I like my ghosts bite-sized, the connections to the past manageable. And so my visit to Santa Fe’s St. John’s college today was perfect. I wanted to see the beautiful campus where, in 1965, Byrne Miller talked her way on to the faculty without a college degree or any other experience teaching dance at the college level. And I wanted to see where the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre was born.
I snapped this picture on the walk up to the college. It doesn’t do the beauty justice. It’s a fifteen minute drive up canyons from Santa Fe and it feels as remote as a ghost town in the summer. The air smells of wild sage and fragrant Russian Olive tree blossoms. The arroyos are dry as a Georgia O’Keefe painting and the sky is a hypnotizing blue. The college was brand new when Byrne and Duncan arrived in Santa Fe nearly fifty years ago – an experiment in using the Great Books as the entire syllabus. It still does, only in the summer you can sign up for seminars like “Humanity Exists in a State of Rupture from the World”: Hegel, the Fall, and Spirit’s Alienation from Nature. Or the tidier-sounding “Reductionism, Naturalism and Undecidability.”
But I wasn’t here to check out the courses. There was a chance that I’d find more photographs of Byrne’s tenure here. On the back of one of her best publicity shots Byrne hand wrote the name Robert Nugent. During the research phase of writing “The Other Mother” I’d tracked down the accomplished photographer on the internet. We’ve talked on the phone and while he remembered Byrne and Duncan, he shot so many photos at St. Johns that he couldn’t place a specific shot. Since he did most of his work at the college in the 60s for hire, he thought the college would have copies in the library. Alas, they did not. At least not easily accessible on a random visit during the summer break.
But when I showed the photographs I already have to the college’s two librarians on duty (and their dog, behind the desk, it’s that kind of cool school) their faces lit up. It was like they’d seen a ghost – just not the kind I envisioned. It turns out the setting of this photograph of Byrne leading a rehearsal of “The Walls Between” still exists at St. John’s College – only now it’s a coffee shop.
And this photograph of Byrne’s collected son, Ben Barney, using a chair as a prop representing his departed grandmother… well the chairs still exist too. They’re called Jonnie chairs – St. John’s iconic piece of furniture.
It gets even better. The stage where the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre began is alive and well too. It’s called the Great Hall on the second story of the student center and it’s still used for lectures and dance performances.
Again, my cell phone photo doesn’t do it justice, but these plush red curtains open up to a stunning view of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. I can’t say for certain, but if there are ghosts of Byrne’s life work, they were dancing in the beams of light streaming into the Great Hall of St. John’s college this morning.
I have a quick Thanksgiving week update on the Byrne Miller project to share. I’ve just wrapped up writing about Byrne and Duncan’s years in Santa Fe – a period from 1965 to 1969, just before they moved to Beaufort. I didn’t know much about this era of their lives before I began researching, only that Byrne had always loved Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams and that Santa Fe was a mecca for artists and writers back then, maybe even more so than it is now.
So it wasn’t surprising to learn that the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre actually started in New Mexico, not South Carolina. The first performance of Byrne’s short-lived choreographic career was at a brand new, Great Books college called St. John’s, where Byrne taught modern dance. I assume the debut of her own company was what prompted her to have some publicity photographs made and I came across the name of a New Mexican photographer, Robert Nugent, in some of the boxes stored in Byrne’s papers at the Beaufort County Library.
On a whim, I looked him up on the Internet. I didn’t give it much chance, assuming that since Byrne would have been 103 this year this Robert Nugent fellow probably wasn’t around. I found references to his work at the Institute of American Indian Arts (where Byrne also taught some classes) and a stub from an old website that listed a Santa Fe phone number. I was probably more surprised than he was when Robert Nugent answered my long distance call.
It turns out he doesn’t recall taking this particular photograph of Byrne, one of my favorites, but he definitely remembers Byrne and Duncan. His son was riding in the back seat of the Miller’s car when a drunk driver plowed into them, seriously injuring Duncan. But mostly his memories were sweet and tender. Robert’s wife, then girlfriend, was one of Byrne’s dance students and that’s how he wandered into their world. He tells me his lasting impression was of how supportive and dedicated to each other Byrne and Duncan were. It’s what all of us lucky enough to have known them remember, and treasure. In an email exchange I hope will continue long after the book comes out, Robert wrote “I found Duncan to be quite opaque and vaguely discontented, whereas Byrne seemed more the blithe spirit, though I’m certain she could be tough as nails when necessary. You couldn’t help but like her.”
As we all head off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, I know I’ll always be thankful for being part of Byrne and Duncan’s – if only for a little while. And for the network of talented men and women whose lives they touched, connecting us all.