Patricia N. Nanon, the feisty choreographer who founded The Yard as an informal dance theatre project in 1972, next month will grant full ownership of her multimillion dollar property in the wooded hills of Chilmark to the singular Island arts colony.
The deal provides long-term stability for the The Yard - which has grown from a personal and self-funded endeavor without a home base into a creative crucible for celebrated modern dance artists - at a time when major companies such as Martha Graham Dance Company and Dance Theatre of Harlem are struggling at the financial edge.
Ms. Nanon's gift also provides a springboard for The Yard to take on broader national roles in dance advocacy, education and collaboration with artists outside dance.
"Few dance companies in the world have a home base, a stage to call their own," said Sarah Jane Hughes, the incoming president of The Yard's board of trustees.
The deal transfers ownership of the 2.6 acres and four buildings off Middle Road, including a purpose-built 100-seat black-box dance theatre that bears Ms. Nanon's name, from a family foundation to the nonprofit entity of The Yard. Valued at more than $2 million, the property transfer will be completed on Jan. 18 at a ceremony honoring its founder in New York city, where she lives in the off-season.
It ensures the legacy of the pioneering, still chain-smoking Ms. Nanon, 83, who has been the single driving force financially and artistically behind The Yard. The Nanon family's only stipulation is that The Yard maintain its central mission of providing choreographers and dancers with time and space to create new works.
Sandy Broyard, a Vineyard resident and former Juilliard dancer who studied with Martha Graham, said: "In the world of dance, there really has never been a place like what exists for writers and painters and musicians . . . where artists can have the support and quiet and lack of interruption to pursue their work.
"This is the first place."
Vicki Woolner Samuels, one of Ms. Nanon's three daughters, said yesterday that the property has met its intended destiny. "It could have been sold and developed - but that wasn't my mother's vision. This is the highest and best use of that piece of land, for the Vineyard community and dance community," she said.
The gift deal is the result of consecutive two-year agreements with the Nanon family that forced The Yard to develop a self-sustaining infrastructure and meet demanding fundraising targets and deadlines. Work began under previous executive director DiAnn Ray.
Ms. Hughes said there was "more than a little chance . . . that the [Nanon] foundation would decide not to give us the property and The Yard would have disappeared."
Instead the challenge agreement reinvigorated The Yard, which this year initiated a summer festival that drew wider audiences to the up-Island setting, with a program ranging from jazz, film, satire and poetry to the world-renowned Limon Dance Company. Yard alumni also returned for the festival; MacArthur Award recipient Susan Marshall brought her dance company, while choreographer and Guggeneim award winner David Dorfman performed a solo.
Vineyard resident Sandy Stone, a longtime dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance company, said that earlier in its history The Yard was better known in New York than on the Vineyard, where Islanders often considered it esoteric. The festival, she said, showed The Yard was not just "high art with a capital H."
Called Yard Arts!, the festival was created by Wendy Taucher, a choreographer and opera director who was The Yard's board president for a year before becoming its managing director and curator for special projects in 2005.
"Part of what the festival did is bring more people to The Yard," Ms. Taucher said. Attendance for all programs, including the annual choreographic residency showcases, was up by more than 30 per cent, she said. The festival also built support from the community and from new donors, who helped The Yard's critical campaign to get the property, she said.
Five nights of the festival sold out, as did at least one night for each of the modern dance residencies. The residencies are paid and highly sought-after. "These are the best young modern dancers in the world, or not so young in many cases, and this is an exciting place to see them," Ms. Taucher said of the barn-like theatre near Beetlebung Corner.
Ms. Nanon plans to choreograph another new work in her own residency, one of The Yard's four annual sessions, next summer.
"The Yard has been an inspiring place for me to work for 36 years, as it has been to hundreds of choreographers nationally and internationally," Ms. Nanon said yesterday.
"The need for what The Yard has to offer is still very great to choreographers and dancers. And the need is not likely to go away.
"This is the step that makes the continuance of The Yard possible."
Ms. Taucher agreed. "Patricia wanted to make sure that even without her financial involvement, we could [survive]. It would be like an ad agency if one major client gets yanked. You can't rely on only one major person to support it," she said.
With a broader funding base and ownership of the property, The Yard plans to expand opportunities for artists year-round. Its theatre - heated but not winterized - is out of action from mid to late September until about mid April. But the housing is usable year-round.
The Yard already brings choreographers to work in Island schools throughout the year, but Ms. Taucher hopes to have more artists using the space in the off-season. "Even if they can't use the theatre," she said, suggesting writers, painters, composers, musicians, poets and others could benefit.
New Yard choreography workshops are being planned for both college students and professionals, to be held on the Island and in New York. Discussions are under way with major New York partners to do events exploring dance issues and, said Ms. Taucher, "advocating for the idea that the craft of choreography needs a lot of loving care and attention and more time and money.
"We'd also like to work with some ballet companies training younger dancers about choreography - concepts, not vocabulary - here and in New York."
The Yard will use its Chilmark space as a showcase for what have become the classics of modern dance, many from the era Ms. Nanon emerged from. She has what dancers call "blood memories" of these pieces, their impact etched in her muscles. But contemporary artists and audiences rarely get the opportunity to see modern classics performed.
"It's a way of educating, putting things in context," Ms. Taucher said.
The school programs the Island community enjoys are to be expanded. "Not without serious input from the schools in terms of what's good for them - and each school is different," Ms. Taucher said, noting The Yard takes its role on the Vineyard as seriously as its role in dance.
The illustrious avant-garde choreographer Lucinda Childs now lives on the Vineyard, where she is preparing to choreograph Stravinsky's Le Rossignol and his opera, Oedipus Rex, for Ballet du L'Opéra du Rhin next year. She called the Yard very important.
"Choreographers struggling in New York [need] a place to try out new ideas and explore," Ms. Childs said.
Mr. Dorfman, who last month premiered a new work at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, said yesterday that his 1981 residency at The Yard was his first professional job. For those dancers and choreographers who pursue what Mr. Dorfman calls the risky and lonely job of creating art, "The Yard gives them a network of friends and performers for the rest of their lives." He also said:
"I was on edge [before the agreement was reached]. I literally breathed a sigh of relief, and I think the whole dance community did as well."
Ms. Woolner Samuels called the transfer of the property "the beginning of a whole new chapter, not only in the Vineyard and New York, but nationally," citing something similar to Jacob's Pillow or Tanglewood.
Ms. Taucher will stay on to pursue those goals. "When Patricia told me [the property deal had been approved], she then said, ‘All right, get off the phone, go back to work.
"‘Take care of my baby.'"