Robin Williams wasn’t a dancer. Not officially, anyway. During an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, he mentioned taking class with Anna Sokolow at Juilliard; perhaps he trained with others too. Regardless, this was a man who could move—who, as my colleague Lisa Okuhn put it, was a “wildly physical performer. His brilliance and energy took over his body, almost as if he was possessed.”
Sounds like a dancer to me.
News of Williams’ death came as we were preparing this issue for publication. Saddened, I, like millions of people, tried to recapture something of his presence by watching video clips, remembering him, with a rising sense of loss, as a magnificent performer whose way of interacting with the world was as physical as it was verbal. Case in point: the send-up of backup singer/dancers he did with Billy Crystal (Williams’ raunchy; Crystal’s not so much) on the HBO charity event Comic Relief, in which his dance moves were full of texture and timing and rhythm.
And no one who has set foot in a dance studio will forget his performance as a dance director, in The Birdcage, working on “a complex number full of mythic themes.” Trying to get a clueless show boy to understand what he wants, Williams demonstrates, in his idiosyncratic, wildly funny way, a series of iconic dance moves: “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse. You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham. Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla. Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd. Or Madonna, Madonna. But you keep it all inside.”
Beneath his vibrant façade, Williams did keep it all inside, whatever it was that allowed depression to conquer him. Stories abound that cite his kindness, his Zen-like demeanor offstage. Certainly he had a generosity of spirit. On a personal note: my sons remember meeting Williams on the set of Bicentennial Man when they were children. I remember that day too. Propped up because his futuristic garb prevented him from sitting, he shook my sons’ hands and went into full entertainment mode. A private performance, just for them. I’m sure he’d rather have closed his eyes for a few minutes, but instead he gave my sons laughter—and a memory as sharp and deep as his own wit.
Robin William kept it all inside, but he gave and gave. —Cheryl A. Ossola
This fall we’ve seen students—our own children, or kids we’ve mentored—leave home for the first time, embarking on careers or the exciting/terrifying adventure that is college. The high school girl I helped coach through her college application process is attending a large university many miles from home. Like most college freshmen, she’s plunging headlong into an environment for which she’ll feel, at times, wholly unprepared.
In June, at a “graduation” ceremony celebrating 25 kids who are the first in their families to go to college, I watched the girl I mentored, and I worried. I worried that she would, like I had, discover that she was surrounded by classmates who’d attended fancy schools, wore expensive clothes, and had studied Renaissance literature in ninth grade. That she’d think her ideas are stupid and never speak up in class. That she’d want to give up.
Then a young alumnus of the program—and of a top university—stood up to speak. She said she’d struggled at first, felt academically and socially outmatched. She told the high-school grads they’d feel like that sometimes.
But, she said, everything changed for her when she discovered that many others were experiencing similar things. “I wasn’t alone,” she said. “And that’s the most important thing to remember. Find someone to talk to. There will be someone who understands. Things will go wrong, and sometimes you’ll mess up. But you’re not alone. Remember that.”
College—or launching a dance career—is tough. Kids can feel overwhelmed to the point of giving up—dropping out, succumbing to despair, or worse. Let’s make sure they know there will always be someone who listens and understands, who values what they have to say, who doesn’t expect constant perfection, who will pick them up and dust them off. Let’s make sure they know they’re not alone. —Lisa Okuhn
DSL editor in chief Cheryl A. Ossola is a former Dance Magazine associate editor and a freelance writer for San Francisco Ballet. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.
DSL associate editor Lisa Okuhn is a writer and former dancer with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, ODC/Dance, and others. She founded arts-focused Okuhn Public Relations.