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In Memoriam – John Todd

Tribute by Gillian Ebersole, '20

It would be impossible to honor John Todd without first acknowledging the way he maintained deeply personal relationships with everyone he encountered. From the accompanist in class to auditioning students, John had a knack for making people feel special. And, we believed it. 

Everyone who met John felt as if they knew him, and yet after he passed, I realized I had so many questions I never asked. It was so easy to get caught up in the rituals of his ballet and Musical Theatre classes, forgetting there was a world outside of those precious spaces.

John had a sense of reverence for space and for habit. He conducted every ballet class the same, always stood in the same place to take attendance, Listerine strips and orange hydroflask in hand. In Musical Theatre, I would pull him out a chair and he would always ask, “Is this for me?” and then make sure the chair was perfectly centered. 

But as predictable and regimented as John was, he never failed to surprise us. Once a semester, we were subjected to his intense “marathon” barre. Only once in four years did he include a cartwheel in an adagio. When we sang solos in Musical Theatre, he would call on us in a seemingly random order – we knew our time to sing was coming, but we never knew when. 

As we transitioned to virtual classes in March of 2020, many of us moved home. Before I left Los Angeles, I sent John a desperate email (it was always a toss-up if he would respond) where I embarrassingly conveyed how much his mentorship meant to me over the years. It was a little over-the-top, but in hindsight, I am so grateful I reached out to him when I did. He did respond, and his fiercely hopeful spirit reigned. “This is not the end,” he told me.

I think many of the dancers at LMU leaned on John as a light in the darkness of last March. When he passed, I did not know how to continue. During one of our Zoom Musical Theatre classes after, my friend and classmate Tippy Dringman acknowledged how much we had all depended on John as a beacon of hope, and that now, “We have to lean on each other.”

I think we have. I feel a kinship with my graduating class of 2020 that has stood the test of the last year. Despite isolation and the distance between us, there have been Zoom wine nights and birthday parties. We celebrate each other’s triumphs, even from afar, and look toward a future where we can dance together again. 

I do not want to make light of the grief. It still lingers. I do want to thank John for giving us his spirit until the very end and then some. We have recordings of our final Zoom classes with him, and sometimes I find myself rewatching them to remember his voice. How he would always say the key to any difficult ballet step was to “just decide” to do it. How he told us “don’t clean up” when we would get emotional in Musical Theatre. 

There was nothing we couldn’t do in John’s eyes. I believed him. Most of the time, I still do.