Every night, the crowd packs the theater to see Umberto Rosilini’s masterpiece, Grief. The chorus begins softly, a dark Latin requiem flowing over the crowd, hushing them and drawing their attention to the stage. The dancer slowly enters. She is not beautiful, as one might expect, or at least not in the way a human being is normally beautiful. Of course, she moves with grace, her body is perfectly fit, and her face is exquisite, but none of that mattered. The beauty comes from the fact that this opera was written for her, and only for her. She was made for this performance — only someone who has never felt grief can give it a truthful depiction in art.
First, of course, comes the Denial act. The chorus swells as she drifts in, arms outstretched, dancing with what seems to be an invisible partner, as if she were a widow refusing to believe her lover could possibly be gone. This was everyone’s least favorite act. They cherish the emotional intensity of the later acts, and shift uncomfortably in their seats during the Denial. They have no way of knowing that this is the most authentic stage for the dancer, that this is the closest to the way she feels, or could ever feel. The opera is all she lives for. The other stages are all a testament to her skill as an artist, displaying emotions she has never felt. But of course, it is this very authenticity that makes them so uncomfortable. To them, it simply seems faked.
Electric guitars cut in as she moves to the Anger act. She screams so shrilly that she would break the windows, were they not reinforced. Thrashing wildly onstage, she moves with an intensity of hatred and pain never seen elsewhere, a living whirlwind of unbridled rage. It is, of course, a lie. She has never felt anything approaching the strength of the anger she displays. The most distressed she has ever been was after the death of her benefactor and the writer of the opera, Umberto Rosilini. It wasn’t due to grief for him, however. Though he had raised her from infancy, there was never any love between them. Rosilini was not a cruel or abusive man, but nobody who knew him could claim he was a warm man either. His passion was directed towards his art, and he raised her to be the same way, seeing in her the perfect star for his masterwork. But after Rosilini’s death, the theater was closed for a number of weeks. Without her dancing, she was lost and did not know what to do.
Onstage, she moves into the Bargaining act. Falling on her hands and knees, she cries out to God, pleading for a deal, an agreement, something, anything to bring back her beloved. Here, finally, is something she could begin to understand. Though she has never pleaded with God, she has pleaded with a force that, to her, was just as powerful, and just as capable of destroying her life. After Rosilini’s death, she pleaded with his nephew, the inheritor of the theater, to let her keep performing the opera. He is not an artist like his uncle was. He did not understand. He thought it was cruel, to force her to go through the steps of grief on stage when she must be grieving in real life. She pleaded and bargained and threatened and cajoled, and finally he agreed to let the opera continue. And ever since then, she has performed every night with no interruptions. And it was good that she has — the opera is necessary for society to function. A modern Memento Mori, a reminder to all who watched that death will, in the end, not spare them.
She collapses to the floor slowly, sobbing, ushering in the Depression act. When she first began performing at six years old, the opera was universally panned. The critics denounced it as perverse, placing this young child in such close contact with death. As the years went on, though, Rosilini’s dream began to come to fruition. As she grew into a young woman, the beauty of the work became apparent. It quickly became a national sensation, then an internationally acclaimed masterpiece. It has become a right of passage, to bring a young child on the verge of adulthood to see the dance, for them to learn of their own mortality. And now, 80 years later, by the end of a night’s performance, there is never a dry eye in the theater. Her age makes the performance all the more beautiful, the old woman herself a reminder of death.
Rising from the floor, tears drying, she enters the Acceptance act. She begins to freely dance around the stage as in the beginning, only this time her arms hold no one. She isn’t stupid; she knows what death is and what her dance means. She knows that one day she, too, will die. And she knows that even though there is nobody she will grieve for, there was never anybody she would grieve for, and there will be nobody she will ever grieve for, millions will grieve for her when she is gone. It does not bother her or seem strange. We all live different lives and have different concerns. And to her, the dance is all that matters.