Dance is our most ephemeral art. Even theater leaves behind more artifacts of a performance’s passing. Once human forms have dazzled eyes with their kinetic defiance of physics onstage, dance becomes as certain subatomic particles, leaving us to infer its existence from the traces of where it’s been.
That there is dance in Birmingham at all owes much to the life of Virginia Y. Simpson, a lady who lived up to many preconceptions of what a Mountain Brook socialite might be but transcended them at last. Married to a lawyer whose father was a running buddy of Bull Connor and a confidant of George Wallace, Mrs. Simpson lived in a veritable castle on Redmont Road, but chose to spend much of her money and time on the arts, and not just writing checks but trying to create niches for culture in a company town. Her impressive fingerprints were all over the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, among other artistic ventures.
When she sought to establish what would be the first professional ballet company in the Southeast here in 1973, Mrs. Simpson imported a brash twenty-something named Alfonso Figueroa from the Northeast to run it. Raised in Spanish Harlem and a comparative latecomer to dance, Figueroa found in Birmingham a dream-come-true for an artistic maverick, with a patron who became a mentor and collaborator in realizing his terpsichorean visions.
There were three years of magic, with the New Yorker as artistic director for Birmingham Ballet and the Mountain Brook matron as its facilitator nonpareil. Then, just after midnight on August 30, 1977, Virginia Simpson was shot to death in her bed, execution-style. The dream was over, and so were the salad days for Birmingham Ballet. Figueroa held on for two more years, but his impetus was gone, and his destiny lay elsewhere. He left the city in 1979, and though he won acclaim for his choreography afterwards throughout the world, Figueroa never forgot how his life was changed in Birmingham.
Small wonder that the sixty-something Figueroa should return to the Magic City in 2009 as Director Emeritus of a new organization called the Birmingham Ballet Repertory Company established by Cindy Free, who had been a teenaged dancer in Figueroa’s original Birmingham company in the Seventies. Even less wonder that Figueroa should be the catalyst for a Virginia Simpson Memorial Concert this Saturday night at the theater in the Civic Center for which Mrs. Simpson was responsible. He has choreographed, and the Repertory Company will perform, a dance entitled “The Awakening,” featuring two characters named Alfonso Figueroa and Virginia Simpson.
How did all this come to be? It is a story best told by the outspoken impresario himself.
Do you find that people in the dance tend to be strong personalities?
You have to be a strong person to get through it. You study for ten years, and you spend ten years in a sweat. And ten years in pain. Ten years with a lean body, ruthlessly making it leaner, working as hard as you can and it’s never hard enough. It builds character, and dancers know who they are….
What was your first experience of dance?
I grew up in the streets of the East Harlem ghetto. There was no dance. I have no good memories about my childhood. None. Everything was just sort of nightmare. You turned the wrong corner, you were dead. Run into the wrong person, you were dead. It was like a Wild West town, and my poor mother, God rest her soul, how must it have been for her to have a little boy who would go out the door and not knowing if he would be back?
When I got into my teens, I realized that this whole gang thing, this territorial thing, was just so stupid. But if you didn’t belong, you were dead meat. You’ve seen West Side Story? That’s not an exaggeration, except for the ballet part….
I got to be a big guy and people stopped beating me up. I was in high school, and when you’re in high school in New York, you go outside your neighborhood. I went to Central Commercial High School, which was a business training high school, like a vocational school. I met this guy who had gone to Art and Design School, which was completely different, but he lived in the neighborhood. We struck up a friendship, and one night he calls me up and says, listen, this guy I go to school with is going to be in a play, and he wants me to come up and see it, but I don’t want to go there by myself. So I went as his bodyguard, right? And they were doing West Side Story. Police Athletic League. There was a PAL in our neighborhood, but no dance.
And I just sat there for a few minutes and I said, I can do this. This is what I want to do.
What did you see in the choreography that appealed to you?
Organized movement. Athletic movement. Aesthetic movement. Not just random repetition the way it happens in ballroom dancing. It had meaning, it was symbolic and it was about me. Y’know? So those things connected and I decided that I wanted to dance.
I started trying to find out how you do this thing. I didn’t know what to do.
Luckily, you were in the epicenter of dance in America.
But nobody would give me a chance. It was really frustrating.
You were how old?
Ordinarily, today, someone that age going into dance has ten years of training already. You had none.
I was a raw beginner. I could find dancers who would give me a private lesson, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Then I met somebody else who was also from the neighborhood who had branched out into the arts, Tom Andresano…he was into musical theater. I ran into him one day and he told me he was auditioning for this theatre in Rochester, New York, and he said, come on, you ought to audition.
I had no idea what I was doing, but they wanted me. And they hired me. And they were doing West Side Story. I played Bernardo. That was the first part I ever had. That was the first anything I ever had. I had never been on the stage.
The thing that got me the job was my photo. Tom knew this girl who was a photographer. I paid her to do a photo shoot, and we went to Central Park and it was raining. I had never had a lesson and I was holding this umbrella and I was in tights and I just jumped into the air. She snapped it, and it’s been like an iconic photograph, mostly because this is a kid who never studied dance, but if anybody should have been dancing, he should have been dancing.
So I got into summer stock, and while I was there, the choreographer of the series said to me, you know, you need to go to school, there’s this place called the Boston Conservatory, you should apply…. I went there, I got my BFA, and that’s where I started training.
I graduated, didn’t have a job, and decided to audition for the Boston Ballet. And I got the auditions. Every company at that time needed a particular physical type, what they used to call “a Marlboro Man,” and I fit those roles.
So you’re working with the Boston Ballet, but you’re also studying in New York with Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis.
And they are two of the most incredible teachers, famous teachers. [Legendary dancer Mikhail ] Baryshnikov was in their class, Gelsey Kirkland of New York City Ballet; everybody who wanted to be better went to their class…. It was analytical, mathematical, logical. You had to be smart to take their classes, and you couldn’t function in their classes if you weren’t intelligent, because you couldn’t move.
I studied with them for about six months, and from zero to six months, they turned a raw beginner into that. [Figueroa displays photos of a now-polished dancer in roles with the Boston Ballet and the Pearl Lang Dance Company.] It was incredible. I went from a beginning dancer to an advanced technician in about seven months.
For me, it was easy, because that’s how I think. I’m an analytical, methodical person, so it was easy for me to learn technique that way.
I was invited into my first really professional company in New York, which was the Elliot Feld American Ballet [Company], and ironically, Elliot Feld played Baby John in the movie of West Side Story. He’s an amazing SOB. He’s one of the meanest directors I’ve ever come across. But a brilliant choreographer. In God’s zeal to give him choreographic genius, He just forgot to give him a heart.
I was privileged to be in all these new works he was creating, and again, it was my type; this way I had of moving that wasn’t effeminate—but now I could really dance. I actually had technique, so I was very useful.
I danced with him for a couple of years. The company became quite famous because of him, and then I couldn’t deal with him anymore…. We were working at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in residence with Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, and this was 1969.
Alvin Ailey was at a turning point in his career as a choreographer, because his company had been mostly black, untrained dancers. That was fine for “Revelations” and other topics that he had; he could design movement for somebody who wasn’t ballet-trained. But he realized that he was limited by his dancers, and when he did a ballet called “The River” for Ballet Theatre, it took him to another whole plane that he couldn’t do with his own company.
So he decided he wanted to have dancers who were ballet-trained, but modern dancers. He saw a performance by the Feld company, and I saw him a couple of times backstage looking at me, making me feel uncomfortable, and then I got the word that he wanted to see me. I went, and he was rehearsing in this dump with holes in the floor…he said he’d been watching and would I be interested in joining the company. It was an incredible honor, y’know, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said, ‘Well, unfortunately, the company is folding.’
That was his gimmick. He was always folding the company because he knew nobody would let him fold. Somehow or other, the [governing ] board always got the money. The board devised these “diplomatic tours,” so whenever he was down and out with money, he’d go on a diplomatic tour and have work for six months. That’s how he kept his dancers.
So I told him, ‘Well, put it together again and I’m in,’ and I joined the company. It was a brutal schedule. There were 14 of us to carry the whole repertory. Everybody was in everything, every night. We did one-night stands three, four, five months at a time. Every night, every ballet. You got hurt? Too bad. You get out there and you produce. It made you tough, and I made some really good friends; Judy Jamison and Miguel Godreau, two of the great American dancers, and a lot of fine dancers I learned a lot from.
But my body started to give out. You have to remember, you start dancing at eight, you have ten years to build layer upon layer of muscle that makes you so tough. I had been dancing now maybe five years. That’s all I had, and of it, only a year or two was of training.
Plus there was likely little awareness of how to take care of a body in this punishing regimen.
No, there were no doctors, no real therapy. You know, dancers can hurt themselves in places nobody else can. So, finally, I got an injury to my knee, it blew up; I just couldn’t do it anymore. Alvin said, ‘You’re not gonna dance, just because of that?’ ‘Hey, I can hardly fuckin’ walk here!’ ‘Aw, come on.’
But he was a wonderful man, very, very talented—
And clearly a motivator.
Hey, he was black, I was Puerto Rican. I felt a kinship with him as a person. I felt like I belonged there, and it was really disappointing that I had to stop working with the company. Then, one day, he says to me, Alfonso, you should choreograph.
How did he see that in you?
I don’t know. And he said, ‘You should go to Europe, you’d do very well in Europe.’ And I would have done very well in Europe, but then I wouldn’t have met my wife, Janet, who is this incredible woman. Instead, I approached Boston Ballet about coming back to do my macho things, only now I could dance, on the condition that I could choreograph. So I went back as a principal dancer and resident choreographer.
I did my first ballet, “Thoroughfares,” to [composer Igor ] Stravinsky music, the concerto for piano and wind. This would have been in 1971. An incredibly difficult piece of music. I listened to it and it was complicated, a challenge, but I always loved a challenge. I started doing something that I’ve done ever since, that almost no choreographer does: I rewrote the score, measure by measure. Not in terms of note values, but in terms of measures of phrases…. It made the music visual. That was my concept for it, to develop an “A” theme visually, a “B”, a variation on it, whatever.
The only problem with it was that Stravinsky’s kinda hard to keep up with, structure- and melodic-wise. The meter—a measure of five, a measure of six, a measure of ten: a measure of 6/4, 2/4; the meter was always changing, so it really made it difficult.
I didn’t know any better than to start with Stravinsky, but that was my first ballet, and it got “promising.” “One of the more promising things Boston [Ballet ] has done,” was what they said. Then my second ballet was “Changes,” which is what we’re going to do in the program honoring Virginia. It was her favorite ballet. She jokingly once told me that she wanted it performed at her funeral. Prophetic. A little late, but we’re gonna do it.
“Changes” was very well received. There was something instinctive about what I did with that. I wanted to do a very clinical thing, really. I wanted to do three different forms of composition from the same composer, but I picked [composer Johannes ] Brahms, and Brahms doesn’t have three different things. He’s just this romantic, yearning, churning like Rachmaninoff. So I wound up with a first piano sonata, then some lieder, a beautiful song, and I didn’t know where to go from there. So I started working on the second movement without music, and it reminded me of Merce Cunningham.
Merce Cunningham doesn’t use music. I performed two or three of his ballets in Boston, and you don’t even hear the music, if you want to call it that, until the performance, and then it’s ashtrays rubbing together or a cat howling. It’s insane. We’d rehearse for days, weeks—not a sound. The only correction we ever got was, “Could you do it a little faster?” Or, “Could you do it a little slower?”
I remembered that. I didn’t like it, but it stuck. So I started working with the silence of it. Now, the first movement is very romantic, almost clichéd, cavalier. The last movement was a very sad song about love lost. I started working on this thing and the dancers started getting on each other’s nerves. I would try to do something and he would not hold her right, and she’d get pissed off at him and they started arguing and this thing started happening. And I just let it go. And they started getting physical. And that’s how that second movement came to be.
The first movement is now this idealized vision of romance and love, but the second movement is the reality of a relationship. Beneath the surface of any relationship, there’s a power struggle: that’s the synopsis of the ballet. Then the third movement was, logically, a reconciliation; conciliatory, because people who love forgive, and the exercise is futile. So that became a very successful ballet. And what happened at the same time was, I met Virginia Simpson.
She knew somebody in the Boston Ballet who was in Montgomery, performing in one of these regional ballet festivals….Montgomery needed a director, so I went there for an interview, in the house of these very wealthy people, and the interview didn’t go very well. First of all, it’s the Deep South, and I’m going over there like [affects stereotypical Noo Yawk dialect ], ‘Hey, if dat’s whatchew want. I’m yer man, man.’ It wasn’t that bad, but you know, I had still had a bit of that New York thing. And I’m not an egotistical person. I’m just confident of what I can do.
It didn’t go very well, but in the corner of the room, there was this woman sitting. She didn’t say a word, just observing. It was Virginia. And she liked me. She liked what I was saying about what I wanted to do. And I got a call from her in Boston. She invited me to teach at a summer seminar here in Birmingham that they had every year.
Everybody’s usurped it now, but that was one of the first summer seminars. There were a lot of firsts here. Birmingham Ballet was a first, the first professional company in Alabama, one of only three in the Southeast, and a prototype as a repertory touring ballet company: ten dancers, small works, live music. It was a real prototype.
Anyway, she invited me, and at the end of the seminar, she asked me if I would like to be the director of Birmingham Ballet, and, I’m just kidding, I say, No, I don’t wanna be a director. I got this cushy thing over at Boston Ballet, I can do anything I want, I don’t have any responsibilities. She says, why don’t you try it on a part-time basis?
Ballet doesn’t strike me as being particularly part-time.
It isn’t. What I would do is, I would come down weekly and spend two or three days here, the rest of the time I would be in Boston. It’s a lot of miles.
But it was a very prolific time. I was working on a ballet or two in Boston and a ballet or two here at the same time. What went well in Boston, I did here, and I tried what I did here in Boston, so I did about 17 ballets in about five years. That’s a lot of ballets. I’ve only done 27 in my whole life, I think….
It started working. The company started to be something that could have some possibilities. We didn’t have management, so we got New York management, and they said, Wow, this is really interesting, Birmingham, Alabama. They told their colleagues in New York, and we were recruited by Tornay Management, which is one of the top management companies in the country.
So I moved to Birmingham… The company went from zero to 90 in three years. We became a professional company, we were the next hot thing in the dance world. It was all very gritty kinds of things, modern, and we had some classical things, too, because my wife was a brilliant virtuoso, so we could do classical dance, because she could do anything. I wasn’t as good as she was, but I’d partner her; I’d do easy tricks while she did the hard stuff.
We had very rounded programming. Our tours were, like, three or four months, we’d perform, like, every other night….It was a happy time, really, to have found your soul mate. I mean, I had my wife, too, but you can love more than one woman. My wife doesn’t have a problem with that. She loved her, too….
Virginia would come to the studio all the time to watch me work. She’d say, I don’t know about that, or she’d say, don’t touch that, that’s really good. And she was always right…. she was very much a part of the creative process, and she was good at it. She really was my muse.
Where did she get her appreciation of dance?
She just loved dance. She would have loved to be a dancer, but she never had the opportunity. As a young woman, she was just gorgeous, with an Elizabeth Taylor kind of look, and an incredible body. But she didn’t have a dancer’s body. She was very busty, curvy, but she had beautiful legs and feet….
But here’s a woman, has to be one of the wealthiest women in the South, and she’s hanging out with these two kids. We were very, very good friends, and everything was very terrific, except for the fact that Virginia was spending a lot of money. She was practically bankrolling, to the tune of a quarter-million dollars a year, and Joe [Simpson, Virginia’s husband ] didn’t like that.
Maybe there wouldn’t be all that much left for him when she was done, and he knew that and he didn’t like that. He also had a mistress that everybody knew about… Virginia knew it and didn’t really care, because she and Joe, it was all over.
She made a deal to be a Southern belle, but she couldn’t keep her part of the deal, because she wasn’t a Southern belle. She’s not even Southern. She was supposed to do this character thing and she didn’t do it and Joe was furious at her and would rail against her, use the children against her, and it was just a really ugly scene.
I told her once, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave? Why don’t you get divorced? She said, I can’t, he’ll have my money, he’ll get the money. So she couldn’t leave, so she just decided to do whatever good she could do with the money.
What were your impressions of Virginia Simpson as a person?
I loved her. We bonded. She was a mentor and a muse and a patron. She was also a really, really, really good friend.
She was a very sweet person. I never heard her raise her voice or heard her say anything bad about anybody. And she was very generous. I didn’t realize how generous she was, and I thought this was just the way it goes: I would stay at her mansion before I moved here, when I was commuting, and there’d be servants making breakfast, they’d do my laundry. I knew I didn’t want to get used to that, but I didn’t realize the kind of wealth that was there. I’m glad, because I didn’t want to be motivated by that. I was blind, and all I could see was my work. It was all I cared about.
But she was a very kind person, and she wanted me to learn. There’s a movement in the ballet entitled “Lesson.” She wanted me to learn how her world worked. She once told me, “You know, Alfonso, there is only so much wealth in the world. There always has been. It just moves around.” I didn’t understand that at all, until I met Joe, and then I understood what real power was, what real wealth was, and how wealth created power. It was not a good lesson. It was not a pleasant realization.
And he was not a real pleasant person. He once had an argument with a colleague, bought his mortgage and evicted him, threw him and his family out in the street. He was ruthless. He was nice to me, but you knew you couldn’t cross him.
Virginia had my back.
I wish I’d had hers.
She taught me stuff that I never could have learned otherwise, because you can’t go into that world, they won’t let you into that world. Very rich and powerful people will marry rich and powerful people, their friends are rich and powerful people, they don’t know anybody else and they don’t care about anybody else. Virginia was different.
How would you have been able to protect her from that?
Well, you know, I didn’t know a lot about money and power, but I know a lot about how not to get killed. From my upbringing. I can see something coming ‘round the bend, I can sense something. To this day, I have trouble sitting with my back to the door. I’m always looking over my shoulder. I just can’t shake that.
I think if she had told me what was happening…I might have…she was killed at 12:20. I was on the phone with her at 12 o’clock midnight. The killer was in the house while I was speaking to her. He was probably going up the stairs and approaching her door as we hung up.
Most of the time we handled conversations by going over there. At this time, we were having a problem with a general manager who wound up being a drunk and a slob; he got thrown out of his apartment because he wouldn’t put out the garbage and the building was stinking and then he’d always be drunk, and I said we’ve got to get rid of this guy. And I hate to do that. I don’t want to fire somebody. And I said, okay, I’ll do it.
So, ordinarily, I would have gone to her house, but my in-laws were [in town ], and I didn’t want to be rude and leave, so I didn’t go over. Would it have made a difference? I’ll never know.
It was a professional hit.
You don’t go along with the theory that it was the crazy son [“Popsy” Simpson ].
Well, he was interviewing people to assassinate her. That’s what came out at the trial. They found two of the people he had talked to. He was offering them $100,000 to kill his mother. Which was a lot of money; people get killed for twenty bucks, but he was going to get millions. They found these guys, I don’t know how they found them, but the judge discounted their testimony because they were not of “reputable character.” I mean, what the hell, he was going to get a priest to kill his mother? Stupid. No, it wasn’t stupid. It was Joe. It was Joe. Popsy was not going to jail, ever. No son of his. He was a judge, he was a lawyer, his father was a senator, his grandfather—no son of his was gonna go to jail, ever. He just pulled the strings….
I’d left all of that behind, and here is the violence, right here. I couldn’t deal with it. I was so disoriented. Where am I? Am I in Harlem, am I in Birmingham? How does this happen? Compounded by how it happened and who did it, my mind was totally blown.
I pretty much fell apart. The company fell apart. I could have held the company together if I had been emotionally stable, because everybody liked me, the board liked me, they thought I was an amusing, interesting kid who does all this stuff. They were supportive, they were raising money. If I had been able to marshal those resources, the ballet would have gone right on. But I couldn’t do it. I was just totally destroyed, and so was my wife. So we went back to New York, and the thing here just fell apart….
You left Birmingham in 1979. What brought you back?
Cindy [Free, director of Birmingham Ballet Academy ] brought me back. Cindy called me. I had seen her 15, 20 years ago when she was touring with Up With People, and we were living in New York. She was in New York and she said Hi; that was very sweet. I hadn’t seen her since she was about 16, and she was gorgeous. I could see why she was doing well. Then I didn’t hear from her again, for 20 years, and then all of a sudden—it’s Cindy.
She says, I’d like for you to come see what I’m doing. I said okay, I wasn’t working. She told me she wanted to build a professional wing to her school, and I said, sure, I’ll help you with that. I came and saw a performance, and she’d been paying attention. She did excellent performance, on a shoestring, with non-dancers for the most part, and I was really impressed.
I agreed to give her the original repertoire of the Birmingham Ballet, no fee, no royalties, because it’s her inheritance. If she’s going to do the Birmingham Ballet, then those ballets belong to her.
So that’s why I came back. And it’s been very difficult, very emotional. Every place I look reminds me of Virginia….
I have spent the last 30 years trying not to remember this. And now, I’ve put myself in this position where I’m creating a depiction—do you realize how fucked up my head is right now? When I did the death scene…I won’t tell you what it does. Let it be a surprise.
Where do you find the vocabulary in dance to express your feelings about this?
Well, my feelings have nothing to do with dance, really.
But the story you tell in “The Awakening” is the story of you.
Well, I’m a choreographer. I speak with movements. I have a syllabus in my head. I’m a ballet dancer, so I create movement. That’s what I do. I can’t listen to music without choreographing it in my head. I just make the music visual.
[“The Awakening” ] is narrative. This is my first ballet that has a real narrative, but my ballets always insinuate an emotional tone….
The first movement is “Gabriel,” a character that runs through the whole ballet. I went through a turbulent, violent childhood, and I shouldn’t be here. I should have died many times. Why didn’t I die? Because you don’t die until it’s your time, and that’s what “Gabriel” is all about. He protects you and guides you to the next world. And it was Virginia’s time.
Then the next movement is “1955.” East Harlem ghetto, New York City. Parallel to that is Mountain Brook, Birmingham, Alabama, and that’s that family.
Then the next thing is “1971,” in Boston, Massachusetts, and that’s where we met, where we bonded, and that way the awakening happened, an awareness of each other’s worlds. Virginia was a very good person, but she had no idea what I had gone through as a child, what it was like to grow up there, with people still there going through that crap. There’s no reason for that.
There’s no reason for poverty. It’s a contrived state of being, for the purpose of exploiting people, for politics, for money. She taught me that. She made me realize that. She showed me that. It made me very angry.
It had to be an interesting awakening for her. It wasn’t even the other side of the tracks. It was the other side of the world.
And she felt badly, she felt guilty. Her children had everything, they had so much, and I, and others like me, had nothing.
I think one of the big problems with racism is that there’s no interaction. If you get to know an Asian person or a black person, all of a sudden, you see the difference between that person and the next black person and the next Asian person, whatever, you really start to see a difference. My wife is at Harvard Law, and she just experienced this. She’s working with Lani Guinier, who was [a civil rights ] activist in the Sixties, and at first, all black people were looking the same, and now she has changed so much, and she has gone through that awakening, of seeing them more as people. That’s what the awakening was for her.
And for me, it was just to realize that everybody in Virginia’s world wasn’t an evil person, and to learn about that world. I really learned. It was shocking and disgusting, depressing, but I learned it, and I learned to use it in the subsequent companies I had. I learned to control [governing ] boards, to control people and control corporations. I could raise money. I was practicing a Machiavellian doctrine. That was Joe. He’s the one that taught me that. But she showed me how it worked.
Joe Simpson was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. His father trained him to be the king and he was training his son to take the throne. He was protecting the kingdom.
And living in a house that symbolically echoed that.
Oh, it was a castle, it really was. I don’t fault him for that. But Virginia could see that it was wrong. She could see what it was doing to people. She could see that that wasn’t right, that was immoral. He couldn’t see it….
Do you think the performance Saturday will be a catharsis for you?
Boy, I hope to God it is. It’s a difficult thing to carry around for thirty years. But I think she’ll like it. They may have killed Virginia, but they didn’t kill her dream.
Birmingham Ballet presents “The Awakening” as part of the Virginia Simpson Memorial Concert Saturday night, 7:30 PM, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Theatre. Tickets are $25-$45, available by calling 979-9492, or purchasing online at www.birminghamballet.com