Skip Warren died July 14 in Boston. He was 58 years old — a dancer, a choreographer, a playwright, a set designer and home remodeler, an HIV survivor, a lymphoma patient, and, in two exuberant words, an artistic gypsy.
Skip’s wide embrace of the world began on a farm in Iowa. He’d planned to study architecture. But after a year of college, he left to study ballet in Boston, following the first of many creative, improbable, yet somehow successful impulses. His form was beautiful, he could lift partners easily, and, in a meteoric leap, was quickly recruited by the Boston Ballet. Then, in another meteoric leap, he opened his own ballet company. The dancers had day jobs in offices, universities and hospitals. It was a bit free-form — not always clear whether the pianist would show for rehearsal — and Skip was ruthlessly honest about the weights and imperfect hair buns of his dancers (some of whom had been dancing longer than him). But this meant his compliments could be believed.
The North Atlantic Ballet became resident artists at the Strand Theater in Dorchester, teaching inner-city children ballet. They showed up in local elementary school gyms at 9 am, wearing full regalia, in front of sets Skip had glue-gunned. They performed classics — Nutcracker, Midsummer Night's Dream — but also broke wild with a rendition of The Scarlet Letter, performed on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s front yard in Concord. Skip loved Hawthorne.
Work poured out of him so rapidly it was hard for memory to keep pace. He was known for forgetting the moves he'd instructed his dancers to remember. Fortunately, they hadn’t.
The HIV diagnosis came in 1988. In the ballet world, also stricken by HIV, his students came to his classes with Kaposi’s sarcoma. He came to his classes with Kaposi’s, too. He began AZT, didn’t tolerate it, turned instead to a self-prescribed approach — healthy food, long walks, the well-placed nap — and lived for another 24 years. That led to a play he co-wrote and performed about long-term HIV survivorship, in all its complexity.
In a way, his extraordinary physical strength was not his friend; he survived multiple rounds of brutal treatments for lymphoma. But, of course, he used the time creatively: besides writing and dancing and choreographing and redoing homes, he raised twin daughters, lived to see a grandchild born (literally, to see the birth), made lasagna for a hospitalized friend in the midst of his own chemotherapy, danced in a jonny while tethered to an iv pole.
The memorial service was celebratory. Skip had banned morbidity. Each celebrant was given a lei to wear at the church door, and one performer duct-taped himself to a chair while wearing a tutu. This mood was not from an absence of loss, but from the presence of joy — for him, and his love of beautiful show.
Did you know Skip Warren? Share your memories in the comments section.