Winter 2020

Secret History: The Unicorn

When the Stevie Eller Dance Theater was completed in 2003, it joined the “All-time Greatest Architectural Achievements in Arizona” list curated by the Arizona chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This architectural wonder was created to house one of the top dance programs in the country, making it a space not only to witness great performances but also to create them.

Enter David Berkey.

Berkey, who began his career as a soloist, was an accomplished choreographer whose work was performed around the world. His dedication to his craft and his students was met by a dance program thrilled to see how his brilliance would unfold on the stage and how he would shape the dance program for years to come. At the grand opening gala of the Stevie Eller Dance Theater, his “In the Garden” stole the show. Berkey was poised to usher in a new era of creative expression, and the audience held its breath for what was next. 

But what happened next is that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. 

Berkey had enough time to choreograph the pieces that bookended the following year’s winter performance, but not enough time to see the culmination of his work on opening night. In the last moments of his final piece, “Unicorn,” which professor of dance Melissa Lowe described as an expression of his thoughts on death, soloist Andrea Day took deep breaths and walked into the woods, alone.

When Lowe asked Berkey how he wished to be remembered, he told her he hoped for something tangible in the Wellness Garden, the green space visible from inside the dance studio. The final moments of Day’s performance sparked the idea of commemorating his legacy with a unicorn. Dance major and sculptor Nancy Pohanic created the sculpture in his honor. 

The inscription matches the quote Berkey included in the program for the performances of his final works: “To discover a unicorn is to find eternal peace and beauty.”