“Look Homeward, Angel,” the 544-page bildungsroman by Thomas Woolf, was meant to steer a course back to one’s childhood town, and to make some sort of peace with it. For dancer and choreographer Marla Blakey, her childhood years were arguably too nomadic for her to pinpoint a base: Born in D.C., raised in Boston, with plenty of summer vacations in the post-and-beam house her mother built at the corner of Wing Road and Tradewinds in Oak Bluffs, Marla’s sense of place was constantly changing. Her dance and choreography career brought her to Atlantic City, then Los Angeles, and all over Europe, then back East to a year’s contract with the Wang Center in Boston, and several productive years of theater projects in scenic Newburyport.
But wait. There’s one more key geographical element. Back in New York in 1949, Marla’s mother, a pastor’s daughter (“She was drop-dead gorgeous!” says Marla today), met jazz singer Ruble Blakey, and a passionate but brief romance yielded baby Marla. Papa Blakey sailed away to spend decades in Paris as he organized the American jazz concerts that the French so dearly love. “He knew Josephine Baker!” Marla says, beaming with pride.
Marla was 12 when she begged her mother to send her to Paris to meet her dad. She crossed the Atlantic by plane, all by her breathlessly expectant self. “My dad’s life revolved around work, women, and wine. We lived in the brothel neighborhood of the Place Pigalle, and I got to know all the prostitutes. I loved every minute of it!”
You can’t export a minor to Europe and expect that her life won’t be profoundly changed by it. Henry James once wrote to a friend’s son on the occasion of his graduation, and here I’m paraphrasing (and who has the chutzpah to paraphrase Henry James, but here goes): “See Europe before you are one-and-twenty, my son. You may visit after that age, and you will have a splendid time, but it will never achieve the same magic as a visit during an earlier year.”
Marla was enraptured by French culture. She has returned time and time again, and even come close to living there as she choreographed dances in Amsterdam, London, Germany, and Italy. But her enduring dream is to pull up stakes, even here on this enchanted isle, and live in France for the duration. The end.
“I’m so grateful for the tremendous support and love from people on the Island, but I’ve wanted to live my golden years — who named them ‘golden,’ for crying out loud? — in France, where my father lived in the ’50s and ’60s.” Papa Blakey died in 1990, and Marla journeyed once again to her beloved home-away-from-home to scatter his ashes along the Seine and in the artists’ hillside neighborhood of Montmartre.
Marla herself chuckles at how long she’s expressed this desire out loud; when she runs into people she hasn’t seen in a long time, they invariably ask, “When did you get back from France?” or “How long are you here for?” In response she says, “So sorry! God knows I’m trying to leave!” And now an opportunity has arisen. Her friend Beth Shorter Bagot — mother Vera Shorter is well known and much loved in Oak Bluffs — lives in a farmhouse with her husband outside the town of Sancerre in southern France, and has invited Marla to come stay for an indefinite period of time.
Today Marla sits amid packing boxes in her beautiful inherited home on Wing Road, which resembles, in fact, with its wood floors, posts and beams, art galore, and lace curtains, a farmhouse in France. From the den, the exquisite sounds of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” waft throughout the downstairs.
“I deeply loved the blood, sweat, tears, and excitement that my mother had for this Island when she built this house. I’ve done my best to respect and honor her in taking care of it. I can’t afford to live here much longer, with only seasonal work, and only so many art, dance, and theater projects. I’ve had the house on the market, but I’ve run into resistance from family. Sound familiar?”
Meanwhile, the paintings and sculptures she’s collected, with passionate intent, from Island artists, adorn walls, shelves, and mantles — work by Washington Ledesma, Ella Tulin, Janice Frame, Louisa Gould, Ed Schulman, Loïs Mailou-Jones, Myrna Morris, “and the list goes on and on!” she says with a burst of laughter. “You could buy a new piece every day, and I would if I could!”
“For now there is no longer a Plan A,” she explains — and I believe a lot of us feel this same pinch at this time in our national history — “so Plan B, by the grace of God, is to see France by September of 2017.”
So many of us know and love Marla, and we’ll miss the bejesus out of her, but if you run into her on the street, hug her tight, try to invite yourself for a visit to Sancerre with tact — offer to stay in an Airbnb nearby — hug her again, and be sure to get her snailmail address. In the old school, Olde Europe tradition, she has no email, no cell phone, and if she’s lucky, will never glance at a newspaper again.