Raising the barre

Vineyard Arts Project residencies present a season filled with passion and politics.


Passion, politics, and skill are in evidence for the 2018 Vineyard Arts Project season. Since 2008, founder and artistic director Ashley Melone has programmed intriguing residencies, including the Dance Theatre of Harlem, collaborating with Oskar Eustis of New York City’s Public Theater, and presenting a new musical workshop under the direction of Broadway’s James Lapine. An enthusiastic lover of ballet, musicals, and plays, Melone has steered a rigorous course.

“I wanted to grow VAP organically to ensure that we are sustainable,” she said. This sensible approach to a creative endeavor is due in part to Melone’s master’s degree in nonprofit management from NYU, and an M.F.A. from Columbia in dramaturgy.

VAP’s Edgartown campus consists of a number of buildings that provide artist housing (23 bedrooms clustered around a garden), and state-of-the-art rehearsal studios. Artists speak with gratitude about the luxury of 24/7 studio space, accommodations above the shop, and the Vineyard environment. VAP provides time, quiet, space, and community (commodities somewhat challenging to achieve in the New York City bustle) while artists pursue the common goal of true creativity.

The Black Iris Project bookends the 2018 schedule at VAP with a preseason residency, then returning for a second week concluding Labor Day weekend. Founded by choreographer Jeremy McQueen, BIP is an artistic vehicle that creates new, relevant classical ballets that celebrate diversity and black history. McQueen’s politics guide the choices he is making in subject matter, music, and message.

During his first residency, which ended last week, McQueen worked on a solo dance titled “A Mother’s Rite.” Performed by Tony nominee Karine Plantadit, the story of a mother’s grief is told entirely through movement. The ballet was inspired by Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, who insisted on an open casket for her murdered son because she “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Till, only 14 years old when he was killed in Mississippi in 1955, is an icon of the civil rights movement. McQueen has fictionalized his version, incorporating actual and imagined scenarios. For music, he daringly chose Stravinsky’s duo-piano version of “Rite of Spring,” which provides a sound atmosphere of pathos and mystery. McQueen’s journey, as he pursues his goal of “reflecting black lives,” has been stunning, with upcoming performances at Summerstage Harlem and recently at the Kennedy Center, thanks to an invitation from curator Misty Copeland.

McQueen’s sophisticated taste is evident in his work with Karine Plantadit. A longtime soloist with Alvin Ailey and original cast member of Broadway’s “Lion King” and Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” Plantadit is a rare breed of dancer who acts without speaking while moving from the heart. Harking back to the early days of modern dance, she never takes a step without infusing meaning. While “A Mother’s Rite” has no spoken dialogue, Plantadit tells the story by passionately breathing life into the choreography. She believes that “the arts tell the truth, they touch us close to the soul, perhaps providing a chance to inform or transform, something politicians seem unable to do.”

Politics played a fundamental role in dancer Ashley Bouder’s dive into choreography. Notwithstanding an astonishing list of repertory as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Ms. Bouder had “never danced to a composition by a woman.” The fact that women make up a majority of ballet dancers, while remaining a small percentage of choreographers, composers, and directors, propelled her into action. Fierce and articulate, Bouder founded the Ashley Bouder Project, which is a “collaborative dedicated to furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts world.” Check them out at the first week in July at the Joyce in New York City and at VAP the last Saturday in June.

Another feature in the upcoming VAP season is the Cirio Collective, led by artistic director Jeffrey Cirio, who has a day job at American Ballet Theatre as principal dancer. Cirio and his sister Lia Cirio, whose day job is principal dancer with Boston Ballet, formed the Collective based on a desire to push the boundaries of ballet and “think outside of the box.” Jeffrey Cirio feels the Collective’s VAP four residencies have expedited the company’s identity. He says, “VAP feels like home, a familiar, comfortable, safe environment, where I’ve been able to test my vocabulary and discover my own voice.” He often finds himself alone in the studio experimenting at all hours, respectfully keeping the music down in the wee hours of the night. Find them at VAP mid-July, also in Provincetown with the Cape Cod Dance Festival in late July.

Melone’s dream was to support established artists; something must be going right, because everyone seems to hunger to return. Plus, she has a soft spot for the place. She and her actor husband, whom Melone met at VAP, recently welcomed their VAP-made baby. To learn about the complete season, visit vineyardarts.org.