Jumping to the Yard

Mary Paula Hunter, who will perform at the Yard this week, in one of her intimate dance pieces.. — Photo courtesy of Mary Paula Hunter

Mary Paula Hunter has performed a food-smearing dance in a Manhattan store-front window. Along with her dance troupe JUMP!, she has also performed in church basements, school libraries, and the steps of city hall, not to mention regular solo performances in the living room of her Providence, R.I. home. “I like performing for people in places where they don’t expect it,” she says. The dancer’s choices in subject matter are equally offbeat. In her upcoming show at the Yard in Chilmark, she will showcase, with the help of JUMP!, an array of dances that vary in subject matter from a piece about Sarah Palin to a text-accompanied dance about a childhood excursion to the grocery store.

Ms. Hunter boasts a very impressive resume — both as a choreographer/performer as well as a dance teacher. She’s been produced by several major New York venues, served twice as Artist in Residence at New York’s Movement Research and founded the Word’s and Motion series at NYC’s experimental theater Dixon Place. She was a guest artist at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Center in Michigan and was featured on Japanese TV. The dancer has also taught at Brown University, RISD, and Hamilton College among other institutions.

However, Ms. Hunter discovered her true passion ten years ago with JUMP!, an organization she founded after having moved to Providence with her husband, a dance critic who received a job at Brown University. Notes Ms. Hunter, “I taught in colleges for a long time and I was bored with having to tell people who had trained for 18 years that they had to start over. I really wanted to start fresh.”

Ms. Hunter appreciates working with young dancers, as well as molding them. “In the way I train them, they’re neither young nor old,” she says and adds, “We train on scale so the differences are made more subtle.” The dance teacher adds she values dancers who are both strong and unaffected. “I don’t want to present a preconceived notion of what it’s like to be young or old,” she notes, “I seek their input on everything.”

Eschewing the expected is Ms. Hunter’s stock in trade. She describes a piece that will be performed at the Yard with dancers in tutus and camouflage, entitled “GI Jessica.” Ms. Hunter notes that while the dance speaks to basic training moves and maneuvers, when performed with balletic grace it reveals a point about “trying to carry on in life.” She observes, “At times it seems funny, and then you wonder why you’re laughing.”

The duality of her work causes the press to often label her as quirky. “I think the best drama is funny and the best comedy is dramatic,” she says and adds, “Why can’t you laugh at something even if it resides in the category of art?”

Ms. Hunter has a classical dance background, which perhaps helped to instill in her the belief that creativity comes from discipline. She says her eyes were opened when she discovered artists like Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Ms. Hunter often draws inspiration from performance artists, such as Karen Findley, whose legendary performances are the basis of her food-smearing piece.

The 56-year-old artist established her reputation when she started experimenting with text-accompanied autobiographical work. Translating episodes from her troubled childhood into dance imbued with ample humor, she has won accolades from critics and often drawn identification from audience members.

“I think the honesty of it is very compelling,” Ms. Hunter says. “Because I hone it and craft it it seems very natural. It seems like you’re having a conversation with me.”

Ms. Hunter will perform some of her trademark solo pieces at the Yard this week. The dancer visited the Vineyard for the first time last summer, when she arrived to teach a dance workshop and was “introduced to the magic of the Yard.” For Ms. Hunter, whose favorite experiences include performing at a local library for underprivileged kids never exposed to dance, it seems she can find magic anywhere.