WHEN I BEGAN THIS COLUMN LAST MONDAY, April 29, I started it like this:
I’m going to write this in the present tense. I don’t know how long it’ll hold, but then, we never do.
But he beat me to it: John Munger passed out of the present tense on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.
A Star-Tribune headline called John a “dance enthusiast,” which is true—it’s hard to imagine anyone more fundamentally enthusiastic about dance than John—but which unfortunately makes him sound like an amateur, which he was not. It might be more on the mark to call him a dance everything: a dancer and a choreographer, a student and a teacher, a writer and an administrator, an activist and a curator, and a lot else besides. You might have known him as the indefatigable host of the Rabbit Show, a showcase at the Bryant-Lake Bowl that covered newcomers, dancers over fifty, solos, nudity, and a galaxy of other categories. Or you might know him as a Fringe blogger for theTwin Cities Daily Planet: honest, generous, clear, anyone’s guide to anyone’s show. Or you might have taken his beloved modern class at Zenon—a safe place where newbies could get their feet wet while more experienced dancers found new challenges. Or you might have known him as an invaluable source for information on how dance works; the first Director of Research for Dance/USA, he could quote you the numbers on anything.
And these are only the more recent ways you might have gotten to know John. Linda Shapiro’s diligent obituary documents a biography full enough for two or three people, from a globe-trotting childhood to his days studying with modern dance pioneer Hanya Holm to his work on the Minnesota Dance Alliance. The man was a force here, a linchpin.
I found out John was dying on April 24, at 9 x 22—usually a festive evening, but this one ended with Laurie Van Wieren crying as she spoke about John.
Shock. Like many others, I didn’t know anything was wrong. John wasn’t that old (67, though I would have guessed a few years younger), and he wasn’t ill, at least not that most people knew. If you’ve been through this sort of death before, you know the helplessness, the guilt, the senselessness. John’s Facebook page filled with outcries. . . and memories:
Please keep John Munger in your thoughts. He gave me my first professional gig as a dancer, and I first met my husband in the lobby before his 2002 Fringe show. So yeah, that opinionated ol’ curmudgeon means a lot to me. I visited him at Regions hospital yesterday and although he is weak, he is still John: making fart jokes, bitching about one of the nurses, and being very open that these are his last days on the planet. Please give him warm thoughts to light the way to the other side. . .
April Sellers, one of John’s many protégés, heroically managed his social media site with a few other friends and relatives, answering queries and keeping people updated on when they could visit him. She, along with others, also posted photos that show him lively, antic, various. Two images from one photo shoot in the 1990s flip between a dewy young man and a grizzled vet. In images from his long tenure with Continental Ballet Company, he’s often in drag: Mother Ginger or Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Malleable and shameless, John has more than a little in common with Robin Williams. There’s not a single photo in which he looks less than entirely committed to his moment, whatever that moment is. In one, he’s nude, lying in the position of the Sistine Adam as a bevy of modern dancers hold Santa in God’s complementary pose.
But in those photos, we also see John’s poise. A grainy Nutcracker snap shows him as Drosselmeyer, partnering a young woman in a perfect arabesque, their hands held high. In another, Alex Loch performs John’s solo “Lord Cutglass”—a performance that earned a Sage Award. Loch is recognizably not John—too tall—but he looks like he’s doing John, a dignified man with a coiled spring inside. The most recent photo shows John in his hospital bed with his cousin Bean, doing “Lion pose”—tongue out, eyes wide, hands turned into claws. He’s clearly weak here and yet, still, a human exclamation mark.
In the midst of art, John was a practical man. When a DanceUSA interviewer asked him what advice he would give for an aspiring choreographer, he replied:
Regardless of what your college dance department does or does not offer, seek out and learn a broad range of rudimentary administrative functions. Learn how to operate an accounting program like Quickbooks. Learn Accounting 101. Learn about the law on many levels—rentals, copyright, liability, employment, insurance, etc. If you start your own company, you won’t be able to afford anyone to do these things. You’ll have to do them yourself; perhaps for numerous years. An arts administrator who REALLY knows those things is one of the scarcest and most valuable people in the field.
This is no-nonsense, and maybe even a downer to a college kid intent on swirling bold new forms across world stages. But look again and you’ll find such generosity in this advice: he assumes that your work will be worth this effort and that you will be capable of it; he points the way to a survival that doesn’t depend on the approbation of others. For aspiring dancers, he adds this advice, especially generous given John’s own role as a teacher:
Don’t be a purist and don’t think that what you learned first from a beloved teacher is the best and only way to move; seek out varied movement experiences.
To the question “What do you hope your dance legacy to be?” John replies:
Two things. The first is to have fostered an appreciation and respect in the field, among administrators, for good factual and statistical data collection and research. My goal, as the first Director of Research at Dance/USA, was to bring a tipping-point plurality of the field to an understanding of, and craving for, factual and statistical data. My best wishes to Victoria Smith as my successor and to others around the country who have begun to pop up as dance researchers. I hope that my legacy in this regard is that someone, somewhere, remembers me as someone who opened a gate into this good work.
Second, I teach with passion, experience, skill, and joy. I now have students placed in dance companies around the Twin Cities. What I strive to do is to give dancers at several levels the tools they can use in many circumstances. I want them to arrive in their advanced release technique class capable of investing an impulse with momentum, of distinguishing between a leap and a hop, of improvising in many circumstances (not just and only “contact”) of learning movement quickly, of understanding music more than before they took my class, of committing energy in chosen directions, of understanding the role of warm-ups, of bringing themselves as well as their bodies to what they do, of having an intelligent dialogue with gravity and with the space around them, with having a sense of ensemble, and so many more things. I want my legacy in the Twin Cities to be as a dance teacher (and writer) who sheds light in many ways to help many people.
As many others note, mission accomplished.
On his Facebook page, John’s grieving dance-friends mine quotables from his reviews, like this one:
One of the highest arts of choreography is to find means for bringing to life the unspoken and wordless personal subtext that underlies all human experience.
John wrote without descriptive flair or interpretive flourish—that is, without writerly ego. Instead, he delivered forthright specificity, using his tremendous experience to pinpoint specific work and choreographers within the dance landscape. For example:
Karen Charles has appeared—or re-appeared—on the Twin Cities dance scene over the past few years. She does multi-cultural work with multi-racial casts. She is not a youngster. She brings choreographic skills that are well beyond the rocket-rides and dismal mistakes of beginner efforts. She is African-American and works in very technical Modern dance. She does not define herself by racially specific genres and themes.
He knows the names of things, a knowledge too easily lost in a primarily oral and often fragmented field like dance, and he keeps knowing and discovering new names as he goes; he seems not to tire of new things and new people, however inchoate or amateur. Which brings me to the Fringe, ten days of zest and chaos that many dance insiders dread more than enjoy. John, on the other hand, welcomed it with glee and—I’m repeating myself, but one can’t say the word enough—generosity, whether performing in or writing about the festival.
“One of the highest arts of choreography is to find means for bringing to life the unspoken and wordless personal subtext that underlies all human experience.”
Here he is sitting in the wings of one show, waiting to go on:
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. The darkness around me was quiet, respecting the work onstage. Reflected sound and audience responses came back to me. I knew where my cue to enter would come. I was at peace. This is my life now, and has been my life for many decades. I hope it lasts a while longer. To paraphrase many politicians, “God bless you and God bless the Fringe Festival of Minnesota.”
April 28, Georgia Stephens posts:
spent an hour alone with John last week, in silence. The only words he spoke were “definitely the jello” (not the ice cream). Somehow it seemed just right.
Opinionated to the last.
I watch a 2008 interview by Matt Peiken (video below) in which John is hosting a Rabbit Show and holding forth on his current choreographic mission, creating work that older dancers can do and younger ones can’t, “trying to make dances that give dignity and virtuosity and power and presence to an older dancer.” There’s something like a marching band starting up in the way he talks—a snare drum rattling, a majorette marking out the beat. He gets stirred up readily, he calls a spade a spade, he cares about fine points, and he makes you care too.
Linda Shapiro writes:
And speaking of dancing up a storm, I remember a night on the dance floor with you at a Dance USA conference in Pittsburg. Couldn’t keep up with you, wild one. And thanks for your fine work–especially your verbal improvisations—in “That’s Life a Cycle.” And it is. A cycle. Yours has been a whirlwind sucking in so many of us and leaving us much the better for it. Here’s to you—a cosmic toast to a man of many parts.
I hope you can see by now why I would rather have written this in the present tense.
And then this post rises to the top of John’s Facebook feed:
John Munger, teacher of dance and life, very beloved friend, mentor, dance historian, storyteller, philosopher, dancer and choreographer passed away peacefully today, serenaded by the songs of birds and spring peepers outside his window. John has made a difference in the lives of so many and will be sorely missed.
Space, time and energy. . .
As his dance mentor, rest her soul, always said, “well children, each day I am a beginner and today we start anew.”
Saturday mornings will always bring memories of John Munger’s modern dance classes at Zenon. Every class I took with him imparted a dash of his love for life. I remember the effervescent joy of his ending classes with “Run run SKIP, run run LEAP!” I felt uplifted by the possibilities of movement and space and people, every time I left the studio and said goodbye, until next time. He was a bright soul and I miss him.
—Asher Æ Ari Edes
He was such a joy to work with in this show. Backstage he would radiate such joy when thinking about what dance is and what it can do.
I was reading stories about John online today… many, many wonderful stories… as people remember him. One of my favorite memories of John was when he worked with my adult modern students at Riverbend Dance Arts in Hastings. The class agreed to perform on stage so long as no one could see who they were. This posed an interesting challenge, a dance where you can’t tell who the dancers are. Well, I decided they could dance behind fabric so the audience would only see their feet. But who could make a dance interesting enough to watch when you can only see feet? John Munger was the best choice for the choreographer, of course. The students loved working with John and performing this dance. Audiences thought it was one of the coolest dances they’d seen. People still remember that dance today! Why I was even just talking about it this weekend with some former Riverbend students, in fact.
John was one of my first dance teachers when I moved to Minneapolis almost five years ago and stumbled into dance. His passion for dance was overwhelmingly contagious. His goal was to show the sacred and profane joys of dance to as many people as possible. His classes challenged me repeatedly. His aim was true.
Our dear friend and remarkable colleague John Munger, a beloved fixture, mover and shaker as artist and advocate in the Minnesota dance community and Dance/USA’s first Director of Research, passed away earlier today. It is impossible to take full measure of this wonderful, complicated, maddening, talented, deeply intelligent man as the word spreads. But this I will say now, and stand by forever: nobody loved dance the way John did. In that alone many of us will find perpetual comfort and inspiration. Vaya con dios my dear friend. How you will be missed. And what a legacy you leave.
My favorite John Munger performance moment was probably him drunkenly waltzing with an inflatable rubber doll in his one-man rendition of The Nutcracker. Goodbye, John. Don’t go gentle into that good night, don’t rest in peace. But I hardly need to tell you that.
That Dylan Thomas poem came to mind for me, too. No doubt John knew it (he had a bachelor of arts degree in literature from Harvard). I can imagine him reciting the stirring lines in his actor’s voice:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The day of John’s death, one of my freshman English students presents research on animal grieving. It’s heartbreaking stuff: chimp mothers carrying dead infants for days and weeks, gorillas grooming a dying friend. My students go on to discuss the lack of public mourning and I think of this, all this mourning happening in the ether, where we try to make sense of the senseless—or perhaps just commonly touch it or him, this person who is becoming a space.
A few years ago I was at Zenon, just starting a dance class, when my mother called to tell me my grandmother was dying, that she wouldn’t last the day. My grandmother was in Tallahassee, so it was too late to visit. I thought about it for a moment and then I went back to dance class. What else can you do?
On John’s Facebook page, someone posts a sign: “When you feel sad, dance.” To which Miral Ammal responds:
Scroll far enough down his Facebook page and John is still alive, posting “Don’t wish for it. Work for it,” on January 2; or this, on January 12:
Can hardly believe it. I had 17 people in Beginning One Modern today and the class was a titanic success. At the end when we were all applauding each other I heard two or three voices—not just one—yell “Bravo!” Drop mah jaw to mah knees!
Further back he selects his current profile image—a chiaroscuro snap in which he reaches out from a crouch, from the dark. The photo shows off his Santa belly and his age, but also his acting skill and his whole-souled embodiment. How do you define dance? If it’s complete involvement, this man was a great dancer.
Also on his Facebook page, I also find his answers to a “Proust Questionnaire,” quirky questions like “Which words do you overuse?” aimed at adding up to a vision of the overall human (answer: “And, Therefore and the phrase, I don’t know”). It’s December of 2010 and he answers like a happy man (even if the answer to the question “When and where were you happiest?” is “Dancing and studying with Hanya Holm in Colorado Springs, summers in the 1970’s”).
To “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” he responds,
Dancing full-out with ease, skill and athleticism for an appreciative sold-out audience, preferably, but not exclusively, with choreography by myself that really works (and yes, we all have our bad products as well as our workable ones). Doing this 30 or 40 weekends per year. Rehearsing with dear friends for the above. Teaching dance between rehearsals and performances. Being able to make a living doing all of the above.
Note the practicality here, his eye for the bottom line. Note, too, the honesty, and the detail—all vintage John Munger.
At the end of this questionnaire comes this:
How would you like to die?
Taking one dance class too many, in my 90s. We do the whole class, including warm-up, center, cross the floor, and big yee-ha down the diagonal. Then we either clap or do reverance and during that I keel over.
There will be a memorial for John Munger on Tuesday, May 21 at the Southern Theater, Minneapolis at 7:30 pm.
More excerpts of Munger’s writing:
About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She writes a weekly column on dance for mnartists.org.