Thursday, April 30, 2009

Debra McCall

Theo was with grace: grace in her walk, her appearance, her words, gestures, thoughts and laughter. When I first met Theo, we had no idea how many ways we knew each other; those details emerged over years of friendship.

Our first encounter was a photo shoot she did in my loft and on the streets of our Tribeca neighborhood for the German design magazine Ambiente in 1984. I had reconstructed the 1920s Bauhaus Dances of Oskar Schlemmer that premiered at The Kitchen and the Guggenheim Museum in ’82 and ’84, respectively. My dance company was about to embark on a six-week engagement in Europe—a tour of the Netherlands, plus Geneva, Alabama Halle in Munich and the First International Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, France. Theo came armed with numerous cameras, assistants and lighting, schlepping them up three long flights. She was ready and on top of her game. My dancers were rehearsing with props and costume, polishing some of the finer details of the production. Theo jumped in as though she were a dancer, shooting away at the “interior” of the makings of the performance, capturing the little humorous asides and perfectionist critiques of a choreographer and dancers. We all felt enormously comfortable and “loved” by her infectious enthusiasm and by her appreciation for the Bauhaus aesthetic. 

Lucky for us, the day we arrived in Munich to perform, the article in Ambiente appeared on the newsstands. Coincidentally, an exhibition of Oskar Schlemmer’s work organized by the Schlemmer family opened, and the city was abuzz with rediscovery of performance from the 1920s. Theo’s photos in the magazine captured the “sense of play” so critical to Schlemmer’s intent. Not only did her photos make a splash, but the entire enterprise was so successful that it garnered further invitations to perform at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Molly Surno, Theo’s Director of Collections, recently sent me a postcard I had written to Theo at the time. It is a reproduction of the densely saturated “Lady with Fan,” by Alexej Jawlensky, a dark-haired woman in a hat with a giant red flower. In another era, it could have been a portrait of Theo, so elegant and vibrant it is.  I was thrilled to receive this postcard as it chronicled all the synchronicities and excitement of our tour in Germany. It also came on the heels of a recent trip to the Middle East which echoed many features of that generative time. It seemed a wink-of-the-eye affirmation from Theo that, yes, I am on the right track.

After the era of Bauhaus touring, I attended parties and evenings at Theo’s, but moved to Italy in ’87 after which we lost touch. Approximately 2002 or ‘03, I was at the annual Watermill fundraiser for Robert Wilson. Alas, Theo and I met eyes and laughed. Our houses in Southampton were no more than a seven-minute drive apart. I was lucky to spend languid evenings on her back porch, indulge in wonderful dinners with friends around the bench under the great tree, chase geese and swans from her pool with my son, witness her passion for gardening and track her hesitation and excitement as she went through the process of discovering, then meeting, her birth mother and family. The young Theo with all her hopes, doubts and generosity emerged around this new family. Meanwhile, through those years, we discovered with delight and surprise that we had many friends/connections in common. She had been a Dartmouth roommate of Meryl Streep who married my former boyfriend, Don Gummer. I knew Meryl through her brother, Harry, with whom I danced in college and New York in the 70s. Leon Falk, the film producer, was a mutual friend. Carol Kiser, Theo’s assistant, was married to another former boyfriend of mine, Eliot Schwartz, and they have a house between Theo’s and mine in Southampton. Then there is Margot McLean, Theo’s dear friend who met James Hillman at a workshop that he and I gave at the Open Center in New York in 1989; they are happily married. And finally, Mattie, a former classmate with my son in Utah, is the daughter of Beth Rickman, a close longstanding friend of Theo. So with these 5 degrees of separation, we had much to share.

 I saw Theo most content when she spoke of, or visited, with her sister Laurie, Laurie’s husband, John, and Theo’s three nieces and nephew. Despite lifestyle differences, Theo highly valued her relationship with her sister and family, giving much time and thought to what presents would be most appreciated when she traveled West to visit them and cherishing the visits they made to New York and Southampton. This provided a too infrequent opportunity for expression of the maternal side of Theo, but it was clearly a strong part of her, very heartfelt and ever so sweet to witness. She expressed the same with my son, Adrian, who admired and respected Theo’s moxie, humor and sophistication.

Recently, Molly sent me photos from the Ambiente shoot. Besides the playful ones from rehearsals, two of me at age 33 are my favorites. Theo captured my essence, walking down Reade St., my home street in Tribeca, and in front of the World Trade Center by the Odeon where we spent many evenings. I am so thankful that these are back in my life, for I understand how talented a photographer Theo was to be able to capture me so accurately in a short time. Now, I choose to think of Theo at her home in North Sea, scurrying about the kitchen, looking after guests feasting and laughing at the bench around the great tree. Or enjoying her daily swim and chasing swans and geese from her pool. Or entertaining at sunset with friends, drinks in hand, surrounded by the rich colors and curious artifacts in her lovely house. To Theo, your grace and generosity live in our memories, and your photos keep your vivacious spirit alive. Thank you for your soulful gifts.


Debra McCall

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