Tell me you’ve attended 40 war-torn operas,
seen a dozen brawling west side stories,
beheld seventy times seven sword-wielding Shakespeare plays,
and I’ll still maintain

you’ve never seen a fight onstage, not once, not ever;
you’ve only seen dancing.

“Fill the space!”

This direction came to me years ago, shouted by a bald fight choreographer—
an actor who’d done a thing or two for the Disney Channel, so he could afford to do what he loved:

Live theater.

Rehearsing at night, he gave the command to us, the men’s half of an opera chorus,
part-time singers two-dozen strong, comprised of collars blue and white, real-life
lawyers, tradesmen, school teachers, and college students, set to portray a mob of drunken warriors.

We were a platoon of double chins and potbellies,
standing in staggered lines, preparing to barrel forward on anxious ankles and nervous knees.

“Fill the space!”

We commenced lumbering around the rehearsal room, like an avalanche, for an instant only crumpling a smooth white face,
then roaring forward, rabid and remorseless.

We dashed into pockets of open space. If any of us saw a patch of stage where no man stood, we rushed toward it, soon filling the hall with a thunderstorm of stomping feet and spasming lungs.

“Breathe, guys! You’ve got to breath!”

Clad in sweatpants and gym shorts, we stampeded over the dull black-painted floor,
our golf tee-covered chests thrust out, taunting each other and the cinderblock walls,
atop straining suburban legs. He yelled again,

“Fill the space!”

We plunged our bodies into every empty space we found, saturating the room with sweating flesh and dewy panting.

Of course, every time one man dashed to fill a space between two others, he created a new opening. The process fueled itself—men like air molecules aflame in a swelling balloon.

But we did not fight, we only danced
for a minute or two; it felt like forever.

Passing each other close, almost colliding, sometimes colliding, every man a trusting partner,
yet to the eyes of any watching, we appeared to make

A cold-blooded melee.

Our only weapon: an eagerness to lunge
through the trust of dance into the taste of war.

The rehearsal space, its hardened surfaces
glazed in sweat and spittle, now softened
by time and play.

“Fill the space!”

By the martial command, we shed ourselves of day,
moonlight cutthroats hatched out of homebodies.

Every one of us made brawnier,
kindled by our inner gay,
Boy, we were wonderful, back when
closeness was the order of the day.

Poet’s Notes:

This piece is based on a rehearsal for Verdi’s opera Otello, staged by Utah Opera back when I was in college. This week, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera musicians became the latest economic casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. My love to them and the many other arts organizations like them at this time. The curtain will rise again.

For another performing arts related piece, I invite you to read: Angel Hal and the Chandelier.