The numbness that would take his life started in his pinky toe.
Facing his 50th birthday, the Washington ballet teacher and smart, discerning choreographer Eric Hampton was making a piece called “Half a Life” for his company, Eric Hampton Dance. In it could be seen the artist’s bittersweet musings on youth and the thievery of time. Also present was the somber realization of many a midlife crisis: that death was closing in.
Yet no one could have guessed how quickly it would come. The odd loss of feeling in one toe that Hampton’s dancers recall him noticing during rehearsals soon spread to his calf, and no amount of workouts at the barre brought it back. A year after “Half a Life’s” premiere in 1996, Hampton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A few months later, the former dancer had become virtually paralyzed. He managed to choreograph just one more piece for his company by whispering moves to two dancers who met with him in his apartment. He died in 2001 at age 54.
Dancers have long memories, especially for those who brightened what can be a brief and difficult career. Neither Hampton’s teachings nor his works have been forgotten. How could they be? The programs his company performed over its eight-year existence were often laugh-out-loud funny, with a core of emotional truth. Like the best comedy, his dances turned on situations and timing, driven home with unpredictable musical panache. And his character sketches! What caricaturist Al Hirschfeld did with his pen, Hampton could do with a few gestures, a slouch, a cigar — and just the right dancer.
Hampton had danced with Netherlands Dance Theater, the Scapino Ballet and the Washington Ballet, and he was one of that company’s resident choreographers in the late 1970s. But he had no interest in self-promotion; his works are jewels known only to Washington.
That will soon change, if those closest to him have their way.
Friends and former company members have teamed up for a tribute concert, “Eric Hampton . . . With Us, Again,” on Oct. 13 and 14 at Dance Place, site of frequent Hampton programs when he was alive. The weekend also will launch the Eric Hampton Dance Foundation, whose trustees include Harriet Moncure Fellows, Hampton’s close friend and colleague. Hampton left his works in the care of Fellows, and she has overseen their occasional performances by local troupes. But to mark the 10th anniversary of his death (the anniversary was last year, but ironing out the details took time), Fellows is aiming to get his work seen nationwide.
She has tapped Elisa Clark, 33, to head that effort. A former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group and a current member of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Clark was a student of Hampton’s at Maryland Youth Ballet, where he taught for many years. She remained devoted to him during his last years, visiting when his only way to communicate was to spell out words by moving his eyes from one letter to another on a plastic board.
At Dance Place on Oct. 14, Clark will perform in “UnRavel,” Hampton’s sly ode to ballet’s courtliness, accompanied by Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” As the new foundation’s director of repertory, she wants to tap her wide connections to market this and other works to universities and ballet companies.
“If a painter passed away, does that mean that the paintings he made should just be kept in the attic? No, they should be on the wall,” Clark says by phone from New York. Acknowledging that the foundation will have to battle prevailing desires for new work from hot young choreographers, she insists Hampton’s dances have a place in a broader arena.
“There’s a tremendous amount of not-good work that is done all the time by companies and schools. And Eric’s work is high-quality work,” Clark says. “It feels very timeless.”
It’s that kind of zeal that has brought several former Hampton company members together on a recent sunny morning at Maryland Youth Ballet. Hampton hired dancers with strong personalities and big, bold ways of moving. Equipped with individualistic visions and their director’s sterling example, most of them went on to found companies of their own: Dana Tai Soon Burgess, Lucy Bowen McCauley, Natalie Moffett Smith and Karen Reedy are running local troupes. Tony Powell and Juan Carlos Rincones also ran companies for a time.
They have gathered in an airy studio to offer their firsthand knowledge to the dancers from Moffett Smith’s troupe who are rehearsing Hampton’s screwball, tango-inspired “Fon Fon Odeon” for the tribute concert. (Other works on the bill include “Half a Life”; the haunting “By the Light,” Hampton’s last work; and the whimsical “Beethoven Bits.”)
These habitual movers, who are used to being in charge, are finding it hard to sit still.
Bowen McCauley has been chattering in Fellows’s ear while Fellows takes notes. But when the music starts for a new section of the dance, Bowen McCauley falls silent. Her eyes widen and lock onto Moffett Smith, who is readying for her solo. As Ernesto Nazareth’s slow, dramatic, here-comes-the-diva piano music builds, Bowen McCauley’s chest lifts instinctively, as if she’s the one preparing for her entrance.
“It should be faster,” she whispers to Fellows as Moffett Smith sweeps around the studio.
A few bars later, Powell dashes over to Fellows with an urgent correction about a group leaping toward one corner: “Both times, every port de bras is different.”
Meanwhile, the five performers have arranged themselves in an upstage corner, awaiting a musical cue. Among them is Alison Crosby, one of Hampton’s founding company members. Moffett Smith, eyeing the whispering among her colleagues across the room, blows a stray strand of hair out of her eyes and huffs in mock exasperation, “Boy, we have a tough crowd today!”
The dancers fly through the piece, trying to balance the clear, open style of its steps, its taut comic timing and its quicksilver musical phrasing. At one point, a woman takes a flying leap at one of the men, aiming for his head; she bowls him over and they land on the floor together, his face clamped between her thighs. The crash-landing was fine — but the takeoff wasn’t quite right.
Powell springs to his feet and leans over to Fellows to tell her that the dancer is supposed to leap “straight up, instead of going forward.”
When the performers have finished, red-faced, damp and heaving, Powell addresses them: “Eric taught me so much about dynamics, and the shift of dynamics in the same phrase.” He shows them a moment from the dance, lifting his arms over his head like a cresting wave, then doubling over as if he’d been punched.
“I didn’t feel that shift. It should be s-o-o-o-ft, sharp.”
Says Bowen McCauley: “But the energy is right. Eric always said it’s the energy that wins, No. 1. And if you make a mistake, make it big.”
Later, the Hampton veterans assemble in an empty studio to mull over their memories of the period in the 1990s when they worked with that wise-cracking, intense and hard-working man for very little money but great creative satisfaction. They marveled at how Hampton managed to work harmoniously with “a stable of egos,” as Powell put it, and how even in his most minutely detailed dances, he pushed his dancers toward exhilarating physical freedom.
“He wanted you to dance,” Pam Matthews says. “He didn’t care how many pirouettes you did, he wanted you to dance. So many times you’d do a combination, and he’d look at you and say, ‘But you’re not dancing.’ ”
Burgess agrees. “All dance teachers are asking: How do you get the students to really dance? Well, Eric’s movement really makes you dance.” All the details they were arguing about before — the dynamic shifts, the rolls to the floor, the use of music — “can still mentor young people.”
“And every time someone does that little contrapposto in the hip — ” he knocks his rear end sideways, in the manner of one of “Fon Fon’s” nonchalant loverboys — “Eric will still be there.”
That’s how the eternal is measured in dance — a swing of the hips, a contraction in the gut, passed on from dancer to dancer in an unbroken chain. Maybe someday, someone will care enough about the work of these choreographers, too, to pass it on, as they are doing now with Hampton’s.
In the dance world, such kindnesses are a matter of survival. They are also a victory against time, disease and even the cruelest betrayals of the body.
“He lives through his work,” says Reedy, who has been mostly quiet this morning. “Seeing all the dancers and his sense of musicality, the energy. . . . It was like having Eric back in the room.”
performances of Hampton works by Bowen McCauley Dance, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company, DanceSmith, Karen Reedy Dance and the Maryland Youth Ballet. Oct. 13 at 8 p.m., Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. Tickets: $22 general admission; $17 members, seniors, teachers, artists; $10 college students; $8 ages 17 and under. Post-performance reception both nights to launch Eric Hampton Dance Foundation, $50. 202-269-1600 or visit www.danceplace.org.