A friend and colleague of mine passed away this spring. I kept meaning to write something, but the right thing never came together. As I commented in one of many drafts, “John was one of those people who touched my life in more ways than I realized until it became clear that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. From the responses of many others, I think his life affected a lot of people that way.” There was so much to say, and yet anything seemed like not enough.
But now the Minnesota Fringe Festival is underway, and yesterday would have been his 68th birthday, and it seems like it’s time.
John Munger. Photo courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival
I met John Munger when we were both dancing with a group that changed names a few times but was most frequently called the American-Russian Dance Company. Soon after, he hired me to dance in his company, the Third Rabbit Dance Ensemble, and thanks to John, for a few months I was able to pay my rent by being a modern dancer (granted, I lived with 3 other people in a small apartment, but still – dancing was paying for the roof over my head).
John loved the Fringe Festival. He was a passionate dance advocate and loved to create shows that might entice people to give dance a try. For six years, he hosted a version of a Dance-Shows-That-Got-Into-The-Fringe preview night at his ongoing dance series at a local theater/restaurant/bowling alley. He had already booked this year’s show before he passed away, so this July April Sellers and I continued the tradition. I took his place and emceed the show, filling in between the dance pieces with excerpts of his dance-at-the-Fringe-focused blog.
One of the things I love so dearly about The Fringe is that it reflects real life on so many levels. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the fabulous. That’s how art should be. It should be real. (Fringe Fried, 8-11-2009)
Last night I was sitting backstage at The Lab Theatre waiting for my next cue…It occurred to me that I was privileged. Audiences who are not themselves performers as well don’t sit where I was sitting, seeing what I was seeing, experiencing what I was experiencing. I don’t own the backstage. Only divas of either gender think they do. But I know that as a performer in this show, and as a long-standing performer in many shows, I know my way around in the dark back there. I’m allowed.
I became very grateful. I realized that this is exactly where I want to be. I know this backstage world, and I know the onstage world as well. I am very, very comfortable in these worlds. At my age and in my declining physical condition (I’m 66) I am grateful that I am still welcome here. (Alone In The Dark, 8-10-2011)
John also loved to talk about dance. He liked to deconstruct the mystery of show production and would frequently call his shows from a microphone onstage. He loved picking music for new pieces, and I have many fond memories of rehearsals when he was about to start choreographing a new solo on me. I would arrive at the studio and he would be sitting happily on the floor, piles of cds surrounding him. He would always have a few top choices, but for solos he wanted to know what felt right at that moment for both him and the dancer.
John, myself, and Alissa Karges
The last solo John choreographed on me was in 2007. We listened to a few pieces, and eventually settled on a fado piece. A lover of musical genres from all over the world, John quickly gave me a detailed history of the Portuguese music as we listened to the different options. Over the next few weeks, he choreographed, I danced, and eventually I performed the piece in our spring show and his show at the Fringe Festival that year. The development of each piece was different with John. This time, although we knew the basic persona of the character, we didn’t discuss the details. At one point a ways into the rehearsal process, it came out that both John and I had come to the same conclusion without talking about it – that she had just buried someone she loved and was both grieving and trying to show strength for those around her. When I heard John was in the hospital this April and didn’t have much time left, this was the piece that haunted my brain. (Here’s the piece, with introduction by John)
This year I’m performing in the Fringe Festival in a show by DRP Dance. It’s a collection of dances by different choreographers. I made two short little pieces that I like to think of as “amuse-bouches” between longer pieces. I’m also dancing a duet choreographed by Danielle Robinson-Prater, the DRP of DRP Dance, and my frequent dance partner. Extra appropriate to this post, Danielle and I first danced together in my first Third Rabbit Dance Ensemble show in 2000. We opened our show yesterday, on what would have been John’s 68th birthday. A random date in the Fringe lottery of performance schedules, but unmistakably appropriate.
I think part of the reason I never knew quite what to say in a blog post about John was that I had already seen the following video, created by James Peitzman for John’s memorial celebration. It’s a wonderful tribute, and if you have a few minutes, please watch it. Whether or not you knew John, whether or not you like dance.
In the words of John Munger, “Fringe On!”