By Susan Galbraith
I first met and worked with Virginia in the mid-seventies. I had been invited to open a play in New York that I had written for my lifelong friend and acting colleague, Anne Stone, and myself. We had suddenly lost our scheduled director when Anne put me in touch with Virginia. “You’ll love her,” she said. “You two think alike.”
During our first phone call we learned that we both loved dance and movement theatre, we had studied Pilates (though she had done her study with Joe Pilates himself!), we shared birthdays a day apart, and the New York building I had lived in was where she’d been married on the Upper West Side (hosted in the same apartment no less!) Thus began a lifelong friendship and working relationship.
Virginia directed the premiere of Split the Lark, my two-hander play about Emily Dickinson. I performed the speaking part in The Unanswered Question, a dance work she choreographed for Dance Place about Amelia Earhart to music by Charles Ives. She traveled to Minneapolis to direct and choreograph Three Marias, a play about the three women writers who had collaborated on a book about the secret lives of Portuguese women which had caused such a stir in the 70’s. Virginia choreographed and helped direct Song of Crow when it was remounted in Boston and returned to direct a workshop of Le Bal, both for our Performers’ Ensemble. No matter what we were working on, the size of the production, or the venue, she always made me believe it was the most important work she had.
Years later, as Alliance for New Music-Theatre was forming, Virginia came aboard to choreograph my first opera, Our Medea, which I’d written with composer Robert Johnson for singer-actress Pamela Jusino and was conducted by Henry Holt.
For over 36 years, we moved back and forth into each other’s worlds, theatres, and studios to cheer each other on “in the wings.” I always learned something from seeing her meticulous contributions in productions at Arena Stage, Folger Theatre, In Series, Wolf Trap, and Maryland Opera Studio. And she seemed always there to support me – my inspiration, teacher and friend.
The last work Virginia was associated with was the Alliance for New Music’s opera in development, A Woman Changed Into Fox, another partnership with composer Robert Johnson. It had brought Virginia and me back together after her retirement from University of Maryland, but also many of the fine singer-actors we loved: John Boulanger, Chris Flint, Phil Bender, Laura Lewis, Pamela Jusino, and Kara Morgan under the musical direction of George Fulginiti-Shakar.
I will never forget as she and I sat in rehearsal together her eyes fill with tears at the sheer beauty of the music. “This is it,” she would say.” This will all come together beautifully.” This was days before her diagnosis of cancer that would take her life a few months later. The tears were uncharacteristic, for she kept close what she may have known was happening to her. Her health, and in fact herself as subject, were not of great conversational interest to her.
“I’m done,” she would say to family members and close friends shortly before she died. Blunt and matter of fact, she said it as she might speak at the end of a rehearsal or a practice. She spoke as if she might show up the next day to pick up where she’d left off, and push us all just a little further – with humor, with an unerring eye and ear, and with total commitment to the work at hand.
“Unlimited ceiling!” we had gasped at our shared discovery of Amelia Earhart’s final words, researching together at the Library of Congress for Virginia’s Amelia Earhart dance piece. Like Earhart, her story seems unfinished, her legacy lasting. Virginia has left us three smart, loving and original children, her husband and partner with whom she shared both a rich life of friends in Washington and in their summer home in Vermont, and her beloved bloodhound, named, of course, Amelia. She has also left us all a vision and a marker to reach for always of “unlimited ceiling.”
I haven’t been able to write about Virginia until now. I think it’s because I expected her to come sailing in the door to plan our next project and to finish the much beloved work we had at hand. I thought she would always be here, that we would do so much more work together. I told her once I couldn’t imagine working on big music-theatre pieces without her. I miss her.