Requiem For A Dancer, Revived

May 19, 2016

We originally ran this story last year when Dance Now Miami first performed Edward Stierle's "Lacrymosa." The ballet was a response to the 1980 AIDS crisis and stands as its creator's own requiem. The company will perform the ballet again on Monday, May 29 at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach, in conjunction with the World Out Games, which celebrates LGBTQ sports and culture. This year, the lead role will be danced by Harold Berry. Berry will perform the solo from the dance on Thursday, June 1 as part of Pulse Points, an evening remembering the victims of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando last year. The Gay Men's Chorus of Miami will sing from Mozart's Requiem, the music to which "Lacrymosa" is set.

People told Edward Stierle he was too short for ballet. He was around 5'6" or 5'8", depending on who you ask. He'd been dancing tap and jazz since he was four or five years old, with his big sister Rosemarie teaching his first classes. But he had a calling for ballet. 

His dad didn't like the idea one bit. "I said, 'No, no, no ballet. What are you crazy?'" remembers Bill Stierle, who tells people to call him Pop. Tears well up in his eyes  and his throat catches when he remembers that first reaction. He came around though.

Rosemarie helped convince her parents that her brother had talent that needed to be fostered. They agreed to sign him up for ballet classes, but there was the issue of gas money. The Stierles and their eight children lived in in Hollywood, Florida and the ballet teacher was in Hialeah. Pop was the maintenance man at Chaminade, the all-boys Catholic school. Rose, Edward's mother, ran the lunchroom at the girls school, Madonna. She ended up getting another job cleaning their church, "so that $25 went into the gas tank to get Eddie to Hialeah," she remembers, laughing. 

Bill Stierle threw his support behind his son's dancing too. He proudly accompanied him to competitions. Once, he says, somebody doubted Edward would be able to lift his dance partner. "He said, 'You're not gonna make it buddy, you're just too small.' And so Eddie picked this girl up, walked around the room with her over his head, brought her over to the guy, set her right down in front of the guy, smiled and then walked away."

Dance Now Miami dancers Anthony Velasquez and Allyn Ginns rehearse the pas de deux from Stierle's "Lacrymosa."

Edward Stierle left Florida when he got a scholarship to go to high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. When he won gold at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, according to the New York Times, the jury "spent hours deliberating whether it was fitting to award the top prize to a dancer who in their view didn't have the idealized physique of a classical dancer." 

By the time he was 18, Stierle was invited to join the Joffrey Ballet, one of the pinnacles of American dance. He had already choreographed  a solo set to Mozart's Requiem, and when he joined the Joffrey, he was asked to make it into a full-length ballet.

Just before he turned 19, he tested positive for HIV, and his dance, "Lacrymosa," became a reaction to the 1980s AIDS crisis. Many dancers and artists around Stierle were dying from the disease, and as he worked on the ballet, he knew he would become sick too. 

At a rehearsal for "Lacrymosa," Stierle's sister, Rosemarie Worton, sits on a folding chair next to her parents, talking to the dancers from Dance Now Miami about some of the motivation behind the piece. "How do you leave the people you know? How do you accept death? ... The ballet is acceptance," she says. Pop quietly adds, "To the end."

Worton continues explaining her brother's intentions for this dance. "Live with vibrancy. ... You know, even as he passed he would say, 'Are you going to be OK? Life goes on. Keep moving. Keep going.'" The dancers sit on the floor, looking up at her and choking back tears.  

After "Lacrymosa" premiered, a Washington Post critic wrote, "... there's assuredly promise here, and more than reason enough to await future Stierle endeavors optimistically."

Those words are heartbreaking, looking back and knowing what was about to happen. Stierle choreographed one more ballet,"Empyrean Dances." He died three days after its premiere at Lincoln Center. He was 23.

The critics did in fact seem heartbroken. In the Los Angeles Times, Martin Bernheimer wrote,  "'Lacrymosa' should have been ... a footnote to a long, fascinating career. It should have served as an eclectic starting point for a creative spirit that could have developed in any number of valid directions." In the New York Times, Diane Solway called him a "daring virtuoso." Soloway later wrote a biography about Stierle; at the rehearsal in Miami, his parents gave gift-wrapped copies of the book to each dancer.

After Stierle died, his father, who at first was so averse to his son pursuing a life in ballet, traveled around the country talking to young people and raising awareness about AIDS. "It's still forefront in our lives," he says, "and it's got to be addressed. That's all there is to it."

The significance of staging this ballet in South Florida is manifold, says Dance Now Miami co-director Hannah Baumgarten. Stierle was from here, of course. But also, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have some of highest rates of new HIV cases in the country. "That's not something we should be proud of," says Baumgarten. “Survival is possible with the virus. People are forgetting that it's something that does need to still be faced, especially in our communities."

Click here for information about the performance on Monday, May 29, 2017. 

Click here for information about Pulse Points on June 1, when the solo from "Lacrymosa" will be performed as part of an evening remembering the victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year. Forty-nine artists will mark the 49 lives lost.

Find out more about Edward Stierle:

A Dance Against Time: The Brief, Brilliant Life of a Joffrey Dancerbiography by Diane Solway

Mustering Creative Power in the Face of Death, The New York Times

A Dance of Life : 'Wake-Up Call' Forces Joffrey Star to Redirect PrioritiesNewsday (via the L.A. Times)

Stierle Dedicates His 1988 Work 'Lacrymosa' to Joffrey's Memory, Los Angeles Times