In the kitchen of her South Austin home, Ellen Bartel, in a green T-shirt and black pants, and three women in black veils lunged across her kitchen table, their bare arms stretched across the wood, its fine scratches indicative of many days' mutual beginnings and endings. Ellen shared the table, and the house, with her husband, Dave Woods, until he died of lung cancer last December.
Ellen, the dancer-choreographer, and Dave, a professor of mathematics at Austin Community College, had lived there for 15 years, and for many of those had hosted monthly happy hours with their Tom Waits tribute band, the Boxspring Hogs (Ellen on drums, Dave on guitar). Before the performance, I chatted with some of the performers, Ellen's close friends and frequent collaborators (in fact, everyone present seemed to be on a first-name basis, so it feels right to break journalistic convention here). They told me that those parties began just as we were: a gathering on the gravel driveway, Tecate cans in hand. But when we were ushered into the dark, mural-walled basement, Ellen was alone, curling and unfurling her spine, the spine being the location of tumors that paralyzed her husband before they killed him. Her T-shirt and pants, Ellen announced, were the same ones she wore the first time she rushed Dave to the ER.
Ellen's crystallized yet still raw retelling of her experience of Dave's illness, each segment anchored in a different room of the house, was as poignant and candid as her movement. A chorus of "Daves" moved in and out of the space as ghosts, passing behind her and out the door, sitting behind her on the corduroy sofa. Once, they lifted her over their heads, momentarily trapping her against the textured ceiling, before they swirled around her and exited. The invited audience of the couple's friends, family, and colleagues followed the intimate performance, lining the walls, sitting on the carpet, wiping tears. After the urgent splaying across the kitchen table sent me fumbling for tissues, Ellen recalled the moment when Dave lost sensation in his legs. She sat in Dave's chair, becoming him with deep-diving empathy yet not abdicating herself.
And they won't let her, anyway. At the moment in the narrative when Dave passed away, Ellen and three close friends, in the couple's former bedroom, sank onto the carpet and curled together into a four-way hold. In her notes on the piece, Ellen explained it as a new beginning for her creative work, from the starting point of her grief. Sure enough, the finale ventured tentatively outdoors, still within the fenced-in front yard. The ensemble, in white, swayed in unison to a simple, comforting song, as traffic whizzed on behind them.
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