The Yard harvests new work
On Friday in the crisp air of early fall, The Yard presented its final program of the season - new works created on site by recipients of The Yard's annual Bessie Schönberg Choreographers' Residency.
Each year, the Chilmark dance colony awards two sets of residencies, both honoring the choreographer for whom the New York Dance Awards - The Bessies - are named. Ms. Schönberg served as the artistic director for The Yard during the last 10 years of her life and the residencies are considered by organization to be the artistic center of its programming. During September, four established choreographers and eight world-class dancers, chosen from a highly competitive pool, spend four weeks, creating and rehearsing works that serve as the Yard's closing program.
Wendy Taucher, The Yard's artistic director, explains the difficulty of selecting among the residency applicants. "It's a delicate thing because each choreographer has his or her own agenda. There's a little bit of a conundrum - we're not here for people to create what's already been done, but we want to make sure there is craft and technique."
Both craft and innovation were equally in evidence in last weekend's program, which ran through Sunday night.
Appropriately, the show began with a pieced entitled "Jabberwocky," set in a mystical forest. Choreographer Joshua Monten employed 10 dancers drawn equally from community dancers and the residency imports. Alternately portraying trees and sprightly humans to stage Lewis Carroll's classic poem, the dancers explore the dichotomy between the serenity of the natural landscape and the looming threat of human impact.
The transformation from sinuous tree to human form is repeated throughout with a number of the dancers taking on the role of the hero seeking the dreaded Jabberwock. Mr. Monten says that the choreography was inspired by forays into the Chilmark woods, which helped the dancers blur the lines between man and his environment.
For music, Mr. Monten chose a repetitive composition, reminiscent of a music box tune, which worked well with the fluid, yet jerky movements that punctuated much of the dance. Overlaid was a piece from the score of the film, "There Will Be Blood" by composer Jonny Greenwood, which lent a menacing tone. The constantly recreated landscape and the shape-shifting human trees combined perfectly with the music to create a sense of the magical.
The playful "Jabberwocky" was followed by a more cerebral piece by Rachael Lincoln, entitled "Call Me an Optimist," which included dialogue. Ms. Lincoln entered the residency wanting to explore the spectrum of people's approaches to the pursuit of happiness. "I wonder if my happiness is as good as other's happiness," says Ms. Lincoln, explaining that hers is a "more level-headed, grounded, calm happy."
She started work on the composition, which was listed in the program as a collaboration, by asking her three dancers to describe themselves at their happiest, and she based the individual movements on their responses. "I got three really different, distinctive dancers and that came out in the characters in the piece," Ms. Lincoln says.
The piece started off with a lone dancer, Tzu-Ying Lee, donning a motorcycle helmet and speaking to the audience in her native Mandarin. With subtle, thoughtful gestures and a softly repeated buzzing sound, she conveyed her version of happiness.
The scene was interrupted when the two other dancers entered and, to the accompaniment of a jazzy tune, engaged in an energetic and exuberant swing-inspired dance. Ms. Lee reacted with wonder, seeming uncertain about how to participate. She somewhat awkwardly entered the dance, and the rest of the piece consisted of the three experimenting with each other's version of happiness.
The darkest of the four pieces was Dana Katz's historic "Old Cherry Blossom Road," set in a small village. The dissonant audio backdrop - street noises, muted voices, babies crying - created a feeling of restlessness.
Ms. Katz, an Israeli choreographer, explains that the soundtrack functions to "zoom [the drama] into some kind of happening in the village." Sparring dancers and flirtatious women interacting with outsiders create tension.
To prepare mentally, the dancers were asked by Ms. Katz to transport themselves to the world of the 30s. The Vineyard, she says, provided an appropriate setting. "There's something about this place that makes you go back in time," she says.
The final piece, "Imprint," by veteran choreographer Elizabeth Keen, was built upon a simple gesture - an outstretched hand. Three dancers explored the motion - its implications and its possibilities - both in a physical sense and as an emotional starting point.
"I work inductively from a movement," says Ms. Keen. "The piece was developed by looking at hands in relation to gesture. The gestures become dance and are embedded in sweeping movements across the stage. I've always been interested in gesture and how gesture turns into design. A gesture can refer to something definite in life, or refer to a movement that is more abstract."
Ms. Keen's piece was bold, with well-defined movement. The dancers displayed fluid athleticism as they moved throughout the space, utilizing walls and the box area of the theater as opposing forces to great effect. Music by John Cage and Tan Dun helped bring the dance to a powerful finish, which ended the evening's performance on an uplifting, energizing note.
As Ms. Taucher pointed out in her introduction to the program, the Friday opening night performance fell on the birthday of Patricia Nanon, The Yard's founder and benefactor, who died last year. Her spirit still appears to be watching over the artists' colony in the woods, where ideas are born, seeds of new works germinate, and dancers and choreographers are given the chance to grow and flourish.
To find out more about The Yard's programs and performances, visit dancetheyard.org, or call 508-645-9662.
Gwyn McAllister is freelance writer and regular contributor to The Times.