I first met my friend Bill Olen at the strangely named “International Stage Movement Institute” in Dallas Texas in the summer of 1971. We had come to drink from the well of movement innovation and weren’t sure what it was we were looking for. The first time I saw Bill he was wearing very brief shorts and a tattered Tshirt (very stylish at the time) and was pressing from a free standing handstand to a headstand. I was completely stunned. There was a complex combination of movements and yoga asanas that followed - which I later found out was a famous system popularized by Grotowski as theatre exercises. I was super impressed and intimidated, particularly when this impressive display was completed with Bill sitting in full lotus, a big smile on his face with that big crown of curling hair that looked so God-like.
But as I got to know Bill over the summer and to make friends with him and our entire little covey of movement disciples, I came to know his wild laugh, his willing heart and his wicked sense of humor.
We ended up with a small group of people gathered from this beginning in Dallas and moved to New York to study with a crazy man named Don Becque. For a year, we met every day and danced, improvised, moved, yelled, laughed, fought and struggled with each other. It was a life changing experience that took us all deeper into relationship with each other and with ourselves.
The 1970s were a time of plenty of tough guy attitude. We were still being 1960s “cool” with that overlay of what we considered danger and daring. We thought we were Gods. We ran and danced through the streets of New York. We performed Tai Chi on the rooftops of buildings. We plucked furniture and clothing from the curbs of the upper East Side on garbage day. We lived on nothing and performed anywhere that would have us.
We continued our adventures - one by one vacating New York for Atlanta Ga. One of our number became director of a dance company that performed and taught through the Artist in the Schools program. Bill joined that company, and again, we were off and running, dancing moving, arguing, living on nothing.
In subsequent years, we argued philosophy, psychology, religion, moved into and out of religious cults and movements. We shared books and stories. We were friends.
Bill moved out West - we lost touch but then regained contact. We were friends.
“The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the self nor of the other: the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
[© - David Whyte]
We were relecting one another - challenging one another - keeping our secrets, protecting our facades. We were friends because we shared a vision of what we could become at a time of life when everything was becoming.
As he has now passed in to greater life, I remember my friend and salute the strange and particular human being who he always was. Isn't it odd how each of us has a very particular window on the world? It is our own window and once it closes, there will never be quite that same perspective on human life on planet earth. Bill could be exasperating and provocative. He could be difficult to communicate with and to get to know. But over the years I came to trust the goodness of his heart and his intentions. As a dancer and an artist his eye and sense of motion and flow was impeccable.
Bill wasn't religious and he wasn't sentimental. It is right to remember him as a kind of cosmic Zen character who could laugh at his own and others' absurd ways. We both believed in an improvised life and philosophy informed by attention and awareness. We both grew up with a kind of understanding of life itself as theatre and performance.
In almost all of my memories of Bill, we are laughing. Not just a little bit, but hard, and continuously. It’s how I love to think of and remember him.
Such a cliche, but the years do fly by and vanish so quickly. There comes a time where there is a mere handful of human beings remaining who remember us as the fiery creatures of light that we briefly evidenced in our youth. Particularly as dancers, that gift and skill that is most ephemeral, we remember the grace of our peers and the few hours that we shone in a tiny spotlight.
Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!—
A Friendship Blessing
May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where there is great love,
warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship. and affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
May they bring you all the blessings, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with the friends of your soul.
— Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom