Jordan Levin

Alma Dance Theater performance turns death into a dance of love

Marissa Alma Nick as a young girl with her Grandma Jean, left, and Abuela Maria
Marissa Alma Nick as a young girl with her Grandma Jean, left, and Abuela Maria courtesy Marissa Alma Nick

Marissa Alma Nick lost both her grandmothers last year. Her beloved Grandma Jean, a fun-loving second mother to her only grandchild, passed a few days into 2015. Her once-indomitable Abuela Maria, who escaped the Nazis in Poland and the Revolution in Cuba and loved to sing and dance, died six months later. To that double loss Nick adds another — both women had dementia when they died, unable to recognize their granddaughter, or, in many ways, themselves.

Now Nick has translated her grandmothers’ lives, her love for them and their passing, into an evening of dance theater, Flowers for Springtime, which her Alma Dance Theater performs Thursday and Friday at Miami-Dade County Auditorium. She hopes audiences will take away some of the resolution and peace she has found in celebrating their death.

“In our culture we fear death,” Nick, 31, said after a recent rehearsal at Miami Dance Studio near Wynwood. “But the life and love that come from that experience are so powerful. I wanted to offer that meditation, on what accepting death can be.”

An only child, Nick was exceptionally close to her grandmothers. Her father’s mother, Maria Gran Nick, or Abuela Maria, lived a few blocks away from their home in Surfside. As a young girl, Nick delighted in visiting her lively, fashionable Abuela, who loved to play dress-up and sing Yiddish and Cuban songs. Gran Nick had fled Poland with her Jewish parents shortly before WWII, landing in Havana, where she married a man who worked for the Batista government. But by the time of the Revolution, her husband had abandoned her and the island with a dancer from the Tropicana Nightclub. When soldiers came to Gran Nick’s home in 1959, threatening her and her youngest son at gunpoint and demanding to know her husband’s whereabouts, she smashed a framed photo of him and handed them the remnants. “Here,” she told them. “If you find him, bring him back dead.”

But when Nick was around 9, her abuela began to change. She stopped dressing up and getting her hair done and no longer sang around the house. She didn’t recognize her granddaughter and became irrationally paranoid, cowering in the bathtub during thunderstorms. Five years ago the family put her into full time care at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens. But Nick had already retreated from her grandmother’s precarious state.

“It made me really quiet and confused and sad, so I distanced myself from her,” Nick says. “It scared me. I still have this fear and misunderstanding … that this was hereditary. I really feared that this was fate. So I put this wall up.”

She still had her energetic Grandma Jean, who took care of her during her parents’ frequent trips, indulging her only grandchild with elaborate games of make-believe, letting Nick turn her house in Hollywood into an undersea fantasy world, taking her along for bridge and poker games. When Nick, who studied dance at the New World School of the Arts, went off to college, she called her grandmother every day. When she returned home to Miami in 2012, after five years as a video and commercial dancer in Los Angeles, her now-fragile Grandma Jean still made sure to come her granddaughter’s shows.

“We did everything together,” Nick says. “She was so passionate about life and friends and family. She never lost this side of her, the passion. She was alive, present — until she fell.”

In September 2014, Jean Teemer McCracken fell in her garage and broke her hip; a neighbor didn’t find her until the next day. After surgery at Aventura Hospital, she disintegrated rapidly: hallucinating, unable to eat or walk or bathe herself.

“It was obvious her mind had broken down and her body wasn’t far behind,” Nick says. “There were times she would look at me and say “I’m crazy, I’m never going to leave.” She just stopped.”

On New Year’s Eve, McCracken, 88, began convulsing and hemorrhaging and was moved to hospice care. Nick stayed by her side until her grandmother died three days later, in a painful but transformative experience.

“That changed me,” Nick says. “Life made sense, love made sense, death made sense. Before those three days I had my moments where I was frustrated with her, or just angry and frustrated. But in those three days there was surrender. We hold on so much to things, and are in denial about the impermanence of things, and it scares us. There’s this divinity that happens when you let go. I was always scared to lose her. She was my heart. But I’ve never felt more full of love in her presence.”

As Nick rehearses Daydreaming with Jean, she spins a stream-of-consciousness narrative for the three dancers, who writhe and reach in slow motion, as they portray McCracken’s divided psyche and disintegrating body at the end of her life.

“You’re desperately searching for each other,” Nick says. “Whenever you look up and out, see that light. Each time you’re more at peace with it.”

Though Nick began making Daydreaming and Abuela while McCracken was in the hospital, the pieces didn’t come together until her Abuela Maria, 86, died last June. First Nick had been too young, then far away, and then too focused on her Grandma Jean to deal with the loss of her Abuela, who had disappeared into her past and her fantasies long before she passed away. Now Nick realized she couldn’t say goodbye to one grandmother without finally recognizing the other.

“I felt numb … stifled, why can’t I make something?” says Nick, who has done a number of dance films and site specific pieces. “I realized I had something I needed to say and I wasn’t saying it. I was trying to connect with her, understand more about her life.”

Music plays a large role in the resulting solo, Abuela, with singer Jahzel Dotel performing Gran Nick’s favorite Yiddish and Cuban songs, while a snippet of the soundtrack to Gone With the Wind, her favorite film, represents her end-of-life fantasy that she was married to the character Rhett Butler. Nick and Dotel wear her made-to-order dresses from Cuba, as do the other performers in pre-show and intermission tableaus.

In Daydreaming, Nick tried to portray McCracken’s physical and mental struggle with death. “You see the trauma that happened to her body, her desperation as she clings to pieces of herself,” she says.

Abuela, in contrast, is a celebration of Gran Nick’s life and psyche, even in the depths of dementia. “She was so happy living in the past,” Nick says. “You’d see her go into her mind, and it was as if she was dancing again.”

The evening’s title, Flowers for Springtime, refers to the flowers in the two women’s favorite colors — yellow for McCracken, red for Gran Nick — which appear in the dances. But they have a deeper symbolism as well.

“It’s this idea of life, death and rebirth,” Nick says. “I, my family, everybody was touched by these women. Even when they passed, there was a renewal of their lives.”

If you go

What: Alma Dance Theater in “Flowers for Springtime”

When: 7:30 p.m. reception and pre-show; 8:30 p.m. performance; Thursday and Friday

Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium On.Stage Black Box, 2901 West Flagler St., Miami

Info: $32 at almadancetheater.com

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