Patricia Nanon: Artist's Vision Gave Dancers a Gift of Time


Seven dancers, spring-wound and fluid, prance and twirl across the unlit stage to the dissonant tones and rhythmic clamor coming from a portable CD player. In shades of gray and black they spin and pose in preparation for this weekend's season opening of The Yard.

Wearing a pale yellow jersey and peach-colored tights, The Yard's founder, choreographer Patricia Nanon, stares intently from where she sits on a viewing tier among the dancers' abandoned clothing, tennis shoes and necessary clutter. The dancers leap - and she discreetly writes a note on her clipboard pad. They suddenly collapse into different knots - and nodding slightly, she scribbles another notation.

As she has been for the past 31 years, she is engrossed in the details and nuances of movement. While she will continue choreographing, this is her last week as the artistic director of the "colony for performing artists," a responsibility about to be be assumed by Lois Welk.

"Don't shift your hips," she gently tells a dancer as the rehearsal ends. She gives a brief demonstration, then floats among the towering columns of dancers to dispense critiques. "And the solution of the space over here?" she asks, pointing a thin finger. "Do we come down on three?" She begins counting out the rhythm, and soon a member of the troupe takes over.

"They know I get exhausted having to say it again and again, and then one of them gets it and will say: ‘What she wants is . . .' "

Dancers cluster against the wall, talk in pairs, melt into yoga positions as she moves among them, reminding them to twist and breathe and "Don't throw your head back."

And when the rehearsal is over, they thank each other and applaud, as is the custom.

"The more you demand," Ms. Nanon says slyly, "the more you'll get."

The 2003 season opens this weekend with four new pieces that demonstrate the sweeping range of contemporary dance. The program will close with Waiting, Ms. Nanon's creative exploration of the ways in which people handle situations involving waiting. It is set to Roger Sessions' Rhapsody. At her request, the final movement was commissioned from nationally recognized dance composer, Scott Killian, who regularly collaborates with Ms. Nanon.

"For me particularly, I have a concept I have in my mind before I start with the dancers. I use a tremendous amount of imagery. I have an image for everything," she says, and she stands to demonstrate "arrogance."

The dancers have dispersed and Ms. Nanon sits on one of the shady benches in the two-and-a-half-acre artists colony in Chilmark. As she speaks, first pausing to consider her responses, she opens a worn, monogrammed cigarette case. With fingers as long and thin as new pencils, she carefully draws out a cigarette, explains offhandedly that she's addicted, and lights it.

"I'm very much concerned with what I call the arc: Where is it going; what is it I want to say?" She is speaking about the structure of a dance.

"Some choreographers start with an idea and let the movement lead them. I'm very controlling. I want to know what my point is. I'm a planner."

Ms. Nanon admits she has a signature style, "quite eclectic," but also influenced strongly by having studied with Martha Graham when she attended Bennington College (Class of 1944).

"But I like it very much when dancers are experienced and I can expect them to contribute. I might do a short improvisation: ‘Go upstage left. Now, you know why you're going there and who you are? Now how would you do it?' "

She is so adamant about not revealing her age that one is drawn into protecting her privacy. She admits she has slowed down and says, "I have no technique left," but quickly adds, "I have so much drama and determination and rhythmicality."

And should one think speed relates to clarity - "Now everything is not how thorough, but how fast" - she declares, "I am a fiend about details: where the head is, where the focus is. I'm an absolute fiend about detail in everything in my life, even the placement of something in the room."

Ms. Nanon, a striking woman who can shift from fierce to coy with a blink of her electric blue eyes, smiles as her attention is directed to founding the The Yard on Tabor House Road in 1973. Her "menopause baby," she calls it, "so innocent." That was approximately 200 original works and more than 625 resident, professional artists ago.

"Thirty-one years ago, when I started The Yard, I wanted to choreograph and I wanted colleagues around me who would have the same benefits. It served a very practical purpose."

She repeats The Yard's mission, "to support, nurture, create and to perform. That's the basic thing. Many places are workshops and don't support the creation and performance."

There's so much going on on the Island, she sighs, "Everyone fighting for the audience and the dollar." She declares herself releived to be shedding the administrative burden of artistic director, noting the administrative changes, the various bylaws and details that reflect The Yard's growth and expansion.

"I'm so proud of this unique organization," she says, eyes shining. "Its reputation is sterling and for a very good reason: the pieces created, the growth of the audience, the impact on the community and community involvement."

The attention will now be focused on choreographing new pieces and "doing the things I've never had time to do. I adore choreographing. I adore my Menopause Baby. I love, love the Island, and my beautiful home in Chilmark. Those are the things that I don't want to change."