David R. White, by most accounts, has made a significant difference in the dance world — here on the Vineyard, and far beyond.
White, whose retirement as artistic director and executive producer of the Yard was announced Monday, has been a cutting-edge champion of American contemporary dance for five decades. He started at the venerable Island performing arts center in 2011, and has passionately developed it into a national hub for creation, education, local and national programming, and national and international presenting ever since.
One of the hallmarks of White’s tenure on the Island has been “Making It,” which marks its eighth year. Sensitive to the links between artists, audiences, and students, he devised — in partnership with Yard director of Island programs and education Jesse Keller Jason — this innovative education and outreach program that reframes dance in education.
Since the beginning, White has had a vision of the Yard as being a citizen of the year-round population. He says, “It’s been an enormous pleasure to be involved with the Yard, and through that, the community at large. I feel good about my work, which along with Jesse engages the general population and specifically the constituents within it. For instance, we have a long-term, multiyear relationship with the Wampanoag tribe. I feel that we’ve figured out how an arts organization — through performance and residency, but all the way to education programs — can engage and serve the community.”
Board president Michele Sasso says, “David was brilliant at what he did. He knew how to connect artists with the community, and always emphasized that the integrity of the Yard was to be transparent to how we could serve both the year-round community and the national dance field and culture. David always ensured the Island community could see themselves in the work at the Yard, introducing conversations and language through art and movement in a rural setting.”
White came to prominence as artistic director and executive producer of Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts) from 1975 to 2003, where he discovered, launched, and sustained the careers of scores of renowned artists in dance, theater, and performance. Ever inventive, he established the National Performance Network; a national touring circuit, the Suitcase Fund, which supports international touring by small dance companies; and the New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Awards in 1984. All have endured. His artistic programming merged aesthetics and ethics through a self-avowed “liberal, multicultural lens,” which has long been distinguished by its diversity and inclusivity. His work, as he sees it, was to “set about to organize our wilderness of independent research and experimentation” so that choreographers would have a life beyond the centers that brought them up. Over the past 50 years, he’s fulfilled that promise.
“Coming from New York, it has been a pleasure,” he says, “to create a dance culture in rural Island waters. The Yard, of course, has been around since 1973, so this isn’t new to the Island, but somehow, enlivening the life of the Island has been a really good thing for me.”
White is rightfully proud about having mentored some of the people who have assumed control of the Yard’s activities. He says, “They’re young. They should be around for a long time. Some of them already have been. There’s always been this kind of sustainable group who has kept the Yard going and reinventing it. They’re energetic, artistic, and so dedicated to the premise of the Yard.”
Jason says, “David has been a mentor, colleague, and friend since his arrival to the Vineyard in 2011. My time working by his side has inspired me to continue to think outside the box, dream big when programming and planning, be present in the community you serve, and enjoy what you do!”
White is likewise extremely supportive of the Yard’s new executive director, Chloe Jones. She says, “David’s impact on the dance field, over the past five decades, is larger than words. The Yard is so fortunate to have been the capstone of his career. He has maintained a steadfast commitment to national artists while committing in equal measure to the Martha’s Vineyard community. In doing so, he both elevated the Yard’s role in the national dance community and gave us a year-round identity on-Island. It goes without saying that he leaves big shoes to fill, but he has also prepared our staff to carry the organization forward. The Yard’s future is bright.”