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The Gift

Hackie

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A Wednesday afternoon found me standing in the airport, signboard in hand. As my customers, a man and woman, caught sight of me, I had an immediate feeling they were performers, or in some way connected to the theater arts.

The man was perhaps 30 and quite good looking in a boyish and open way, with dark eyes and tousled black hair. I noticed his odd gait: He slightly dragged his left foot, shifting a bit to and fro with each step to keep his balance. The woman, who looked about a decade older, was slender and had an angular face and soft, wavy brown hair. She moved fluidly and, it seemed to me, with purpose.

The way the two of them greeted me when I introduced myself confirmed my show-business hypothesis. It wasn’t their words — “Hello, I’m Gregg” and “Good to meet you. I’m Tamar.” (Words are cheap: People can say anything.) No, it was their presence. Actors and dancers — at least the good ones — can’t afford to sleepwalk through life. To be a living presence on the stage, to connect with the other players, seems to require a similar receptivity in day-to-day life, and I could sense theirs.

“So, what’s bringing you to Middlebury?” I asked as I helped cart their bags out to the taxi.

Tamar said, “We’re doing a dance performance this weekend at the college. I’m the choreographer, and Gregg is the lead dancer.”

Bingo, I thought, smiling to myself. Gosh, it’s hard being right all the time. What a burden.

Gregg took the shotgun seat while Tamar settled into the back. As we began to roll, I asked Gregg if he’d been a dancer his whole life.

“No, until Tamar tapped me for this piece, I’d never danced professionally — at all, really. She worked with me for nearly a year to prepare.”

“That sounds unusual, to say the least. How did you two hook up? You know, how did she hear of you?”

Gregg smiled, and it dawned on me that, as a touring performer, he’d probably been asked these questions umpteen times, both by fans and media types. Even so, I somehow knew he would be gracious.

“Well,” he replied, “I was in an off-Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet, and I guess Tamar heard about it and came to see me.”

“What role were you playing?”

“I was Romeo.”

In the back, Tamar chuckled. “He’s being modest,” she clarified for me. “The production was getting rave reviews, Gregg in particular, and my husband suggested we go see it. When I saw Gregg on the stage, I knew immediately he was something special and I’d like to work with him. The man has a gift.”

“How does that work, though?” I asked. “Don’t you need trained dancers?”

“Well, I like to work with both dancers and nondancers. It’s kind of my thing. In this piece we’re doing in Middlebury, ‘Diagnosis of a Faun,’ one of the cast members is an actual practicing doctor.”

“Wow, that sounds amazing. When is the performance? I’d love to see it.”

“Let me think … I guess there’ll be two — Friday and Saturday night.”

“Oh, darn,” I said. “I can never afford to take off those nights. As a cabbie, those are my bread-and-butter shifts.”

In the rearview mirror, I watched Tamar pause for a moment as if to consider something. She then said, “How about Thursday night? Would you like to come for the dress rehearsal? It’s good to have a couple people in the audience for that.”

“Really?” I said. “I would love to. That is so nice of you.”

At home later that night, I Googled Tamar’s dance company and got the scoop. Gregg, it turns out, has cerebral palsy, and Tamar’s work with him has been groundbreaking, shaking up conventional scientific notions of what is possible for people with that condition. In an interview with the two of them, Tamar said she intentionally didn’t read up on the disease because she wanted to approach Gregg with an entirely open mind. As the months of exercise and training unfolded, Gregg described consciously beginning to feel and use muscles that had lain dormant since birth, and how he eventually gained the capacity to plant his heels on the ground. That may not sound like much, but it’s almost unheard of for folks with CP.

All of this information became irrelevant the following night, the moment the curtains parted and the stage lights came up revealing Gregg as the faun, goat horned and in a loincloth, arched atop a mossy boulder. His performance was searing, the story entrancing. I was moved to my core.

Afterward, I got a chance to speak briefly with Tamar and some of the dancers. Aside from a few technical glitches, Tamar felt the rehearsal had gone well, and everyone was in high spirits.

Gregg stood before me, a glistening Adonis. I think I was developing a little bit of a man-crush on the guy, to tell you the truth. If this is what such a disability looks like, and what someone can accomplish against all the odds, I thought, what’s my excuse? That may sound depressing, but in fact I felt inspired.

“That was awesome, Gregg,” I said. “The whole thing just took my breath away. I really felt like I was in the presence of a mythological faun. You totally captured the essence of that creature.”

Gregg smiled shyly and snapped the band of his loincloth, saying, “I think the costume’s doing most of the work.”

“The costume’s great,” I said, “but Tamar was right — you are something special. You really do have a gift, man.”

I think Gregg took that in, but I had the feeling that, for those who have the gift, it’s best not to think about it too much.

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