Island Dance


What do Martha Graham, Marni Nixon, Spalding Gray, Reno, Heathcote Williams, Johannes Wieland, Jawole Zollar, and Chris Elam have in common?

The modern dance pioneer, the singer whose voice subbed for famous actresses in blockbuster musical films, the late monologuist, the brilliant stream-of-political-consciousness comedian, the British poet, and the three New York choreographers will all have their work performed this summer at the Yard, the country’s premier residential colony devoted to the development of new dance.

Founded in 1973 by Patricia N. Nanon, the Yard occupies 2.3 verdant acres in the hamlet of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, a 100-square-mile island off Massachusetts’s south coast that attracts affluent urbanites every summer. With a 100-seat theater, an adjacent studio, and housing for 18, it has served for 35 years as an incubator for dances by choreographers like Doug Varone, Susan Marshall, and David Dorfman, as well as providing Nanon with a place to develop and show her own work.

Now in her eighties and increasingly frail, Nanon retired as artistic director in 2004; she and her family recently concluded the legal arrangements to transfer ownership of the facility to the nonprofit organization that supports and manages the Yard. Wendy Taucher, a choreographer and opera director who’s had a 10-year affiliation with the organization and spends time on the Vineyard even in the off-season, now runs the program, assisted by a skeleton staff and a handful of interns.

For decades, the place has been a mystery to its neighbors, who get more fired up for the annual Chilmark Road Race, a 5K run that sent close to 2,000 participants hurtling past its driveway on August 11, than for dance. Better known in downtown Manhattan than among Vineyarders, the colony invites four emerging choreographers annually to spend a month developing new work. Its Bessie Schönberg residency provides each artist with a stipend, four dancers, studio space, a bed, technical support, and artistic mentoring; a fully produced performance concludes the process. This year’s crop, including Sidra Bell, Janice Lancaster, Sharon Moore, and Stefanie Nelson, arrived August 19 and will show their work September 13 to 15.

The residencies are highly competitive—over 100 choreographers apply annually—but some eligible artists can’t afford to take advantage of them; at current funding levels, those chosen must cover their own transportation and food costs and travel hundreds (sometimes thousands) of miles from the day jobs that ordinarily sustain them. Still, every August the Vineyard ferry disgorges eager participants who dance hard from early morning until mid-afternoon, have time to enjoy the island’s legendary beaches, and cook and eat together nightly, bonding over wine and the scent of citronella candles. Accommodations are convivial if Spartan, in cottages with shared bedrooms and communal bathrooms. Heidi Latsky, who has choreographed and danced there over the past 25 years, says her time at the Yard was “the best dance gig I’ve ever had. For a workaholic, it’s ideal—a working vacation!”

Linda Tarnay of NYU’s Tisch dance department, a longtime participant and now associate artistic director with former Paul Taylor dancer Sandra Stone, acknowledges the difficulty of fundraising for the Yard, given the competition for the charitable donations of affluent summer visitors. “Everyone has the same three months to make their money,” she says. “What the Yard offers is cutting-edge work in dance and theater, created on the Vineyard by imported artists.” Government cultural agencies are pitching in, as are local businesses.

Choreographer Nina Winthrop was in residence in 2004. At the Yard, she made work for “fabulous dancers who became my company for the next three years. So my stint came at a perfect time and fulfilled a very specific need. It was a great experience.”

Since its theater isn’t winterized, the facility stands vacant from October through April, while Yard staff and visiting teaching artists hold residencies in the Martha’s Vineyard public schools.

This summer, under Taucher’s direction and in an effort to raise the Yard’s profile in its own community, the place has erupted in a storm of multimedia performances and classes designed to build local audiences. Daily yoga and modern-dance classes draw people who might not respond to the call of contemporary experiments. Naomi Goldberg, who held a residency last summer, returned this year to teach packed classes for new and experienced dancers ages 11 to over 70, and is choreographing for some of the seniors. Zollar’s Urban Bush Women just concluded a week of shows.

Singer Marni Nixon headlined an August benefit party, offering familiar tunes from the American songbook and movies on which she “ghosted.” Actor Donavon Dietz did two performances of Heathcote Williams’s richly evocative
Whale Nation. Collaborating with producer Monina von Opel, the Yard presented the recent Obie-winning hit
Stories Left to Tell, conceived by Spalding Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo.

Says von Opel, who worked with the Music Theater Group’s Lyn Austin: “We need a good board, with New York–based people who have clout, knowledge of the dance world, and money. Wendy’s brought a storm of ideas and energy into the place; it’s a whirlwind of activities.” Von Opel had a place on the Vineyard for 10 years before she ventured onto the Yard’s property, checking to see if she could rent the place for performances; now she turns up regularly for yoga and is working on plans for next summer. “We must support living artists. Forget about Petipa—he doesn’t need our support.”

Reno performs her new Blue State Rants at the Yard on September 1 at 8 and 10 p.m. For further information, see Choreographers, companies, dancers, and prospective interns interested in the Yard can reach Taucher at or 508-645-9662.