THE LUCIEN SHOW
One day five years ago, Lucien Wulsin was walking down the hallway at the Naropa Institute. By then his white hair had grown out into a ponytail, and he'd abandoned the suits that had seen him through several distinguished roles: attorney, CEO of Baldwin United Corporation, chairman of the board of the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities. Instead, he was wearing tights, which simply made more sense in a workplace where just about everyone meditated daily.
For the second time in his life, he was chairman of an institute of higher education. The first had been at the University of Denver, where he headed the board from 1978 through 1982. But Naropa was a very different learning experience--a fact made abundantly clear when visiting dance instructor Jeff Bliss stopped Lucien in the hallway.
"He told me he was doing an intergenerational dance thing," Lucien remembers. "He said, `I'd like you to be a senior in one of my dances.'"
At 72, Lucien was certainly senior enough for the job, but he wasn't going to take it without some prompting. "I'd never done anything like that in my life," he says. "Are you kidding?" asks Lucien's oldest son, also named Lucien. "My father is a dancer, all right, and he has always gloried in it. Back in the late Fifties, when the parties started happening, he just plunged in and started doing the twist. I was probably 13, he was 42 or 43. I remember being regularly embarrassed."
Despite a fondness for the frug and square dancing displayed on summer vacations, the elder Lucien still thought intergenerational modern dance was beyond his abilities. Luckily, he had no choice in the matter.
"Part of the Naropa tradition is, you're on the spot," Lucien explains. "If someone asks you to do something, you do it." Even if you're chairman of the board.
So the next day Lucien reported for rehearsal, where Jeff asked him to reflect on this question: Have you ever had a confrontation with an inanimate object?
"I said, `Yes, I ran over a German tank in World War II and it blew up and I was injured,'" Lucien remembers. "`Is that what you mean?'"
"Yes," Jeff replied, "and that's your dance."
Although the war left Lucien's ankle all but frozen, over the intervening decades he'd rarely mentioned his injury. Now Jeff wanted him to convey the tenor of those times through a very simple body motion--a process that turned out to be far from simple. "Actually, it was very painful," Lucien says. "It took quite a while before I could make it through rehearsal without crying."
Then came his stage debut in Jeff's dance concert, which Lucien remembers mainly for the "moment of terror when I finished my dance and stood and waited to see what the audience would do." What the audience did was applaud, as Lucien is happy to tell you.
"It was very powerful," he says, "so powerful that I had a family reunion for my five children and did my dance for them."
"I sure remember that," says Lucien's second-oldest son, Harry. "He put on his Balinese costume--but then, my father always loved dressing up; he could have been the original cross-dresser. I sat there thinking, Now what's he going to do? But he began to talk and dance, and it meant so much to him that I got a great deal out of it. He's always been different, but this was the first time the spiritual side of him was brought out."
"I guess no one expects his father to put on a Balinese crane costume and dance," says the younger Lucien, "but with my father, you take whatever happens. He began to relive the experience of the war, and the sense that he almost died came across so poignantly it brought me nearly to tears. And then I felt a great deal of joy for who he is and what he's been through."
"I had a wonderful time," Lucien says simply. "I felt as if I were opening several different parts of my past and could talk to my children about it."
Another man might have seen this as reason to delve further into his past--with three ex-wives, eleven offspring (his own, as well as current and former stepchildren) and multiple careers, there was plenty of material to explore--but what Lucien really wanted to do was dance. Instead of introspecting, he got a gig as an extra at the Colorado Dance Festival. There he met Alana Shaw, whose Turning the Wheel dance company would become his home troupe. By then Lucien had decided that "body movement is an inherent part of how humans express themselves, and just because you're aged doesn't mean you shouldn't."
In fact, Alana says, if her company recognized the star system at all, Lucien would be at its zenith. "I knew instantly that he was a powerful, powerful performance energy," she recalls. "I mean, he was a 72-year-old man trying to keep learning with every pore of his body."
Joining Alana's company was Lucien's final step away from what he calls his "old, conventional world." His new world--Boulder, Naropa and dance--was young, too young to have many conventions. Here he was recognized not for his business acumen but for the "part of me that really wants to express itself and has nothing to do with how I look."
At 77, Lucien does look good. But he says he's just beginning to realize he spent much of the past four or five decades "addicted to living in a youthful way," and now he's trying to get past it.
"Even the way he looks at dying is youthful," says a longtime friend. "Lucien Wulsin is preparing for dying the way some teenage girls get ready for the prom."
"I've always characterized him as having the hummingbird approach," Harry says of his father. "He goes from one flower to the next--businesses, women, things to be fascinated with. But he never sucked the juice out of anyone. He always enriched or pollinated, and moved on."
Lucien does not spend a lot of time discussing the past: He's obsessed with what's happening now. His children are much more interested in his history than Lucien is.
Harry thinks his father probably would like to have been a performer from the start, but in the Baldwin piano dynasty of Cincinnati, Ohio, such frivolity was frowned upon. "He probably thought it wasn't as serious and respected as his family would have liked," Harry theorizes. "There was a lot of contact with artists, but it was never expected that the children would be anything but serious people. The good thing," he laughs, "is that it didn't take."
But it wasn't for lack of trying. Lucien went from Harvard to the Army to the University of Virginia law school, and then to a legal practice in Cincinnati. His first wife produced four children in five years. The marriage lasted just nine more, but the children remained close to their father, who spent a month with them each summer in Maine.
"Growing up, it felt like he was this enormous sun and we were all little satellites," Harry says. "We always had our share of attention, and we were always being dragged into his life. All my life I have wondered what he would do next."
"He did the corporate thing," remembers Lucien's oldest daughter, Jeannie Bennett. "But if he got in a good mood, he'd dance around the living room. In the summer he took us to Maine and wore blue jeans, and it never mattered where you went with Dad, you were always on tour."
"He always loved being out on the edge," agrees the younger Lucien. "He was a serious businessman and a pillar of the community and all of that, but that didn't matter."
In 1959 Lucien divorced his first wife and decided to make peace with his father--whom he still considers "a very dominating man"--by going to work for Baldwin. When his father died the next year, Lucien became CEO. By the mid-Seventies the company had branched out under Lucien's direction, acquiring ten Colorado banks so that competition from Japanese piano builders would not decimate Baldwin business. Lucien and his third wife, Pamela, moved to Colorado in 1975 and quickly became known in horsey set/symphony circles. Two years later Lucien joined the board of the University of Denver.
"I had gotten interested in how people learn things," he explains, "particularly how to play the piano. I mean, how could you sell people pianos if they didn't keep playing them?"
"He took risks," the younger Lucien says. "They were important to his happiness, and life does involve a certain amount of risk and pain."
The official risk for 1981, the year Lucien turned 65, was retiring from Baldwin and becoming chairman of the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities, with Ellen Sollod as his executive director.
"He was a real businessman who wore a suit, but I also remember him in a hula skirt on one occasion," she recalls. "He had a wonderful sense of wonder and enthusiasm. At the same time, things really got done, even though I sometimes felt like I was with this ephemeral being."
Seldom was Lucien more ephemeral than the day in 1983 when he traveled to Colorado Springs to attend a creativity workshop Ellen had organized for the council. "I was very concerned that we remember we were dealing with art, not politics," she explains. "I wanted them to experience creativity for themselves, to have a real sense of why they were in this business."
To make this happen, she invited Barbara Dilley, then a member of the Naropa Institute dance faculty who specialized in nontraditional dance as well as Tibetan Buddhism (as taught by the late Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche), to help the group create some kind of interactive work. "And this," Ellen adds, "was before the word `interactive' was cool."
Lucien warmed to the concept immediately. "And that made it a magic event," Ellen says, "because Lucien met Barbara, and that changed the world." Barbara remembers introducing the group to an exercise she calls Red Square. "I put a piece of half-inch macrame material onto the floor and looked inside it," she explains (vaguely). "On that day, Lucien and I ended up in the square together dialoguing in fairly Dadaesque fashion. He was quite fearless and willing to play. And he was fun."
It did not escape Barbara Dilley's notice that Lucien was also a crack administrator--of everything from multinational corporations to foundations to institutes of higher learning. In 1984, when she was appointed--"as a total shock," she adds--to the Naropa presidency, Lucien was one of the first people she called.
"He got very curious about how someone like myself was going to be president," Barbara remembers. "It piqued his interest, coming out of the world of traditional business culture and its ambitions. I didn't display any of those signs and symbols."
She asked Lucien to tell her what to do. Before long, Barbara says, "he began coming up to Boulder to hang out." One of the big decisions facing the school was whether Naropa should push for accreditation and become the country's first official Buddhist university. Lucien favored the move, and made such a convincing case that Barbara thought it wise to introduce him to Chogyam Trungpa. The meeting was held over what she remembers as "a very traditional, formal tea. They were both very comfortable in that kind of ceremony."
"What was Rinpoche like? It depended," Lucien says. "He could be drunk or sober, intuitive or artistic or writing poetry--but he was always fascinating."
He was also decisive. Lucien suggested that the Naropa Institute be run by a board of directors that was separate from the Buddhist community. Trungpa decided he was absolutely right. "And you," he said to Lucien, "will be chairman of the board."
"I suppose I could have said no, but I was intrigued," Lucien says.
His then-wife was not. "It signaled a change in values to her," Lucien recalls. "She was threatened."
Lucien began spending more and more time in Boulder. In 1987 he signed up for a course in contemplative meditation. By the time he completed it, his marriage was over.
"I thought, well, life is short. Why stay when someone doesn't want you?" he says. "I could not go back to the world I used to live in, anyway."
By the end of his seventh decade, Lucien had stumbled into a brave new world. "He had begun inhabiting Naropa quite fully," Barbara Dilley recalls. "He looked and listened and watched and told people what he saw. And he made friends. It didn't matter if they were faculty or trustees or students; he didn't seem to care."
Because he could talk with any of them about the revelations he was experiencing. "It has to do with masks," he struggles to explain. "We wear the masks to cover ourselves. It's pretty easy to think we're immune from all this. But we're not! The whole contemplative tradition is that only through understanding yourself can you acquire a real education. It was the wake-up call I heard! Hey, dum-dum, wake up!"
Fully awake, Lucien moved to Boulder with a young female companion--the first of several--"because," he says, "what the hell was the point of the drive from Denver?" And friends from Lucien's fundraising/society days started making that drive, in twos and threes, to see just what the hell Lucien was up to in Boulder. Some understood, some didn't.
"I even went back to Denver sometimes," Lucien says. "I like Denver. It's a nice place to visit. But it's very clear that I'm here now and I belong here." He kept meditating and signed up for a course entitled "The Psychological Tasks of Old Age." As Victoria Howard, who started the class and still teaches it, remembers, "He just showed up. He had this list of titles, but it's never been the main thing, because he doesn't think of himself that way."
Designed as part of Naropa's master's program in contemplative psychology, Victoria's course requires that each student spend two hours a week cultivating a friendship with what she calls an "elder." "It's quite a relative term," 48-year-old Victoria says. "It covers about a forty-year span. In my class the elders are really the mentors of the students."
But since Lucien, despite his age, had presented himself as a student, he was assigned an elder of his own--none other than Chogyam Trungpa's mother-in-law. "She was actually the same age as Lucien," Victoria remembers. "She was ill with Parkinson's, but they had a great deal to talk about--reminiscing about World War II, for instance. And what dawned on Lucien was that he himself was old--which he hadn't realized before."
In typical Lucien fashion, old age became a brand-new reason to be fascinated. "I said, hey, why can't we create a program or something?" he remembers. "Maybe we should care for the frail elderly." Or, he thought, Naropa could concentrate on the deep--not to mention inevitable--subjects of death and dying in a more intellectual way.
"Most of us deny death," he muses. "But to be able to look at and deal with your own death really frees you to live life more fully."
Two years after Lucien first sank his teeth into the issues of aging, Naropa's master's program in gerontology was born. A combination of basic skills and contemplative Buddhist theory and practice, the program is a remarkable departure from any other gerontology studies. Its first thirteen students graduated last year. "They get the contemplative view of the aging process," says Victoria Howard, "but they also get great management training, and Lucien, naturally, provides some of that."
So today, when Naropa students see Lucien in the hallways, some know him as a teacher. Others know him as the engaging elder who rarely misses a performance, whether it's music, poetry, dance or something far more esoteric--which is never hard to find at Naropa. Most of them, however, know him as a dancer.
Boulder dancer/choreographer Alana Shaw had spent years performing ballet, modern and jazz dance--not to mention attending to three husbands and seven children--before she decided the traditional dance world would never work for her. "People are mostly better off doing their own dance," she says, and with this in mind, she formed Turning the Wheel, a dance company in which all ages, body types, genders, training levels and anything else Alana can think of are thrown together.
Alana asked June Sampson, now 73, to join her company five years ago. "I couldn't imagine dancing," June says. "I loved using my body, but to dance? Out of joy or exuberance?"
Or out of personal experience. At one of June's first rehearsals, Alana gave her dancers paper and pencils and asked them to write down "how you feel about sex, how you feel about men, how you feel about yourself," June recalls. "I loved it. And then she would pick out fragments from what we said and help us to make a simple motion."
One of June's efforts was a sinuous, sideways walk she developed from this sentence: When I was sixteen, I would run my hands over my body and think, how could anyone possibly resist me? That went so well she went on to create pieces about the power of older women, whom she calls "crones," and about sex, which she considers "the finest thing God ever invented."
The first time June was paired with Lucien on stage, she says, "we made a kind of a circle around the group of dancers and sort of made love to each other across a wide circle." The unofficial reviews were overwhelmingly positive, June says, particularly the comment she considers "the bane of Lucien's existence: that he and I belong together, which we most definitely do not. What we do have in common are a verve for life and an interest in everything that counts.
"But I think I'm more level and serene with where I really am," she adds. "I mean, at parties he still walks up to the prettiest and youngest woman in the place. For a while there, he was hanging on to youth in a tenacious way."
"Yes, he has a knack for falling in love," agrees Victoria, "and when he falls in love with his world, it's a lot safer than when it's a young woman. But he can't help it. He's a romantic figure and he loves women."
"Through the Keyhole," Lucien's first piece for Turning the Wheel, was less about his lifelong infatuation with women than it was about the frustrations of loving them. "When I wrote it, I was thinking about a woman I knew who did not enjoy sex unless she had had alcohol," he explains. "One morning I had an erection, which happens to men in the morning, you know, and I reached over to touch her and she said get that goddamn hand away from there. That's the phrase I was thinking about. That's why, in the dance, I slap my own hand and then throw it away and then point to my dick. I wrote it all down, and Alana said, `Use it.'"
Lucien recently performed his piece as part of "Paper Doll Shadows," an evening of dance at the Schwayder Theatre, but says he no longer feels the emotion that drove him to write it in the first place.
"Exactly," says Alana. "He moved beyond that. It's still a part of the overall dance, but he doesn't need it anymore."
Which is why Lucien would just as soon quit performing "Through the Keyhole." "I'm not interested in anger and resentment anymore," he says. "I'm just not there."
Where Lucien is right now, three days after the last performance of "Paper Doll Shadows," is in bed, recovering from a hernia operation. He is lying flat on his back, his long white hair spread out over the pillow. Visitors who ask him a respectfully inane question such as "How are you?" receive an answer much like this: "Well, I am experiencing pain! I am dealing with it! I even learned something about pain pills, or about getting off them, because it turns out that they make me incredibly constipated, so I tried a tea called Smooth Move, which worked like a charm! You have to try it!"
In other words, for Lucien even surgery is something of an adventure, and when a male student nearly sixty years his junior arrives, he and Lucien spend a happy five minutes comparing hernia scars. His bedroom is so popular that at times Lucien must ask that the tide of visitors be stopped. His living room is full of young, mostly female Naropa students--all hoping for a gerontology lecture, even if Lucien has to deliver it while lying flat on his back. The idea so fascinates Lucien that he decides to get out of bed and discuss the care of the "frail elderly," with whom he clearly feels only a tenuous bond.
Downstairs, Barbara Dilley, who lives in an apartment in Lucien's house, offers a theory about that. "What Lucien identifies with, actually, is the crane," she says. "They had a party for me when I stopped being president of Naropa, and Lucien put on a crane mask and a deep maroon cape and did this crane dance for me, and he actually laid an egg, which he gave me. It's a beautiful Ukrainian egg of life."
"Well, that crane is me, in a way," Lucien says. "I think man has an innate attraction to birds because they represent what we can't achieve, and that is flight."
Which reminds him of his most recent dance piece. Now that he's no longer reliving the pains of World War II and sexual rejection, he's thinking about birds more than ever--to the point of creating another simple, powerful body motion. The inspiration came to him on a recent trip to the Falkland Islands, he says, where he discovered albatrosses.
"They would lay eggs, and the males and females would take turns sitting on them," he recalls. "I saw them shuffle to the edge of the precipice and fall over and float out onto the air. The more wind there is, the better they fly, and if they sleep at all, they sleep on the wing. On our way to Antarctica I saw them off the end of boat. They were riding the wind, floating back and forth, as if they were doing a perpetual dance. I found that wonderful.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.