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Santa Cruz Dance Community Mourns the Death of Sara Wilbourne

Dancer and choreographer died in early May

Sara Wilbourne (center, in red) in one of the many productions she worked on with choreographer Cid Pearlman. PHOTO: BEAU SANDERS

Tandy Beal has a hundred Sara Wilbourne stories, maybe even more than that.

Beal, the most luminous and prominent name in the Santa Cruz dance community, had a deep and durable friendship and creative partnership with fellow dancer and choreographer Wilbourne going back four decades.

For example, in the early 1980s, when Wilbourne was one of the most stalwart performers in Tandy Beal and Co., she was part of a large ensemble tackling a Tandy-esque production of The Nutcracker. Rehearsals were demanding, and, as a result, they were subject to tension and frayed nerves.

At one point, says Beal, during the famous Arabian dance in the ballet, “four dancers come out in these beautiful costumes. Then, Sara comes out, topless. It just tore the rehearsal up. And it was exactly what we needed to finish the work that we had to do. She had this ability to be incredibly elegant and old-world, almost formal, and then completely brazen and out there.”

The Santa Cruz dance community only recently learned of the death of Sara Wilbourne in early May. A few years ago, after a diagnosis of encroaching dementia, friends say, the intensely private Wilbourne retreated from public life and news of her death leaked out only gradually. She was believed to be around 70 years old.

She first came to Santa Cruz around 1980 after she and Beal met at the University of Utah. Beal recruited Wilbourne to become part of her Santa Cruz-based dance company and she followed Beal to California.

Over the next 35 years, Wilbourne was not only a central figure in the fertile local dance community, she also became an irreplaceable resource and creative force in the larger arts community, giving her focus and energies to such organizations as Cabrillo College, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre and others. She worked to connect artists with each other, and with whatever they needed for collaboration and support.

Writer and former dancer Julia Chiapella says, “Sara was so good at bringing disparate subcultures from the arts community together.”

Chiapella, who had worked with Wilbourne as a performer years earlier, was later recruited by Wilbourne to be part of a program called “Talk Dance Talk” with the late poet Morton Marcus. “She was keenly aware that we didn’t have enough people writing about dance and illuminating it in a way that could be understood,” Chiapella says. “Dance is so ephemeral and she brought Morton and myself together and created a two-day workshop in writing about dancing, what that meant, and how we could bring that ephemeral quality to the stage.”

But, before all the community activism, Wilbourne was a gifted dancer who toured with Tandy Beal and Co. in venues across the country and in Europe.

“She was a movement genius,” says Santa Cruz based dancer and choreographer Cid Pearlman, who worked closely with Wilbourne in the latter part of her career. “She brought intelligence, rigor, and humor to everything she did.”

David King, the chair of the Cabrillo College Dance Department, first encountered Wilbourne when he was her student at Cabrillo in the early 1980s.

“Sara had fire and strength,” King says. “She had a vibrant muscularity, and as a young man, I really loved being challenged to use my muscularity like she did. She was crisp and inventive, and her sense of plié made it seem like her feet were going through the floor and down into the Earth. It sounds a little Santa Cruz to say it, but she was drawing some power from the Earth. She would spark it through her fingers, change the angle of her face and suddenly, she was a new sculptural figure.”

She leaves behind a number of memorable performances. Many remember her performance in a Zen tone poem piece called The Eight Ecstasies of Yaeko Iwasaki at Cabrillo based on the poetry of Morton Marcus.

“That was when I first (became) enchanted with Sara,” Chiapella says. “It was just riveting.”

“Sara had a kind of burst energy in her dancing,” Beal says. “It was an alertness that over the years, she developed into a really strong theatrical presence. She could hold a moment and make her stillness meaningful on stage.”

Besides Beal and Pearlman, she worked with choreographer Erik Stern and with her students at Cabrillo. King left the area after taking her class at Cabrillo, then returned years later when a job opened at Cabrillo. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Sara is still here and I get to work with her.’”

She toured with Pearlman’s company much as she did with Beal’s, working in a piece called Fire Sale featuring a quartet of dancers on an 8-by-8 square of linoleum and, later, Your Body is Not a Shark, “about the process of aging and the loss of physical presence in the world,” says Pearlman, “and how we live with the bodies that we have.”

Originally from Virginia, Wilbourne had a sense of refinement, say friends, that blended with an easy artistic sophistication. “She was bright and witty,” says King, “very sophisticated and urbane, but true to her roots as a Southern person too.”

“I knew her as someone who was very exuberant and reaching out and connecting,” Pearlman says. “One of the greatest things I got from Sara, other than dancing, was a love of knitting. Sara loved to knit. She would knit things throughout the year for her friends. That was something that I was envious about, and then I realized I could model myself on Sara and make things for people.”

Since she learned of Wilbourne’s death, Beal says she has been thinking of Sara more as a friend than an artist. “I just remember singing wild songs with her in the back of the van when we touring the country together,” she says. “Thinking about her, the art part and the friend part, just gets all mixed up.”

Wilbourne was also part of one of Beal’s master works, the magisterial Here After Here, a meditation on the afterlife that premiered locally in 2007.

“I wanted her on the third story of this massive structure we had built,” says Beal. “‘Sara, could you be up 18 feet off the ground? And I want to get a big fan blowing on you, get your clothes moving.’ And she was game. It made for a shockingly beautiful opening to see her up there that high with that ability to hold the moment.”

These days, Beal is haunted by words she had Wilbourne deliver in Here After Here, words that have, with her death, closed a loop.

“I’ve been thinking about a line that I specifically gave to her,” says Beal, “It’s a Rumi line: ‘Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.’”

Staff Writer at Good Times |

Wallace Baine has been an arts writer, film critic, columnist and editor in Santa Cruz for more than 25 years. He is the author of “A Light in the Midst of Darkness,” a cultural history of the independent bookseller Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as the book “Rhymes with Vain: Belabored Humor and Attempted Profundity,” and the story collection “The Last Temptation of Lincoln.” He is a staff writer for Good Times, Metro Silicon Valley and San Benito/South Valley magazine.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Emily Reilly

    June 21, 2020 at 9:37 am

    Thank you Wallace. And Tandy and Rick and David and all of you who knew Sara better than I, but miss her no less. She brought such joy, watching her dance or bumping into her on the street. I smile when I think of her. Thank you for your beautiful goodbyes.

  2. Caitlin Johnston

    June 20, 2020 at 11:48 pm

    Hello friends! Thank you Wallace and contributors for writing this tribute to our incomparable colleague Sara Wilbourne. Sara was my teacher at Cabrillo, The Dance Gallery, and the Ballet Studio. She was my collaborator and co-conspirator, as we improvised, produced, choreographed and performed together in numerous productions over the years. Sara had such generosity; with her time, her creative energy, her passion, her astute and honest observations, her humor. She has long served as a model for me of an artist who was deeply involved and committed to furthering the performing arts in our community. She was, of course, an exceptionally talented teacher, organizer, dancer, choreographer and performer. AND she was never a snob about it; always ready to support the flowering of other dancers, performers, actors, and arts groups.

    One of my favorite parts of attending Friday morning improv class at the 418 was playing with Sara! She was always so available and present! One time she said: “I don’t say this kind of thing out loud much, but this improv class is my church.” Well, if that was Sara’s church, may she be dancing freely now in some dancer’s heaven!

    Good-bye Sara!

  3. anna haulenbeek huskey

    June 20, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    I too have tears from learning that Sara has passed. I appreciate how your written words end in her Rumi quote from “Here After Here”,
    “Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”

    I have saved the program from “The Eight Ecstasies of Yaeko Iwasaki” which I saw performed at Louden Nelson Center. Sara did indeed bring different groups of Santa Cruz together. Around 2000 she volunteered to choreograph and perform “The Triangle is the Strongest Shape” for a benefit performance for the Mental Health Community I put together. At the time and still today this dance and its memory is like a needed health prescription for me.

  4. Katie Tetzlaff Larsen

    June 19, 2020 at 11:44 pm

    Remembering Sara …
    My friend and dancing partner.
    Remembering those long ago days of
    half naked Arabians and
    Performance Union dances (now two of us gone)
    Elio, L’Histoire, Eight Ecstasies, Cabernet Verite
    You loved how you made me bounce like a clown
    in that one dance and then played the cigarette girl
    In heels a moment later
    Remembering catching you
    when you leapt high
    we lifted you
    as you so often did for each of us
    and most often side by side
    you and I were the ones left
    stretching on stage after the show
    was over. So,
    as you said, we wouldn’t feel like a truck hit us in the morning.
    Remembering … you gave up coffee but not
    Your laugh
    always louder in the movies.
    And in Somebody in The Barn too.
    Remembering when we choreographed cars
    in the once new double decker parking garage
    downtown. You changed your life that day.
    And now you’ve gone and done it again.
    You’ve transformed.
    May you be dancing
    With Joni
    With Kathleen
    And someday … with me.
    Until then
    I hope there’s mayonnaise. I know you can’t go a day without it. These days, I don’t go a day without
    Remembering Sara.

  5. Cynthia Strauss

    June 19, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    Oh Wallace, Tandy, Cid, David and Julia, you all brought forth the fierceness, humor and earthly beauty of Sara. Sharing a stage with her was always somewhat like shifting between 2 worlds of “this is just what we do in everyday life” in contrast to “fault lines quake and I feel immense awe of how movement can change the world”. Sara thank you for your knowledge, your immense generosity of teaching and of course your infectious laughter.

  6. Susan I Stuart

    June 19, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    My friend Sara…this wonderful tribute…thank you Wallace. Thank you Tandy and Cid and David. Even so words can never say enough – deeply – about Sara’s warmth, talents, generosity, humor, intelligence, smile, —oh so much. And Rumi is right —whoever brought her here has come to take her home…..I am sad but grateful she has passed into the next room where she is safe.

  7. Donna Von Joo-Tornell

    June 19, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    Thank you for your wonderful article about Sara. I was her student at Cabrillo, but before that 3 of my children danced in “Listening to the Earth”. It’s where I first saw her dance. I also interviewed Sara about her dance life at the time. She and I were the same age and I hadn’t ever heard that dancers could continue on performing at a professional level after 40! She was my inspiration and I was in many dances with her; Layers of the Onion; dancing to Morton Marcus reading his poetry; Elio and the Hunt for the Sun; and many pieces that she set on her students at Cabrillo. She was up for anything and everything. And clear, oh my god, she was so clear about her intentions! I will miss her spirit, but am relieved that she will suffer no more.

  8. Tita Anntares

    June 19, 2020 at 6:50 am

    What a glowing tribute to one person’s full living while on the planet in this dimension. I didn’t know her but I have now experienced her grace, her exuberance and her welcoming openness.

  9. David Jackman

    June 18, 2020 at 7:47 pm

    Wallace, once again I am grateful for you. Such shocking news brings special meaning, thanks to your intervention. And thanks for reminding us about Sara’s part in “Here After Here” at this time.

  10. Rick Walker

    June 18, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute, Wallace.
    I just broke down crying when I heard the news today.
    Sara was such a special human being; such a special and unique artist
    and, to me, such a supportive and special friend.
    We will all miss her so much.

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