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The story behind UA’s unicorn statue

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Carmen Valencia and Carmen Valencia and Carmen Valencia and Carmen Valencia | The Daily Wildcat The unicorn statue, sculpted by Nancy Pohanic, by the dance building on Sunday, May 8.

Fifteen years ago, on Halloween night 2004, a young girl dressed as a unicorn rang the doorbell of David Berkey’s house. Berkey was a professor of modern dance at the University of Arizona. As she walked away with candy in her bag, she could not have imagined the impact her visit would have, according to Melissa Lowe, a professor of dance and a friend of Berkey. 

Berkey joined UA's School of Dance in 2003 and instantly became a favorite among students and faculty alike.

“In David's short time with our program, he contributed powerfully as an educator of dance,” Lowe said. “The dancers at that time who were fortunate to study under David, could feel that they were working under the hand of a genius in the dance world.”

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In 2003, when the School of Dance was planning a performance to celebrate the opening of the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, everyone agreed that Berkey had to choreograph a piece. 

The piece, a male-female duet, was called "Within the Bending of an Arm." Shortly after the theatre's opening and the piece's premiere, Berkey was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. 

“The prognosis was grim,” Lowe said in an email. “In the months that followed, he faced his battle with grace, humility and courage, still coming into the studio to teach and choreograph right until the very end.”

His final piece, titled “Unicorn,” examined his emotions and preparation for death through a female solo dance. The quote printed on the program read: “To Discover A Unicorn Is To Find Eternal Peace and Beauty.”

Unfortunately, Berkey would pass away before the premiere.

On Oct. 31, 2004, Berkey’s parents and brother, who had flown in from out of state, gathered by his bedside. Berkey had asked his mother to buy some candy for any trick-or-treaters that might come by the house that night.

Berkey passed away that afternoon.

“[Later] on that Halloween night, as his family gathered together in David's home, grief-stricken from his passing earlier that same afternoon, the doorbell rang with the first of the trick-or-treaters,” Lowe said in an email. “David’s brother, Steve, still drying his tears moved towards the door and opened it to see a tiny child, a little girl.”

At first, Steve did not recognize the child’s costume.

“Oh, you are a beautiful dragon,” Steve said to the girl.

"No! I am a Unicorn!” she replied.

“It's as though David had sent a messenger, in fact, a unicorn for his family to discover,” Lowe said in an email. “When I and my husband heard the story the next day, we knew immediately, the tribute we would create to honor David's legacy would be a Unicorn.”

Before his passing, Lowe talked with Berkey about how he would like to be remembered by the campus. Lowe proposed something tangible near the dance facility to serve as a tribute to his legacy. Berkey said he would like something in the Wellness Garden.

The Wellness Garden, located just next to the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, provides a green space that dancers can look out onto to feel a sense of nature when inside the studio, Lowe said. 

In the following months, Lowe worked with Jory Hancock, a professor of dance and the future director of the School of Dance, and dance student Nancy Pohanic. Having a interest in art as well as dance, Pohanic sculpted in her spare time. 

“With our own resources, Jory and I went on to commission Nancy to create the Unicorn,” Lowe said. 

After reviewing many drawings of the statue, the group settled on the most modest and unassuming statue, Lowe said.

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“[The statue], with his head bowed gracefully as though gazing into a pool of water before taking a drink, was the perfect tribute to our beloved colleague,” Lowe said in an email. “Since that time Jory and I, along with a few of our present colleagues who had known and worked with David, are comforted when we pass by the Unicorn.”

To this day, according to Lowe, curious students come by to admire the unicorn statue, unaware of its meaning, but still drawn to its peaceful presence.


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