Modern dance on Martha’s Vineyard

What’s Written Within’s improvisational performance comes from the heart.

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The origins of modern dance held a big presence Wednesday evening, May 2, at a studio tucked into the Edgartown woods. What’s Written Within held a studio performance, offering the audience a chance to experience their improvisational movement ensemble. Founded and co-directed by Sandy Broyard and Sally Cohn, whose studio the group calls home, the 19 dancers and musicians gather year-around multiple times a week and refer to their movement activities as a practice.

The male and female dancers’ ages range from the 20s to the 90s. Their level of professional experience runs the gamut from highly trained Yard dancers to martial arts types to lifelong community dancers to the never-danced-before enthusiast.

Sandy Broyard and Sally Cohn have direct links to the pioneers of modern dance. Broyard, who thinks of herself as a facilitator as opposed to a choreographer, danced at Juilliard when dancers had to choose the style of dance in which one concentrated. She chose Martha Graham. Post-Juilliard, Broyard traveled to Germany to study with Mary Wigman. Wigman, along with Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Isadora Duncan, revolutionized the way people moved onstage, the music they danced to, and the subject matter being explored. One of the original members of What’s Written Within, Cohn studied with Ernestine Stodelle and a daughter of an “Isadorable,” the name given to the first Isadora Duncan dancers. For the uninitiated, these facts may have little meaning, but for a band of modern dancers, the notion is breathtaking. Think Babe Ruth for Martha Graham, Lou Gehrig for Doris Humphrey, Ty Cobb for Ernestine Stodelle, and Satchel Paige for Isadora Duncan.

What brought all four of these dance pioneers together was their insistence on moving from heart (in Graham’s case, from the pelvis), from the inside, from the truth. Initially politically motivated, the form countered ballet as it was performed in the early 20th century. Ballet brought us romantic airborne sprites, with lovelies perched delicately like flowers, flying on gossamer wings, in shoes and tutus. Modern dance went into the floor, with powerful stances, huge strides, in bare feet and simple costumes (in Duncan’s case, at times without undies). Cross-pollination both ways has blurred the lines between ballet and modern. That said, modern has always been and still is less about a specific movement vocabulary and more about the individuals’ impulse to move.

What’s Written Within does not meet to create performances. They meet to move, propelled by internal impulses, music, communication with other dancers, and images visualized from everyday life. The dancers dance to get in the zone. Margaret Knight, who along with Broyard and Cohn, has danced with the group for its entire nine years, finds herself “committed to moving, not knowing what’s next in the head and the body.” Cohn, an experienced choreographer, said that “good choreography should feel like improv, and good improv should look like good choreography.”

Broyard videotapes all of the sessions, reviewing them to conceive of ways to facilitate more varied improvisational techniques. The name of the group itself comes from a dance class at the Yard with choreographer Michelle Mola. Broyard wasn’t sure where to find the impulse to move, and the instructor Mola said, “Just dance what’s written within.” Broyard said practicing improvisational dance allows the body’s wisdom to take over, free from the codified moves of dance technique, sports, or life’s various chores. It allows the body to speak its truth in the moment. This means that everyone, regardless of age, physical limitations, and training can find meaning in the movement.

In this studio showing, the audience experienced the juxtaposition of movements, often within the same work, of pedestrian movers next to trained dancers. The contrast makes for compelling watching, adding levels of complexity because of the difference. Big, sweeping moves seem more so next to everyday gestures and everyday moves becoming more distinct. Harriet Bernstein organized a work that focused on spatial compositional elements, focusing on simple walking. The patterns highlighted the space and the connections between the dancers. Other works exhibited intricate shapes, with partnering, energy, and dynamics creating a sense of belonging to the now. The variety of the music brought a specific identity to each piece. The heart and soul of each person in the ensemble and their sincere connection to each other, the music and the space, defined the heartfelt experience for both the dancers and the viewers. It was a tangible through-line to modern dance’s revolutionary past.

Ensemble members include dancers Genevieve Abbot, Harriet Bernstein, Ted Box, Sandy Broyard, George Cohn, Sally Cohn, Scott Crawford, Leah Crosby, Corinne de Langavant, Wayne Elliot, Jesse Keller, Margaret Knight, Carol Loud, Danielle Mulcahy, Susan Puciul, Susan Tirabassi, and Billy White, with musicians Bruce MacNelly and David Stanwood.