primed canvas stained with urine) he’d been making strewn across the floor, then more late nights sneaking into Halston’s. Did he not already know? Was Martha enjoying the intrigue as well, seeing her pet corrupted by fame and celebrity just as she had succumbed when agreeing to sit for a Blackgama mink ad to keep her dance company afloat? She herself had sat for the paparazzi in 54’s white banquettes alongside Halston and Liza and appeared in People Magazine and Page Six of the Post. 

We exchanged gifts at Christmas. I gave Bianca a copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, hoping to invite some soulful exchange. I wanted to change her, or ignite something beneath the smokescreen of glamour and celebrity. She gave me two cotton shirts from Brooks Brothers. She wanted to dress me. A week later, I met Diana Ross, my fellow Detroiter, at Halston’s New Year’s Eve party. Halston, who a decade later would die of AIDS like most of my male dance colleagues, flaunted an entourage made up of his Latino lover, his team of assistants, a blond model named Karen and always a string of celebrities like Andy, Tru, and Liza. They trailed a wake of his recently unveiled fragrance behind them as thick as a musky maple syrup. Bianca and I stood near Liz Taylor in her purple Halston caftan and a famous Dr. Feelgood, who gave rejuvenating “vitamin” shots to his clients. As guests clad in chiffon, Elsa Peretti jewelry and Ultrasuede struck still poses against the monochrome walls before it was called Voguing, I tried to strike up a conversation with Diana by mentioning our hometown, our only common bond other than having somehow both made our separate ways from relative obscurity to that fabulous den of disco hell, Studio 54, as guests of the great H. Diana had little to say to me about our fair city… or anything else, for that matter.  I could only notice her eyelashes, how small she seemed, how sadly out of place we felt with each other. Years later, I would remember the night when I heard her voice on the car radio, driving west in rush hour traffic from my job at the university.  “I’m coming out. I want the world to know that I love you so.” By then, I actually had come out. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Shortly before midnight, we hopped into Halston’s limo and levitated to W. 54th Street. (Studio 54 had reopened not long after the IRS bust; I never understood the legal proceedings). While we danced in the new year, a downpour of glitter cascaded onto the dancers from above. Specks of it remained embedded in my black dress shoes for years afterwards.

I kept up the routine for another week or so. I ended up back at my apartment one cold morning at dawn, after a surreal taxi ride all the way up Amsterdam Ave. The driver had achieved a non-stop run of green lights from Lincoln Center to 96th Street.  What planet was I on? I pulled myself from the cab and climbed the stoop to my building. The local dealer sitting on the steps intoned his dazed litany: “Loose joints, nickel bags? Good crack?” I fumbled for my keys, entered the apartment, and dropped onto the bed. For the past month, I’d tried to sustain the practice of sleeping for a few hours among the cat smells and the dance clothes drying on the radiator. I’d then walk down Broadway to take my ballet class, grab a coffee, and bus to Martha’s for rehearsals all afternoon and into the evening. But this morning, I could not even rise upright from the bed. I crawled on hands and knees to the bathroom. My back had become locked in spasms, and I was suddenly immobile. 

At that moment, it occurred to me I could either keep up the life as an accessory to a glamourous celebrity and risk forfeiting my dance career, or stop it cold turkey and get myself back into some kind of working shape and onto a sane schedule. I’d imagined I was in love with Bianca, a member of the fabulous elite, but my sudden immobility proved it false. A seduction, an infatuation, a passing fantasy… Lying prone on the floor of my front room, my mind snapped into resolution. Was it my instinct for self-preservation, a re-awakening of my moral compass, or sheer desperation? The decision came as quickly as the moment I decided to become a dancer a decade earlier. I managed to reach the phone and dialed the Graham studio to call in sick. I stopped calling Bianca or answering her messages left on the answering machine. Over the next week, my back gradually healed, and I soon returned to my life as a dancer. I was grateful to simply arise without pain and go about my day’s work, to fulfill my dancer’s dream: a middle-class boy from the Rust Belt goes to the big city and makes it in the modern dance world.  

The following summer, I accompanied the Graham Company to Europe on my last tour before leaving the company to start my own fledgling group of dancers.  By our last stop in London, I was exhausted from having danced many ballets at each performance. I’d kept Bianca’s Chelsea address and decided to call her. One last fling? She invited me over to her townhouse on the Thames. We crawled into bed. There was nothing… nothing to return to, to hold on to, to preserve, celebrate or cherish. We said our goodbyes looking out at the Thames and the door closed for good.  It was the last time I saw her, apart from the occasional photo in a magazine and reading of her “epiphany” in South America after saving a group of rebels from sure death by firing squad. From that moment, she had committed herself to fighting social injustice with her fame and serving as a goodwill ambassador for numerous human rights causes. I had not seen that coming. Our worlds had intersected so briefly and drawn so far apart that I never once fancied we’d remain friends, much less lovers.  She was of another realm. 


Post Script: 1999, Ann Arbor, Michigan 

Occasionally, while driving to my job at the university, Diana Ross will come on the car radio and I’ll sing along: “There’s a new me coming out, and I just had to live, and I wanna give. I’m completely positive.” Yes, I did come out a decade after dating Bianca, because I had to live another life before it was too late, because I had more to give another man, another community, to my work. But I was not HIV positive.  I had been spared because I’d waited to come out until I left New York and landed a real job and by then we knew what it was, and because my first gay lover fiercely protected me so that when he died from AIDS I would live. 

Or I’ll slip in the CD of “Donna Summer’s Greatest Hits” on my way home after a long day of teaching, mentoring and directing my local dance company, and it all comes rushing back: back when it was Manhattan, limos and endless nights, and there was no such thing as a last dance… only the long taxi ride home up Amsterdam Avenue on a run of green lights and Ralph, the cat,  waiting to greet me just before dawn. 

And then her face on the television screen. I hear my partner John’s urgent summons from the basement TV den: “Pete! Come down! Quick!” I sashay across our kitchen’s red-and-black checkerboard linoleum and dash down the basement stairs to catch a distressed image of two glamorous figures in slow motion floating from left to right on the TV screen. “It’s you and Bianca at Studio 54!” John exclaims, sitting on the edge of the sofa and flapping his hands. He’s channel-surfed to an episode of VH 1 “Behind the Music” devoted to Studio 54.  A blow-up of a New York Post front page follows, with our faces looking indifferent, blasé, soaked in our own importance.  I recognize the collar of the purple and grey wool smoking jacket I’d bought at a second-hand store somewhere while touring across the US with the Graham Company.  The camera had caught me with eyes partly shut, as if glazed over from the Quaaludes and the effort to disguise my benign disorientation.  I am sealed in the amber of digitized history on poor-quality film, a mere glimpse, a passing fancy, a remnant of a faded, jaded era. John and I howl with laughter, and I shake my head in disbelief and a weird gratitude that I, like Job’s servant and Melville’s Ishmael, somehow survived to tell.