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Six Days in Santiago with Richard Cragun

Richard Cragun and Toba Singer


Six Days in Santiago with Richard Cragun

Richard Cragun and Toba Singer

Richard Cragun and the author in Santiago.

I almost didn’t go. When on Tuesday, I told the otolaryngologist, Dr. Schindler, that I had to fly on Saturday, he said, “You remind me of Pavarotti. He came in here and said, ‘I have to sing tonight.’ I told him, ‘What? Don’t they have understudies?’” He could have done standup, this Doctor Schindler, but instead he squirted the insides of my ears with his semi-secret remedy, Castellani Paint. Having benefited from a repeat application two days later, I woke up on a Saturday morning, last May, pain-free, and flew the first leg of my trip to Houston, and then to my final destination, Santiago de Chile, mid-week. My assignment? To interview the famous Brazilian ballerina and erstwhile star of the Stuttgart Ballet, Marcía Haydée, who at 75, directs the Ballet de Santiago, and to review of the company’s production of John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew. Haydée was not easy to find, and I suspect that that is why my editor gave me this plum of an assignment—it had a sleuth component and this was something of a test run, as I had never written for the magazine before. As a retired librarian, I couldn’t resist the challenge. My friend Jim Nelson at Houston Ballet came through. I learned quite by accident that he had danced for a brief year with Ballet de Santiago, and appealed to him to help me out, which he did in spades. So there I was standing face to face with the radiant, yet unpretentious Marcía Haydée in her office above the Teatro Municipal. We arranged a time for an interview, and then in an offhanded manner, she said, “Oh, you know, Richard Cragun is here.”

“Here?” I said, looking around her modest office for a revolving bookcase where he might be hidden. “Well, in the next room. Would you like to meet him?” “Would I? Why, yes!” I said, realizing that I must have sounded like Mickey Rooney doing Andy Hardy. Within seconds, her famous co-star at Stuttgart Ballet was standing opposite me, shaking my hand and hugging me, while saying that he was from Sacramento, California, and his father had been a college librarian.”

“We have so many things in common, Mr. Cragun. I think you should let me interview you,” I said. This time, I let the Andy Hardy persona return to the era whence he came. Marcía proposed that Richard and I meet over breakfast. After all, he and I were staying at the same hotel, and it offered one of those pugilistic breakfast buffets that you can never win against. He declined the breakfast proposal, mysteriously hinting at being a little slow in the morning. So we set up a rendez-vous for the following evening. Later that night, I attended an encounter intended to prime the Teatro Muncipal audience several days in advance, for the special elements in Taming of the Shrew that had to do with its having been set by Cranko on Haydée, and the challenges, such as Cragun’s famed triple tour, which the Santiago casts had to conquer. Cragun spoke no Spanish, but Haydée translated his remarks in English, seeming to pick up where he left off in the seamless and intuitive way that wives finish their husband’s sentences, and in fact, they were a couple for 16 years. Later, Cragun, having extended his sexual repertoire to include male partners, came out, and eventually followed one special partner, Roberto de Oliveira, to Rio de Janeiro, where Cragun lived and worked until he died of AIDS-related complications last Monday, August 6.

But back in Santiago last May, our interview took place in a cozy hotel conference room. He ordered water. I did too, but Richard insisted that I have something more substantial. I ordered pineapple juice. A short time later, a waiter brought a plate of fresh pineapple and mango. Ricky—which by now is the nickname Cragun had asked me to call him—insisted that the plate be returned and juice be brought in its stead. The waiter protested that it was too late at night for pineapple juice, which, it turned out, was a staple of the intrepid breakfast buffet and not available nocturnally. So I declared that the fruit was even better, and over glistening pineapple chunks, and under the rubric of an interview, we began one of the most stimulating discussions about ballet in memory. It lasted three hours, but we had only covered five out of my eight questions!

Groggy from jet lag and somewhat in the throes of post-traumatic stress from the events that had in a day magically transformed me into a marathon interviewer, as if a mythical character had handed me a pouch of special beans, I repaired to my room and wrote my editor. I related my good fortune: Not only would there be an interview with Marcía Haydée, but Richard Cragun has just given me a three-hour interview and we are not yet done. There are editors who would have strokingly replied, “Lovely, we can probably do a sidebar,” but this editor understood that this was huge, and instead wrote, “Great! We’ll put it into the next issue after the one with the Haydée interview.” Did I waltz around my room, rinse out a blouse in the bathroom sink, or collapse on my hotel room bed? All three, perhaps. I can’t remember.

The next day, Ricky and I returned to our discussion, this time over the sad runny eggs from the breakfast buffet. He ate the scrambled ones that come from the steam table, and turned up his nose at my choice of the hard-boiled version. I pointed out that if I was required to eat eggs from a breakfast buffet, they would be the ones that were certifiably eggs, as opposed to something more inorganic. He gazed up at me with a new-found respect, and we plowed through Cranko—his habits, predilections, charms, precocious choreographic genius, and the sorrier parts, such as his untimely death, and the result that he bequeathed Cragun almost nothing of his repertoire, such that Ricky, in poor health, was living in straitened circumstances in Rio. He was thankful to be the titular artistic director of his ex-lover’s ballet studio, and for the occasional opportunity to coach Cranko works at Ballet de Santiago. He mentioned that he did cartooning, and showed examples of his work that he kept archived on his phone. I shared my thought that the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design might be interested enough in the cartoons to mount an exhibit of them. He then asked me whether I had an opinion on where he might leave his papers. The question startled me, because it seemed premature, but twenty-two years of librarianship had taught me to show no reaction to even the most upsetting of queries. Cragun went on to say that he had 4,000 letters to his father, alone, and many other documents. As a responsible librarian, I mentioned a couple of options, but he seemed quite determined that his papers go to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design because he was at heart a Californian.

We had begun the five-hour interview with me as journalist, him as former dance star, and now we had moved into a new relationship, as we exchanged suggestions, email addresses, views, outlooks on politics and religion—the two subjects one is supposed to scrupulously avoid, and shared meals together, along with a choreologist who had come from Bremen, Birgit Deharde, whom we both had befriended. The three of us became a serendipitous triple tour of sorts, sharing technology horror stories, dance anecdotes, family lore, and laughing boisterously until we closed down the odious breakfast buffet, chassée-ing between tables and chairs, and thereby earning contemptuous stares from the Maître D’.

On some mornings, Ricky would excuse himself from the breakfast table, quipping coyly, “I tell people that I’m leaving to wash my hands,” trot off to the restroom, and then return, looking a little more robust. One couldn’t help but wonder whether he was feeling ill, and taking medication. We would enjoy the luxury of a coffee or tea refill, and return to some previous thread in the conversation until we had exhausted it. There were rehearsals that Ricky and Birgit were there to vet, where I was invited to be an observer. But every evening ended at an excellent sushi restaurant, or the chicken joint across from the theater called La Picá de Clinton [Clinton’s Pecker], where the chicken was succulent and the beer was cold. Ricky paid for these outings with fits of coughing, but would recover, and the three of us were then skipping gaily out the door and down the darkened rain-damp street, Ricky singing in a German accent, á la Joel Grey, “Do-do-do-do-do-two lehdeez und I’m zee only mahn,” from Caberet, as tolerant Chileans looked on.

Our final soirée together was on the opening night of Taming of the Shrew. Marcía invited us to join her, her husband, Günter Schoberl, and the ballet masters, in the director’s box. After the final bows, Günter said, “Marcía has asked me to invite you to dinner with us.” Dinner was at a Spanish restaurant near the couple’s home, where the cuisine was Catalonian, and I found myself seated next to Ricky. We shared our piquillo peppers stuffed with bacalao, and other specialties of the house with one another, and wine, beer and aperitifs appeared out of nowhere. Before long, everyone was feeling the collective bliss and resulting camaraderie of a successful opening night, during which John Cranko had been brought back to life once again, as only two of his most favored protégés could have succeeded in doing so perfectly.

Richard and I said our goodbyes at breakfast the next morning, with a promise on my part, that I would propose the exhibit of his cartoons to the Museum of Performance and Design. In spite of the confession that he was exhausted, he said that he would stay on another day in Santiago, in order to see the second-cast performance of Taming.

Shortly after I returned to the Bay Area, I was invited to an after-party for a dancer-initiated fund-raiser for a cancer prevention program. While there, former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Muriel Maffre’s companion, Benjamin Pierce and I were chatting, and Ben said, “You’ll have to congratulate Muriel. She has just been named director of the Museum for Performance and Design.” Friends and fans surrounded Maffre, but we managed a short chat, and I explained about Ricky’s cartoons and the papers he was looking to deposit. “We must have both,” Maffre pronounced, as if no alternative existed. I rushed home. First, I wrote to Regina Bustillos, San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s assistant, and urged her to urge Tomasson to hire Ricky to coach the next run of John Cranko’s Onegin, and then I wrote an email to Ricky. “Send cartoon samples pronto! The museum wants to do a show!” He wrote back to ask for my postal address. I sent it to him. It was our last communication.

No samples arrived, and no samples arrived, and I felt like the little boy in the The Carrot Seed, the first book I remember my mother having read to me as a child. That is, I felt both a little unsure, and at the same time, confident that the samples would arrive. When we met at an exhibition at the museum, Muriel said, “I’d like to do the show next August, but I must have the samples very soon.” I wrote to Ricky, this time in a tone that was the tiniest bit insistent. But no samples arrived. No email either. I wrote to Luz Lorca, Marcía Haydée’s assistant to ask whether Ricky happened to be in Santiago to help coach the company’s upcoming Mayerling. Just a few days later, Luz wrote back, “I am sorry to have to tell you that Richard Cragun died this morning in Rio. Marcía is devastated.”

When you have lived a long life, you receive such news so many times that you would think you’d become a pro at accepting it. But nature has arranged it so that there is no way to perfect your response, no “The Zen of___” to study and internalize for such occasions. Later, you can picture what you were doing, where you were, or the time of day it was when you were jolted out of your complacency by news of a loved one’s death. Even if you are not prepared for the news, you summon some morsel of dignity to partner the shock and horror that overcomes you. I was alone when the news pixilated itself across my screen. In my mind’s eye, I called up an image of the lovely person I knew as Luz Lorca, who had let me use her desk one afternoon, now moments ago at that very same desk, typing these words, with their inherent finality, that she could not delete or take back. I thought of the many people I would feel compelled to “inform.” But before that inexorable stream of disclosure could begin, I would need a moment to be alone with the memory of my new best friend, who I had paradoxically just lost forever. He would be my partner in this last enterprise. I would not require him to pull out triple tours, as earlier critics and audiences had. I would simply locate the joy inside of me that the chimera of his spirit could evince. I would let some channeled avatar of him slip his once-warm arm through mine, as if it were once again a dark rainy night, and the two of us were belting out a stanza or two of “Two Lehdeez,” before letting go.


Toba Singer’s interviews with Marcía Haydée and Richard Cragun will appear in the last two 2012 quarterly issues of Dance International, a print and online publication.

Toba Singer, author of "First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists" (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City's School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the "Charleston Gazette," "San Francisco Chronicle," "Dance Magazine," "Dance Europe," "City Paper," "Provincetown Advocate," "Voice of Dance,", "InDance," and "Dance Source Houston." Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses' KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.



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