A Dancer and His Patron Build New Program, and Studio, Here
By JESSIE ROYCE HILL
In an airy studio redolent of newly sanded wood and fresh paint, 15 teenage dancers surround the floor, their eyes fixed upon a legendary dancer.
Ann Reinking, Broadway star, is teaching a group of promising classical dancers their first Bob Fosse steps - swiveling hips, tipping bowler hats.
For three weeks, these elite 16- and 17-year-old students from around the country and beyond have been inhaling new steps and techniques in preparation for a first-of-its-kind Island performance. They are charter members of Stiefel & Students, a program offering pre-professional dancers a chance to learn from the stars of the field.
The dancers' selection was based upon audition tapes and recommendations. They arrived on the Vineyard early this month; here they have lived and rehearsed in a brand-new 8,000-square foot facility along Curtis Lane and Upper Main street in Edgartown.
The program and the studio compound - cause of some concern for longtime neighbors in the adjacent residential area - are the result of a collaboration between an American Ballet Theatre dancer and a Vineyard patron.
Ethan Stiefel, the dancer, organized a touring company, Stiefel & Stars, several years ago to bring ballet's greatest hits to regional audiences.
Tom Melone, the patron, is an investment banker based in New Jersey and a Vineyard summer resident. Father of four children, one of whom is an aspiring ballerina, he approached Mr. Stiefel about creating a summer school based here.
Less than a year later, the project has windows, doors, two dance studios, bunk beds and a handful of ballet greats as visiting faculty.
"We met Ethan a few years ago when Brittany [his 16-year-old] was in a local production of the Nutcracker in New York," said Mr. Melone, a softspoken man of slight stature, sitting out on the lawn of his new property as students drilled the steps of Balanchine's Tarantella, taught to them by Melissa Hayden in the studio a few feet away.
"We got to be friends. We were looking for a summer program for Brittany, and Ethan was wanting a place for Stiefel & Stars," said Mr. Melone, who owns a house on Eel Pond. "I knew August was the nicest month here, but there was no place to dance."
So while some doting fathers might buy a promising daughter a new pair of toe shoes or schlep her to dance classes, Mr. Melone built his daughter a studio and sponsored a program to inhabit it: Stiefel & Students is the result.
"This is more interesting than normal investment banking things," he said.
After scouting Vineyard venues for possible rehearsal and performance space with Mr. Stiefel last November, Mr. Melone decided to buy and renovate property within walking distance of his Edgartown home - and within easy reach of downtown, where students can roam on foot during brief snatches of downtime.
He and Mr. Stiefel agreed that the three-week summer program would culminate in two performances, both benefits for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Stiefel & Stars will showcase an array of selections from popular ballets on Thursday and Stiefel & Students perform Saturday, both at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school.
The facility Mr. Melone built, with the help of off-Island construction crews working overtime, is state of the art. Each of the studio spaces is equipped with professional lighting, stereos, baby grand pianos and modern flooring designed to limit impact on dancers' joints. Mr. Melone would not discuss the cost of the project.
A Day With the Company
On an afternoon last week, Mr. Stiefel prepares a group of boys (a third of the students) for a Neapolitan dance from Swan Lake. Their physiques, like Mr. Stiefel's, manage to look at once compact and elongated, depending upon the step. Their thin frames are deceptive - male dancers are among the strongest of athletes.
"Come on, you have to make it happen, man! It's up on one. The glissades have got to be quicker. You can't just wait there!" Mr. Stiefel stands in front of the boys as they work, admonishing them without berating. Much has been written about his Harley riding and "one of the guys" upbringing in Wisconsin. He is reverential about his art without falling down the prima donna trap that engulfs some of the dancers who make it to the top.
Blond, blue-eyed and confident, Mr. Stiefel, 31, seems at ease as a coach. He knows that to reach these boys he has to get to their psychology, not just their feet.
"I know that's not how you want to finish, but you have to finish the position," he says to a student whose frustration over a jump is shutting him down. "You have to work with what you have today."
Sitting at the piano after they break for lunch, Mr. Stiefel talks about his motivation for adding instruction to his repertoire while still in the prime of his performing career.
He says he wishes that when he was coming up, there were more opportunities for students to learn from their idols, to actually share a stage with them. It is this model on which he's based his fledgling school.
"Through working and actually performing with professionals, kids get a feeling for how it's supposed to be," he says. "They need to be exposed to diverse repertoire, too, from the corps de ballet to Broadway choreography - that's the reality of dance in America today."
He stresses the need for a strong base of training - "clean never goes out of style in ballet" - before dancers attain the artistry that comes through experience.
Mr. Stiefel credits Mr. Melone with the idea for the program, and for funding its first year. He will charge tuition to students in future summers but admits, as does Mr. Melone, that the American dance world is seldom self-sustaining.
Another champion of Stiefel & Students is Ms. Hayden, former New York City Ballet star who has taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts for years. "I've never had such pleasure working with students," Ms. Hayden, 80, said by phone. She said it was a joy to watch the students become friends, bunking together two to four to a room, watching dance videos, creeping back into the studio to dance after formal rehearsals had finished.
But it was the collision of "firsts" that made this teaching experience stand out, Ms. Hayden said. "The newness of the building, being part of something that's never happened before. The leader of the pack sets the tone, which Ethan has done. He's built an ambience. And Tom Melone created a place for dancers. It's first class."
The large dance compound lies partly in a residential zone and partly in a commercial zone, and some of its neighbors along Curtis Lane are questioning its intended use.
"The house is lovely but it's not in keeping with the neighborhood," said Sylvia Thomas, whose family has owned a home at 40 Curtis Lane since 1935. Among her complaints are the traffic imposed on the street by the house's six-car parking area, and trash cans lining the fence, creating an eyesore for neighbors who only drag their cans out on pickup day.
"The cars are stacked one behind another, hanging out onto the road," Ms. Thomas said. "There's no illusion of this being a private residence."
The issue of usage is key. The building inspector's office has informed residents like Ms. Thomas and Jean Andrews that the dance studio and several bedrooms in the building, at 26 Curtis Lane, are intended as a private space for Brittany Melone and her dance tutor.
"It's a fine line between a business and a residence," said Ms. Andrews, who lives on Clark street.
"Private use doesn't mean a dormitory or a dance school," added Ms. Thomas.
Also in question is how these two studios will be utilized the other 11 months of the year.
Mr. Melone has indicated a willingness to let the community borrow his facility if interest is expressed. He said he will take any proposal to the town. "I want to stay in good graces with the town," he said. "I don't want to jeopardize the neighbors." Meanwhile, he has also purchased two more commercial lots on Upper Main street; one of these is an abandoned house which he hopes to renovate to provide additional housing for dancers.
For the moment, all energy inside the walls of the Melone studios is focused on showtime. Both Mr. Stiefel and Mr. Melone hope to attract an audience eager for top-drawer dancers and repertoire on the Island. With it, they say, Stiefel and his Stars and Students will become an annual August fixture.
Stiefel and Stars perform Thursday, August 26, at 7:30 p.m. Stiefel and Students perform Saturday, August 28, at 7:30 p.m. Both shows are the Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $25 to $60, available at the high school box office Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. and at the door.