Vineyard Dance in the spotlight

"Ode," choreographed by Sally Cohn: Photo by Ralph Stewart
Intricate patterns and group dynamics in "Ode," choreographed by Sally Cohn. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Molly Hitchings - March 16, 2006

The Vineyard Dance Choreographers' Workshop Performance opens tonight at the Vineyard Playhouse on Church Street, Vineyard Haven. For dance enthusiasts this is a highlight of the year: veteran Island dancers taking their turn at choreography in a series of eclectic pieces to music by everyone from Paul McCartney to the Gorillaz.

At a technical rehearsal last week, dancers left their shoes by the door, the way they do in the studio at Fanny Blair Hall. Upstairs Kathy Joyce Costanza, mother of Vineyard Dance, was rehearsing her piece, "City Square - 7 am - 11 pm - 7 am."

Inspired by a sculpture of the same name by Swiss surrealist Alberto Giacometti, "City Square" might have a familiar look to longtime friends of Vineyard Dance. A commentary on the disconnect in urban life, the piece was originally choreographed by Kathy Joyce for her young students nearly 20 years ago. Now she has reworked the piece for adult dancers, but much of the movements still rely on newspapers and hurried passers-by, park benches and cold mornings.

Sioux Eagle, Michelle Pikor, and Cathy Weiss in director Bill Costanza's "The Dancers Prepare.": Photo by Ralph Stewart
Sioux Eagle (left), Michelle Pikor, and Cathy Weiss carefully explore technique in director Bill Costanza's show opener, "The Dancers Prepare."

During the winter the Playhouse itself can be a cold place to work. The night before, the dancers had rehearsed at the Playhouse until eleven o'clock. They only got halfway through.

In part, this is due to the thorough working style of John Malinowski, lighting designer, working with Steve Zablotny. "They're just amazing," said Bill Costanza, director. "It takes a long time, but it will be worth it."

Tonight, prepared for another long haul, the women sipped from thermoses of tea. Kathy Joyce Costanza found a pocket of warmth under the stage lights.

"It's all right in here tonight," she said. "But if anyone gets a chill, they can come and get warm here."

Unifying vision
That cheerful resourcefulness and generosity typify Vineyard Dance, more than ever now that three senior students have taken on the teaching load.

Peggy Koski Schweir, Sioux Eagle, and Clare Ives have been mainstays of the company for years. Last spring they divided up the classes and took over all teaching duties. This Choreographers' Workshop is the fruit of their first year as instructors.

Asked whether he had considered performing this year, Bill laughed. "I gave that up hundreds of years ago," he said. "It's hard to be in and out of dance. You can't go part way there."

Nevertheless, it is Bill's unifying vision that shapes the performances, and the dancers still look to him for guidance. The planning process begins in the fall, when choreographers begin to shape their pieces. Some work from a concept; others come up with movements first.

"In the beginning they come and talk with me, so I'm aware of who's doing what," Bill explains. "That's not as necessary as it used to be, because these dancers are all so experienced."

Sioux Eagle's "Spiraling Continuum" is a piece for six dancers, set to music by Light Rain. "The music I picked first, thinking it would end up as a kind of Indian movement," she recalls.

Instead, she found herself exploring a lifelong fascination with spirals. "My earliest drawings were of spirals," she says. "Beachcombing, you find all these spiral shapes, whelks half eaten away. And the piece is like that, a movement which starts from an inner core and keeps spiralling and continuing - a sort of energy vortex."

She credits Bob Brown of the Edgartown School with crafting even the music as a continuum, splicing in phrases to elongate the selection.

Clare Ives calls her piece "Can You Read Me Now?" in gentle mockery of a popular cellular phone commercial.

She describes herself as a bookworm, bewildered and bemused by her technologically savvy children and the communication-crazed world they inhabit.

"I was afraid to touch cell phones," Clare says. "There was always a fear of not being able to undo what you just did. And now there's still a battle for control between that quiet world I live in, and the constantly ringing phone." She smiles slyly. "In the end of the piece, I make clear how I feel about it."

Varied themes
Other choreographers include Sally Cohn, Sandy Broyard, Cathy Weiss, and Nancy Hugger Bettencourt.

Nancy's "" is a fun depiction of the insect world with music by Ian Anderson, and includes 12 dancers dressed as dragonflies and grasshoppers.

Michelle Pikor introduces "Fading Green," a sad vision of a world wracked with pollution and its determined recovery. "It opens with a sort of dreary forecast, but in the end, the planet itself is what gives us hope," she says. "It's our hope that we can get it together."

Peggy Koski Schweir's "In the Wild" was inspired by photographer Ansel Adams, who captured the landscape of the American West during the 20th century. "Those photographs were never peopled, but when you look at them, you can imagine coming upon that sort of expansive landscape," says Peggy. "It's thrilling and vast and new, but there is a little fear of being on the edge."

The tone of her piece changed when Peggy asked the dancers to imagine a bear as part of the landscape. That kind of potential menace would change the way a person crossed a continent, so it changed the way Peggy and her dancers crossed the floor. "It's about testing ourselves - do we want to flee? Do we want to be bold? And then finally we dart at the unknown, and realize it was nothing."

Vineyard Dance performance benefits Nathan Mayhew Seminars. Vineyard Playhouse, Church St., Vineyard Haven. Thursday through Saturday, March 16 -18, 7:30 pm; Sunday, March 19, 2:30 pm. $15. Reservations only: 508-693-0479.

Molly Hitchings contributes occasional articles to The Times, specializing in the arts and youth activities.