The Dance Goodbye
What is life like for a dancer when they can no longer dance? Inspired by Merrill Ashley’s departure from the New York City Ballet a an acclaimed principal dancer, this documentary captures the poignancy of this life turning point. After a struggle to find her next step, today Merrill Ashley travels around the world teaching Balanchine to dance companies which perform his works as she once did. This is the story of any dancer–or, in truth, any one of us–who needs to find their way into a new life.
“The Dance Goodbye” began with a favor for a friend. We are beginning a group to help dancers whose careers are ending. Will you do a program to help us spread the word?
At the time I was an anchor/reporter at 1010 WINS Radio, New York’s all news radio station, with a half hour talk show on Sunday nights. Jacques D’Amboise came as a guest, as did the new director of the organization…Career Transition for Dancers…along with a Broadway chorus dancer who was ending her dance life.
We had a great show.
That was over 25 years ago.
Over time I would go to the Galas that Career Transition For Dancers staged as their annual fundraiser, saw the good work they did, and heard their message. Dancers love what they do. Their dancing years are short, however, and at an age when many of their friends are reaching high points in their work life, the dancer’s work life, as they’ve known it, ends, and they must begin again.
In the late 1990’s, after Ron and I had become independent producers, a postcard from my old friend arrived—from Switzerland—where, as a board member of Career Transition For Dancers, she was at an international gathering aimed at helping dancers into new lives.
We had had such a great radio talk, and the story is so visual—I realized looking at that postcard, the dancer’s end of career story would make a moving film.
At first we thought we would survey many different kinds of dancers. Ballerinas, hoofers, modern. And at different stages of the process. Thinking of retiring, but still dancing. Dancing no longer.
As filmmakers we realized we needed to make a trailer, a short taste of what the longer film would show. To do that, we needed a subject. Someone who would let us tell their story and follow them as they struggled and, ultimately, found their way, we hoped, to a happy new way of living and working.
As luck would have it, one day who should walk past me in the women’s locker room at my gym—but a woman who looked remarkably like Merrill Ashley. Unbelievably, it actually was Merrill Ashley. How perfect, I thought, it would be if she would consent to be the subject for our trailer, and one of the subjects for our film.
Even more perfect was the fact, as I’d read in the newspapers, that Merrill had just danced her farewell performance with the New York City Ballet.
Months went by, however, before I had the confidence to approach her.
One day, in the pool area speaking to a friend of mine, Merrill came along and sat near us. My friend knew her and they said hello. “Do you know Merrill?” he asked. “No,” I answered. “But there is something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”
Merrill agreed to be our subject for the trailer and we were so impressed with her honesty and how emotionally expressive and open she was about her loss, which she likened to being “at sea”, that we decided to tell the larger story through her and her alone.
Friends we called “Dancing Angels” helped us raise the first funds, and we followed Merrill in the first three years after her farewell performance, checking in every few months to see where she was and how she was doing, and whether she had found her “new happiness thing.”
Just as we thought we would begin to edit and launch the fundraising to put us into our final phase, September 11th struck and we felt we had to put aside our plans. The time was not right.
Other projects came along, were filmed and finished. And then we realized we could not leave Merrill or The Dance Goodbye’s story untold. Through a generous donation from a lover of dance and family friend we were able to return to Merrill— to see and film her ten years after retirement— and edit a nearly hour long rough cut. The delay had proven to be a blessing, for in that time Merrill had found her way. First she was asked to teach and coach at New York City Ballet, thus staying in the company where she had been a member for over 30 years. Then, little by little, other ballet companies around the country and around the world invited her in to make sure the Balanchine ballets that they performed were being done in the manner he would have wished. Occasionally, she even still performs in character roles, a return to the stage which she speaks about powerfully.
Now we plan to make our final push and finish our nearly finished film. We do have a distributor who wants to take on the film, which means when we do finish it, it will be seen and have a way to go out into the world.
We look forward now to making our own “transition”…from film producers with an idea for a great film—to film producers with a great film to show the world.
– Eileen Douglas, co-producer
RON STEINMAN began his career at 23 at NBC News and spent 35 years at the network. He moved from copyboy to producing segments and writing for the Huntley Brinkley Report, first in Washington and then in New York in the 1960s, then on to news editor/field producer for the newsmagazine show Chet Huntley Reports. For 3 years he produced documentaries and worked on specials, including space coverage, before being named NBC’s Bureau Chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He also served as Bureau Chief in Hong Kong and London before returning to New York headquarters to oversee the network’s news specials. In 1975 he joined the Today Show, spending 11 years in a number of senior producing positions in Washington and New York, including overseeing production of all the Today Show’s live special weeklong broadcasts from such places as China, Moscow, Seoul and overseas presidential trips. Before leaving NBC in 1992, he spent three years at Sunday Today producing 70 segment reports. During 7 years as a freelance producer for ABC, among other things, he wrote and produced a series of A&E Biography one-hour documentaries on O.J. Simpson, Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Timothy McVeigh, LBJ, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Rockefeller, Armand Hammer, James Earl Ray, Jim Jones, and the Lifetime Television Intimate Portraits on Gloria Vanderbilt and Doris Duke. At ABC, he also produced “Sole Survivor” for the Discovery Channel, and the “Berlin Wall” for the History Channel. Ron produced 3 of the highly rated 6 part series for The Learning Channel on the Vietnam War called The Soldier’s Story, and the follow up “Missing in Action”, which won a National Headliner Award and an International Documentary Festival Award. At ABC, he also produced a two part series for TLC on the Persian Gulf War. He is also the author of the book “The Soldiers’ Story,” published in1999, and “Women in Vietnam,” published in 2000, both by TV Books, and “Inside Television’s First War: A Saigon Journal,” published in 2002 by University of Missouri Press and soon to be published by NBC Publishing as an enhanced eBook. Steinman has won a Peabody Award, a National Press Club award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards, and been nominated for five Emmys. He has been executive editor and columnist for the online magazines the Digital Journalist and the Digital Filmmaker.
EILEEN DOUGLAS most recently worked as a correspondent on ABC TV’s Lifetime Magazine. Before that she spent nearly 18 years at all-news WINS Radio, where she was the midday anchor for ten years, as well as a reporter, editor and writer. During those years, she also worked as a weekend reporter for Channel 5 WNEW-TV, and as a news anchor for the ABC Radio network. Before moving to New York in 1975, she spent six years at WKLO Radio in Louisville, Kentucky, first as an anchor/reporter, and, then as one of the country’s first women news directors. While in Louisville, she was also co-host and producer of “NOW,” a tv show on CBS’s WHAS-TV. She began her career in Syracuse, New York in 1968 as a reporter for the ABC station, Channel 9 WNYS, followed by work as a reporter for the Herald-Journal newspaper. Author of two books, “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” for children about a little girl whose father dies, and “Eileen Douglas’ New York Inflation Fighter’s Guide,” she is a member of New York Women in Film and Television and is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Women, and Who’s Who in Media and Communication. As a partner in Douglas/ Steinman Productions, she currently is at work with Ron Steinman on 97 Orchard for public television.
“An excellent documentary on Merrill Ashley’s career and her goodbye… Bravo! Bravo!” – Jacques d’Amboise, Former Principal Dancer, NYCB & Founder, National Dance Institute
“In this delicate exploration of artistic tradition, a Balanchine dancer facing retirement transforms herself from muse into keeper of the flame.” – Jan Huttner, FF2 Media
“When a dancer wakes up one morning and is no longer a part of the dance community, it’s an incredible loss that is devastating. Yet, transition from a dance career into another career is a journey of rediscovering who you are. ‘The Dance Goodbye’ beautifully shows how that journey plays out by following ballerina Merrill Ashley in a documentary that offers a rare look inside the dancer’s life when the dance, but not life itself, is finished.” – Alexander J. Dubé, President, Career Transition For Dancers
“I’ve always been a huge fan of New York City Ballet ballerina Merrill Ashley, and her transition story will touch the heart of every lover of dance and, more importantly, every dancer who will face this challenge; it certainly touched mine. This project is a must see!” – Chita Rivera, Tony Award Winner & Broadway Legend
“The first woman I ever partnered on pointe with was Merrill Ashley; the passion emanating from her dancing is something I will never forget. To work with someone who has experienced so much with her soul and body was a revelation. This film will inspire and educate artists. She has left a wonderful legacy.” – David Parsons, Artistic Director, Parsons Dance
“Offers both a realistic look at what it means to be a professional dancer, and the assurance that it is worth it. Ashley was a marvelous dancer, noted for her musicality and perfect technique, and seeing her in motion is a rare pleasure indeed.” – Sarah Boslaugh, Playback STL
“Nothing less than thrilling and inspiring.” – Cinesource Magazine