What’s Growing in The Yard?

Alison Manning and David R. White are stepping into their biggest choreographic role yet to revamp Chilmark’s iconic dance center.

On a recent summer evening in Chilmark, a blonde woman in a forest-green jumpsuit crawled slowly backward across a stage. An eerie soundscape grew louder and louder as she studied her shadows on a wall. Thirty minutes later, on the same stage, a four-man footwork crew from the south side of Chicago danced in front of video projections of their neighborhood, their sneakers squeaking on the floor. Between combinations they rapped and performed poems.

It was a typically eclectic evening of dance at The Yard. In the summer, the place is abuzz. About forty artists and companies pass through during June, July, and August, creating new work and performing for Vineyard audiences in an uninsulated barn. The acts are world-class – that June evening featured independent artist Joanna Furnans and dance collective The Era Footwork Crew performing new work – and yet as the organization expands to serve artists and Islanders year-round, it’s easy to see where The Yard is outgrowing its rustic facilities.

During a show, the sun peeks through small spaces in the barn walls. Between acts, a techie turns on the noisy air-conditioning unit that’s wedged between chairs along the wall in the back row. The audience’s bathroom is a (very clean and sweetly decorated) porta-potty.

As The Yard approaches its fiftieth birthday, its two leaders have ambitions for a major renovation of the Chilmark property with the aim of being able to host workshops, events, and performances year-round.

“What we’re trying to do with this project is pull some of that activity and density that makes the summer so crazy out into the rest of the season,” said executive director and co-producer Alison Manning, who sat down with artistic director and executive producer David R. White early one morning before catching a ferry back to New York. “We’re trying to unpack the summer a little bit.”

The Era Footwork Crew brought the South Side to the South Shore during a June performance.
Christine Sargologos

The two are a dynamic – if eccentric – pair. Manning is a millennial dancer and choreographer who is self-assured and direct. She splits her time between the Vineyard and New York. White is a somewhat irreverent, bespectacled veteran arts producer who has spent decades leading dance organizations and accumulating accolades. He lives full-time on the Vineyard.

Over the last eight years the two have pulled the organization back from the brink of financial disaster and infused it with a vision for the future.

“We’re work marriage epitomized,” Manning said.

White said this renovation project has been a long time coming.

“On the one hand it’s to address what has been the shoe that hasn’t dropped, which has been deferred maintenance over the last thirty or some years,” he said. “Because if we didn’t do that, eventually the buildings and houses might fall down.”

The two see the upcoming renovations as a further commitment to serving the year-round Island community, but Manning said they are trying to avoid the word “expansion.” “We’re trying to talk about catching up to what we’re already doing,” she said. “So it’s really less about expanding and more about sort of creating the facility structure for the work we’re doing.”

Christine Sargologos

Word choice aside, the project is estimated to cost some $11 million and more than double the size of the main performance space. The existing uninsulated performance barn is 3,100 square feet and seats 100. The proposed building will be winterized and will measure some 7,200 square feet and seat an audience of 120. The new space will feature indoor bathrooms and accessible entrances. An existing residential building known as the Side Yard will also be renovated and made into an office pavilion and rehearsal studio. And an entirely new 1,144-square-foot housing unit called the Way Back Yard will be built at the rear of the property.

“One of the major important pieces of this is also stabilizing our housing,” Manning said. “We’ll be able to offer…four year-round people housing on the campus.”

The project was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in May as a Development of Regional Impact. Manning and White said a formal capital campaign will begin as soon as they clear all the other necessary permitting agencies.

Board president Deborah Sale said raising the money will be an undertaking, but she’s confident in The Yard’s dedicated donor base.

“It’s obviously more than The Yard has ever raised, but The Yard has probably never had a project as ambitious as this,” she said. 

The Yard was founded as an informal dance colony in 1973 by Patricia Nanon, a New York choreographer and philanthropist who first started vacationing on the Island in the 1960s. In 1973, according to Nanon’s obituary in the Vineyard Gazette, fourteen dancers came to the Vineyard for the summer. The next year there were eighteen. Performances were casual and many took place at outside venues like the breakwater rocks at Menemsha.

In addition to shows, The Yard offers mentored residencies for dancers, such as Chief Manny of The Era Footwork Crew and Joanna Furnans.
Christine Sargologos

Nanon was known for her chain smoking, her boundless energy, and her passion for creating new work right up to the end of her life. When she leased a property from David Flanders for the colony in 1973, car headlights were once used for stage lighting and performers changed costumes in a gutted school bus. The generator had to be refueled at intermission. As the colony grew more formal and admission grew more competitive, Nanon embraced her curatorial role. The residencies The Yard offered became incubators for major work that later graced and influenced the New York dance scene.

In 1983 Nanon purchased the 2.6-acre Chilmark property that now serves as home to The Yard. In 2007, a year before her death, she gifted full ownership of the property to the organization.

“Her original mission is exactly what our residency model is based on: creating a space for artists, through paid residency, to make new work and to take it out into the world and hopefully have an impact and share it,” Manning said.

The Yard has hosted choreographers from around the world as they experiment with new work. Artists have included veterans, such as MacArthur fellows Eiko and Koma Otake, and newer voices, such as the Havana-based Malpaso Dance Company. In January, hip-hop dancer Amirah Sackett, who gained fame through her dance troupe We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic, taught classes at Island schools and choreographed a piece for Island dancers for a performance at the performing arts center.

Beyond residencies, The Yard now brings in touring dancers for Vineyard shows, giving Islanders the opportunity to see new, cutting-edge experimental work from places not typically accessible in a rural community. This spring, in addition to Sackett, New York choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland returned with a piece called Welcome about walls and their capacity to both divide and unite. Bland is now working on a long-term piece inspired by the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. In March, Guggenheim Fellows Myrna Packer and Art Bridgman presented their technology-driven video dance pieces Voyeur and Table Bed Mirror.

The Yard now has a vibrant and future-focused culture, full of ambition and planning. But the trajectory upward has not exactly been a steady one. In 2010 the organization found itself in the midst of a financial crisis and a transition in leadership. Manning was at the helm at the time and inherited the dire financial situation. Two members of the board recommended she meet with White for advice.

Jesse Keller Jason heads Making It, The Yard’s community-focused educational dance program.
Christine Sargologos

“When we were having our myriad of terrifying board meetings, they had said…he might be available to come down and consult with us,” Manning recalled. White was known and respected for being the longtime executive director and producer of New York’s Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts). He was unhappily living in New Hampshire at the time and was at the tail end of a failing marriage.

Manning saw the meeting as a Hail Mary. The two met at a mutual acquaintance’s New York apartment and talked for three hours about the daunting situation and the challenges at The Yard. By the end of the night White was impressed by Manning and offered to come on board. In 2011 he joined the team and moved to the Island year-round.

One dark February night last winter, as the Island entered its quietest, least populated week, several dozen weary people plodded into the Chilmark Community Center for what turned out to be a rousing Yard presentation. The band was Red Baraat, an internationally acclaimed, Brooklyn-based bhangra fusion group known for blending hip-hop, jazz, and Indian inspired percussion. The audience was a sparse mix of sun-starved year-rounders that included two Chilmark selectmen, a Martha’s Vineyard commissioner, at least one lighthouse keeper, members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), lots of white facial hair, and a few wayward young people so swept up in the music they forgot for a moment to wonder how they would make it through the rest of the off-season.

At one point in the middle of the show, the band paused and the musicians, led by Sunny Jain on the dhol, froze in place. The pause lengthened. The people in the front of the room turned to shush those still chattering over cups of wine around the edges at the back. The silence grew and held, allowing the true weight of the winter Chilmark quiet to permeate the space. Jain struck the dhol again and the music resumed – even more joyful and frenzied than before.

From the moment he joined the team, White emphasized the importance of the year-round population. “If we were going to be successful, we had to be owned by the year-round population. That’s where our legitimacy would come from, and the quality of our citizenship would be perceived by them,” he said. It’s a sentiment he repeats in almost every interview.

It’s also the sentiment behind Making It, an educational creative program for all ages specifically targeted at the year-round population. The program is led by the exuberant Jesse Keller Jason and is taught at schools, senior centers, libraries, and the Windemere Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. Engagement with the community has not gone unnoticed; The Yard received a prestigious grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation earlier this year. The foundation cited risks involved with expanding to year-round programming and the involvement with a rural community as distinguishing factors.

The doug elkins choreography, etc. group electrifies The Yard’s Patricia N. Nanon Theater in 2018.
Heidi Wild

Talking about the possibilities for the new, winterized space, Manning and White ping-pong back and forth seamlessly.

“There has never been insulation in almost fifty years of Yard existence,” White said. “So once that happens, a lot of possibilities fall into place: after-school programs, classes that different people in the community might teach, our collaboration with other Chilmark and up-Island organizations like the Chilmark School....”

“The charter school, the film festival,” Manning added.

“We work with the church, and now have a significant involvement with the Wampanoag Tribe,” White said.

In the meantime, The Yard continues to fuel curiosity in various ways and spaces about how our bodies express themselves. A puppet show based on oral history interviews takes on issues of food insecurity. A Canadian group performs contemporary dance on skates at the ice arena. A Taíno and Afro Caribbean choreographer from Puerto Rico collaborates with dancers from the Tribe. An Island elder feels empowered for the first time to step into a dance during a workshop at Windemere. At school, a child is asked to imagine how she would move her body if she were a sprouting seed.

The goal, ultimately, is simple.

“David’s back to ‘community service’ instead of ‘community engagement,’” Manning said, describing their mission.

“I’m old school,” said White.


Since this article was written, The Yard has announced that Alison Manning is transitioning into a new leadership role as a senior development advisor to the organization.