What’s Written Within is danced without bounds

Sally Cohn, Jesse Keller, Sandy Broyard in "Babi Yar." — Photo by Ralph Stewart

You wouldn’t think it would work as a performance piece: 16-year-old twins dancing with middle-aged women, a sprinkle of similarly age-enhanced men, all the way up to an 88-year-old gentleman? Oh sure, you can throw in three gorgeously talented dancers from The Yard, but can a choreographer anywhere pull this off?

It turns out that, yes, this mash-up of dancers calling itself What’s Written Within, in its third annual performance at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, and under the stewardship of Sandy Broyard and Sally Cohn, works very well indeed.

“You can’t keep a good dancer down” might be the key to this process.

It all started, well, it started all over the place. Dancer Sandy Broyard studied improvisation with Mary Wigman in Berlin in 1961. In the 1970s she worked with Jack Weiner in New York City at his School for Creative Movement. From the other end of the partnership, dance impresario Sally Cohn built a studio alongside her house in Edgartown, drawing in dancers and dance groups on a constant rotation. What’s Written Within (WWW) began to mobilize six years ago, as men and women formed groups meeting three to four times a week. Now the corps number 20, and they were out in force last Sunday to entertain a full house of guests.

Ms. Broyard explained in an interview before Sunday’s dress rehearsal, “We adopted the name from a class I took at The Yard a few years back with New York choreographer Michelle Mola. She told us the way you improvise is to ‘dance from what’s written within.’ That’s what we do.”

All the same, more elucidation was needed when, following the rehearsal, this reviewer couldn’t help but think the improvisations wore a look of polish and fluidity. Had they not been at least somewhat synchronized?

WWW dancer Ted Box explained: “We’ve all worked together a long time, and we all have our own language. After a while we’re speaking in full sentences.”

But how does it happen that the dancers’ styles weave so well together?

“Because we’re good,” said Mr. Box with a grin.

As this reviewer found herself poised between Mr. Box and another of the performers, Bill White, and the teenaged brothers, Skyler and Dylan Cole, it was pointed out that Mr. White, who teaches martial arts to the others, brings boys and men alike closer to the balanced movement of dance. The boys, who attend Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, were pleased to learn their martial arts moves were apparent in their dance styles.

Mr. Box, who’s also known for his sculpture, sailing, and boat building, offered that he would have trained to be a dancer had not fate intervened: “As a kid, on my way to dance school, there was a German shepherd who wouldn’t let me pass.”

Would this have stopped Baryshnikov? Again, Mr. Box grinned.

The performance included these highlights: In “Fellini,” all six men in the troupe improvised together. The Cole twins juggled balls and bats, while the eldest, Mr. Cohn, seated on a chair, bounced a ball. Mr. Box, Mr. White, and Wayne Elio sat quietly chatting, then tough-and-tumble danced with the others. At one point, one could see improv-in-action when something eventuated that hadn’t happened during the rehearsal: Mr. Cohn lost his grip on the ball, Mr. Elio chased it down – without losing an iota of grace – while Mr. Box, with characteristic dash, snagged the older man’s chair.

The three Yard dancers, Jesse Keller, Alison Manning, and Holly Jones, treated the assembly to full-on choreographed performances in “Three by Three” with, of course, all three of them being sublime, and a solo by Ms. Keller, “Til Morning,” a challenging, long and breath-taking piece, the performer decked out in a royal blue ruffled skirt and black gown.

For “Babi Yar,” Ms. Cohn choreographed the three Yard dancers and seven WWW’s in a memorial to the massacre outside Kiev in September 1941, when as many as 100,000 Jews were gunned down by Einsatzgruppen mobile squads. Whistles, train chugs, and melancholy music accompanied a poem entitled “Babi Yar,” recited in Russian by its author, Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Ms. Broyard and Mr. Box performed a playful duet, part-jazz, part-waltz, and the rest plain goofing around. Dancers Genevieve Abbot, Erin Blake, Sandra Demel, Susan Tirabassi, and Margaret Knight brought their own elegant “words” to the group pieces. Harriet Bernstein inflected her “sentences” with a special sly humor and proto-break-dance style, while Carol Loud, known principally for piano and organ renditions, has actually from the earliest age pursued dance and, while she never studied ballet per se, at one brilliant moment, pulled wide her black harem pants, and unloosed a mean pas de bourre´ across the floor.

For the finale, the entire company, with acoustic guitarist Bruce MacNelly setting aside his instrument to dance, gave it up to the stirring sounds of The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” handing audience members something to hum on the way out and, arguably, for the duration of the night.