The Yard sheds city lights on our neck of the woods

Magdalene San Milian, left, and Chelsea Murphy talk about uncomfortable and shameful dance moves. — Photo by Larisa Stinga

We know we’ve been on the Island too long when metropolitan artists come here to try out new pieces, and we find it all as rich and strange as it is dazzling. So it was last weekend at the dance institute the Yard, situated way up in the hinterlands of Chilmark, which kicked off the first gala of its season on June 12 and 13, with spotlights on the Schonberg Fellows.

The official name of the initiative is the Bessie Schonberg Legacy Residency, and it’s a Yard program where choreographers work together in a peer-group critical process. Started by Yard founder Patricia Nanon, it was led for many years by the fabled dance lover and educator Bessie Schonberg, and now rests in the hands of Philadelphia Headlong Dance Theater co-director David Brick.

Three sets of choreographers created a program as variegated as a bouillabaisse with ample dabs of aioli sauce. The Yard’s artistic director, David R. White, described the two evenings of performances as a “formative outcome of the past 21 days” that the Schonberg troupe has been in residence forging new works. “For audience members,” he suggested, “think of the TV series Grey’s Anatomy, when the interns are up in the gallery watching an operation down below. I want you to be those people up above.”

For Part I of the three installments, tall blond Magdalena San Milan and shorter curly-haired Chelsea Murphy stand before us looking like two pretty, yet ordinary girls at the mall. That’s the last moment they appear even remotely ordinary. From this point forward they stretch the bounds of what squeamish audience members can bear, exhibiting a phenomenal plasticity of facial expression, and sounds expressive of 50 shades of pain; they’re Edvard Munch’sThe Scream” divided in two, and exploring every aspect of unrestricted agony.

How many audience members have watched two people dance with their faces?

Chelsea and Magda, because they’re essentially comedians in this presentation entitled, oddly enough, “Hard Earned Hedonism,” break the spell periodically by stopping to analyze the foregoing:

“That was accurate but messy.”

“That was [my impression of] a cooked noodle to uncooked noodle.”

“I always want to hit myself, and then I feel like an [expletive deleted].”

It’s interesting stuff, running the gamut from autobiographical monologue — Magda works as an art instructor in a children’s cancer ward in Philadelphia; Chelsea exhibits how she moves on a dance floor, and the feelings it evokes: sexual expression intercut by shame, the whole woven together with barely bearable repetitions and moments of sheer inspiration.

In Part II, “The Voice of the Body”, choreographed by Amber Sloan, and performed by tall, thin, elegant dancers Thomas Cruz, Emma Judkins, and Jordan Morley, genders blur as female lifts and dips male, and vice versa. All three are constantly involved in a ménage à trois of movement, and yet there is no romance; it’s more a metaphor of life itself, of the slinking and falling of human beings against one another, the turning and crashing and locomotion of the daily effort.

One segment is given over to pure beauty — and with modern dance, let us be honest, we need this — the music by John Glover takes on a subtext of the medieval, and the three engage each other in an almost graceful gavotte, although, with an eye to the experimental, there is always that third figure dragging down the flank of one in the pair of dancers.

Toward the end there is more toiling, rolling around on the floor, sleeping with breathing synchronized, crowned by Ms. Judkins standing on a prone Mr. Morley, her leg extended in arabesque. Throughout, Mr. Cruz has wandered off and on with an open book of music in his hand, and at the end he sings in a range of tenor to countertenor and back again; another grace note, again blending vocalization to the dance dynamic.

Part III follows through on Jean Cocteau’s famous exhortation: “Astonish me!”

Raphael Xavier choreographed “Nick of Time” with himself and Christopher LaPlante, Macca Malik, and Jerry Valme to the music “Mind Space” by Omar Gale (containing samples from System of a Down, Moody Blues, and SOHN): It’s breakdance meets ground core movement.

Futuristic sounds attend surprising twists and turns of the dancers’ slow-and-fast-mo stylings. Nothing is what the last moment seemed to have predicated: In the midst of a center-stage jam, two dancers might cross from opposite sides, pausing to clap and to grin satirically. Where are we? What is this? The dancers wear sneakers and unremarkable jeans, sweats, and hoodies. There’s a sense of dystopia, but have we landed in a scene from The Wire or a high-stakes gymnastics event? Whatever, one feels a building dread annealed by the performers’ amazing breakdance head-on-floor spins and other moves that one might not have thought humanly possible. The single female in the troupe, diminutive Ms. Malik in a zipped-up-tight red hoodie, stands out as a particular virtuosa.

Behind the evening’s dance, another bright figure looms: Mr. Brick, who operates as a “wandering resource,” as Mr. White introduced him, and a mentor to all the Schonberg fellows. In his current project back in Philly, entitled “Island,” [as is written in the program]: “He tries to make the world as it is with interactive installations that include climbing into the belly of a space-age Buddha.”

Let us hope that’s broken down, boxed up, and rejiggered here.

Another highlight of the Yard’s summer will be the arrival in the Menemsha Harbor of the flagship Malpaso Dance Company, marking the momentous shift in U.S.-Cuba relations, and demonstrating firsthand its effect on culture and the arts. One can’t help but wonder if this event ties in with the vacation days of a certain president who orchestrated the thaw between our two countries. Coincidence? Who knows. This reporter is recommending that tickets be bought far in advance.

The Malpaso Dance Company, Friday August 14, 8 pm and Saturday August 15, 6:30 pm, the Yard. For additional information on those performances and the full season at the Yard, visit