Changes in our back Yard

DiAnn Ray with cat. Photo by Betsy Corsiglia
DiAnn Ray and her cat luxuriate in the late-winter sunshine outside the barn at her Vineyard Haven home. Photos by Betsy Corsiglia

By Wendy Arnell Brophy - February 23, 2006

"Time flies when you're having fun." "Things change." And to quote Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"

DiAnn Ray, who retired last year as Executive Director of The Yard, can own any one of those bits of jargon. Her life went from motherhood to big league fundraiser and guiding light for something that has been a passion most of her life, dance.

DiAnn studied dance at the Boston Conservatory, where she first met Bill Costanza, Vineyard Dance teacher and choreographer. At the Conservatory she was taught by some of the finest and best the dance world had to offer, in particular Jan Veen who became her teacher and mentor. Although she chose marriage and motherhood, her passion for the art form never receded into the dark places of childhood fantasies.

While in the Peace Corps in Ghana DiAnn took on students and she too became a student of dance, African dance. It was always a thread that remained unbroken.

DiAnn Ray with horses. Photo by Betsy Corsiglia
Without the responsibilities she had as executive director of The Yard, DiAnn now has the time for riding and enjoying her horses.

Before she left the post, it was 12 years that DiAnn fulfilled the role of Executive Director of The Yard. During that 12 years she had been gently coaxing people, cajoling them into helping fund Patricia Nanon's brainchild, her dream, a dance colony called The Yard.

Pioneering spirit
When The Yard began some 34 years ago it was the only dance colony in America. It was wonderful for the pioneering spirit of The Yard, but a pretty poor showing for the country at large. Nowadays there are several other dance colonies in America; it's been a slow go, but the places for dancers and choreographers to sequester themselves and do nothing but dance/create/eat/sleep and choreograph are growing in number. Thank you, Patricia, for your dream, for getting the ball rolling.

Over the dozen years the job never became a daily grind for DiAnn. There was always something new in the works, from summer dance performances to winter in-school multicultural/artists-in-the-schools programs. And there would be DiAnn, sliding in and out of classrooms and gymnasiums, checking to make sure things were going as smoothly as possible.

Dance terminology has become a part of the vernacular of Island school children. It became their chance to shine in the spotlight, literally, and to learn a discipline that would never be gotten from reading a book.

"Dancers became role models for kids who had never seen a dancer before," DiAnn said.

While Islanders have come to take these in-school programs for granted, they exist nowhere else on such a grand scale.

Helping hands
Over the years there have been a number of people who have helped DiAnn move these projects along. Ernie Iaconno was there through thick and thin as the production manager. Melissa Swansey and others answered phones, got out information, handled office chores.

There were board members, year-round Islanders, summer folks, and those connected to the greater dance world that made this time pass swiftly for DiAnn. "I simply couldn't have done it without them," she said.

The Alvin Alley Dance Company's presentation of "Revelations" in 2004 was a highlight of DiAnn's involvement with summer programs.

She had seen the program years ago and it was her dream and determination to pass along this energetic and powerful dance presentation.

"I love the impact dance has on professionals, those who understand the complexities of dance, but mostly I love the reaction from local people, how it moves them," DiAnn said, recalling the many off-Island companies who have performed here including Monty Thompson's Caribbean Dance Company from St. Croix; Julio Lieto's Children's African Dance Company, Batoto Yetu, based in Harlem. Both companies performed to sold-out audiences two years in a row. And there was also "Broadway Meets Dance," featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell, yet another sellout performance at The Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.

There have been people who have been stalwarts, and who are now gone, including the late Eleanor Piacenza, Greta Ghee, and Michael Straight. Those who are still working hard on the board include Wiet and John Bachelor, Inez Janger, and Sarah Jane Hughes, giving time and energy to make the show go on, helping make The Yard what it is today.

"There are so many trustees, advisory board members and volunteers that we could mention, it's impossible to acknowledge all of them, but it couldn't have happened without them," DiAnn said.

And there has been the acknowledgment of the Massachusetts Cultural Council's recognition of The Yard's contribution to the world of dance, along with the increase in funds from the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) over the years, yet another honor for the first dance colony in America.

The late Michael Straight was a great supporter of The Yard, not only financially, but also by his very presence at performances and fundraisers. At his memorial service, which was held at The Yard Theatre, the Julliard String Quartet performed. At first you may not see the relationship, but it was through DiAnn's New York dance connections that people knew of Michael, knew of his love of the arts, and wanted to perform for him one last time.

In honor of late board president Greta Ghee, Roxanne D'Orleans Juste, a Yard alumna and currently Artistic Associate and soloist with the Limon Dance Company, performed at the Chilmark theatre in a remembrance ceremony.

These connections and friendships became highlights of a job that DiAnn will take with her into her new position as Vice President for Community Affairs, a title especially created for her.

"Change is good," DiAnn said recently. Her new position is less demanding, allowing her time for family, friends, and her horses (who do not dance).

Some things remain in place: Lois Welk continues as the Artistic Director, but to DiAnn we say, bon chance, we will miss your presence at the helm of The Yard, but you have left things in good hands, Wendy Tauscher is the new Executive Director and to her we say, welcome.

Wendy Brophy, former Times calendar editor, is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.