Tandy Beal has a hundred Sara Wilbourne stories, maybe even more than that.
Beal, the most luminous and prominent name in the Santa Cruz dance community, had a deep and durable friendship and creative partnership with fellow dancer and choreographer Wilbourne going back four decades.
For example, in the early 1980s, when Wilbourne was one of the most stalwart performers in Tandy Beal and Co., she was part of a large ensemble tackling a Tandy-esque production of The Nutcracker. Rehearsals were demanding, and, as a result, they were subject to tension and frayed nerves.
At one point, says Beal, during the famous Arabian dance in the ballet, “four dancers come out in these beautiful costumes. Then, Sara comes out, topless. It just tore the rehearsal up. And it was exactly what we needed to finish the work that we had to do. She had this ability to be incredibly elegant and old-world, almost formal, and then completely brazen and out there.”
The Santa Cruz dance community only recently learned of the death of Sara Wilbourne in early May. A few years ago, after a diagnosis of encroaching dementia, friends say, the intensely private Wilbourne retreated from public life and news of her death leaked out only gradually. She was believed to be around 70 years old.
She first came to Santa Cruz around 1980 after she and Beal met at the University of Utah. Beal recruited Wilbourne to become part of her Santa Cruz-based dance company and she followed Beal to California.
Over the next 35 years, Wilbourne was not only a central figure in the fertile local dance community, she also became an irreplaceable resource and creative force in the larger arts community, giving her focus and energies to such organizations as Cabrillo College, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre and others. She worked to connect artists with each other, and with whatever they needed for collaboration and support.
Writer and former dancer Julia Chiapella says, “Sara was so good at bringing disparate subcultures from the arts community together.”
Chiapella, who had worked with Wilbourne as a performer years earlier, was later recruited by Wilbourne to be part of a program called “Talk Dance Talk” with the late poet Morton Marcus. “She was keenly aware that we didn’t have enough people writing about dance and illuminating it in a way that could be understood,” Chiapella says. “Dance is so ephemeral and she brought Morton and myself together and created a two-day workshop in writing about dancing, what that meant, and how we could bring that ephemeral quality to the stage.”
But, before all the community activism, Wilbourne was a gifted dancer who toured with Tandy Beal and Co. in venues across the country and in Europe.
“She was a movement genius,” says Santa Cruz based dancer and choreographer Cid Pearlman, who worked closely with Wilbourne in the latter part of her career. “She brought intelligence, rigor, and humor to everything she did.”
David King, the chair of the Cabrillo College Dance Department, first encountered Wilbourne when he was her student at Cabrillo in the early 1980s.
“Sara had fire and strength,” King says. “She had a vibrant muscularity, and as a young man, I really loved being challenged to use my muscularity like she did. She was crisp and inventive, and her sense of plié made it seem like her feet were going through the floor and down into the Earth. It sounds a little Santa Cruz to say it, but she was drawing some power from the Earth. She would spark it through her fingers, change the angle of her face and suddenly, she was a new sculptural figure.”
She leaves behind a number of memorable performances. Many remember her performance in a Zen tone poem piece called The Eight Ecstasies of Yaeko Iwasaki at Cabrillo based on the poetry of Morton Marcus.
“That was when I first (became) enchanted with Sara,” Chiapella says. “It was just riveting.”
“Sara had a kind of burst energy in her dancing,” Beal says. “It was an alertness that over the years, she developed into a really strong theatrical presence. She could hold a moment and make her stillness meaningful on stage.”
Besides Beal and Pearlman, she worked with choreographer Erik Stern and with her students at Cabrillo. King left the area after taking her class at Cabrillo, then returned years later when a job opened at Cabrillo. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Sara is still here and I get to work with her.’”
She toured with Pearlman’s company much as she did with Beal’s, working in a piece called Fire Sale featuring a quartet of dancers on an 8-by-8 square of linoleum and, later, Your Body is Not a Shark, “about the process of aging and the loss of physical presence in the world,” says Pearlman, “and how we live with the bodies that we have.”
Originally from Virginia, Wilbourne had a sense of refinement, say friends, that blended with an easy artistic sophistication. “She was bright and witty,” says King, “very sophisticated and urbane, but true to her roots as a Southern person too.”
“I knew her as someone who was very exuberant and reaching out and connecting,” Pearlman says. “One of the greatest things I got from Sara, other than dancing, was a love of knitting. Sara loved to knit. She would knit things throughout the year for her friends. That was something that I was envious about, and then I realized I could model myself on Sara and make things for people.”
Since she learned of Wilbourne’s death, Beal says she has been thinking of Sara more as a friend than an artist. “I just remember singing wild songs with her in the back of the van when we touring the country together,” she says. “Thinking about her, the art part and the friend part, just gets all mixed up.”
Wilbourne was also part of one of Beal’s master works, the magisterial Here After Here, a meditation on the afterlife that premiered locally in 2007.
“I wanted her on the third story of this massive structure we had built,” says Beal. “‘Sara, could you be up 18 feet off the ground? And I want to get a big fan blowing on you, get your clothes moving.’ And she was game. It made for a shockingly beautiful opening to see her up there that high with that ability to hold the moment.”
These days, Beal is haunted by words she had Wilbourne deliver in Here After Here, words that have, with her death, closed a loop.
“I’ve been thinking about a line that I specifically gave to her,” says Beal, “It’s a Rumi line: ‘Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.’”