St. John’s College
Ghosts of Dances Past
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.