Patricia Nanon is back in the barn. She may need her dancers as a barre to balance herself these days, she may choreograph with the aid of a rehearsal assistant, but there she is in the Chilmark studio that bears her name at The Yard. Now in her eighties, the tiny dancer who founded this unique performing arts colony is there entrancing the elite dancers, preparing to debut another new work.
"Every year we think, ‘Is she going to do this again?' And she does," marvels Linda Tarnay, the head of dance at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "Pat is definitely one of the wonders of the dance world."
The new work is called Today Tomorrow Yesterday. On a chilly day in June, early in the six-week rehearsal of the piece which premiered later that month, Ms. Nanon sat in a rocker outside the Chilmark Store, wrapping herself in a purple suede coat and in memories.
"I've always been so lucky," she says, breaking off a piece of an oversized chocolate chunk cookie. She is under doctor's orders to try to gain weight; less than five feet tall, she would need hefty baggage to tip 100 on the scales.
The luminous blue eyes, now deeply recessed amid tanned laugh lines, belonged in the 1940s to an accomplished ballerina who proudly arrived at Bennington College to study at what was a hotbed of modern dance. "But I had never been to a modern dance class," she says. "I was in shock. And then my ego was hurting."
Not for long, though. She loved the expressiveness of the modern movement vocabulary. "Turns were never my forte," she says with a wave of her cigarette, perilously long with ash.
Ms. Nanon left college and landed a part in Sing Out Sweet Land with Alfred Drake and Burl Ives. How? "It was pretty much, there I was in a Broadway show!" She studied with the pioneering Martha Graham, danced with leaders of what was at the time radical modern choreography, such as Doris Humphrey and Hanya Holm. "I was born in a golden era," she says of her contemporaries.
When the show went on the road, she did not want to go with it. A choreographer by nature, she didn't fancy the idea of repeating steps endlessly. So she landed next at Cornell University, a young woman barely out of college herself, suddenly teaching.
"They were all so tall!" she marvels of her students. How did she get them to pay attention? "They had to!" she laughs. She tried to crack jokes. When it didn't work, she tried attitude. It worked, then and always. "She has always displayed humor, determination and perseverance," says former, longtime Yard general manager DiAnn Ray.
Ms. Nanon squashes the cigarette under her tiny brown suede earth shoe and opens a slim, gold-rimmed case for another.
"But I thought 57th street was the centre of the universe," she says. "I couldn't stay away too long."
Back in New York, she presented new works of modern dance through the Choreographers' Workshop. She only left that when she scored a gig with Dumont television, producing new dances every week for a nationally broadcast show as variety television was enthralling America. "I loved it - the place wasn't unionized then and I got to do everything."
The boys there didn't even notice the swelling of her belly, but soon Ms. Nanon had a child, then a second. She left the job and the family moved to Westchester. "Still I took whatever opportunity I could have or invent to keep a finger in art," she winks.
While raising her three daughters, Ms. Nanon taught dance. "I particularly loved the little ones, like four years old, and the teenagers - the ones lots of people don't like to teach," she says. The Broadway star remembers the children's productions - the stories, the costumes, the choreography, even the little performers - as vividly as her professional turns.
As her children grew, Ms. Nanon discovered Martha's Vineyard. "I fell in love hook, line and sinker," she smiles. "I was a very formal person, with a very formal upbringing, and I was entranced by the seven o'clock sunset at the cliffs at Gay Head, the whole relaxed way of being here." She badgered her husband until they finally found their own home here.
Then, piece by piece, she built what has become her legacy to the Island and to modern dance, The Yard. Meanwhile, her teenaged daughters were working at art galleries on Circuit avenue, cleaning houses, teaching art. Now, all three come to her annual premieres at The Yard, bringing their own growing children. They were all at the premiere of Today Tomorrow Yesterday, to watch this piece Ms. Nanon describes as more like a novel than a short story.
She has spent a lot of time alone developing this piece, a study in the contrasts of manic depression. "They call it bi-polar these days," she nods.
With intimate detail and deep understanding, she introduces and develops the "hypers" as she calls them - wildly dancing, mad Sunday driving, jumping like deer - and the "despressives." But in act three, they transform one to another. Because, she says, slowly and thoughtfully, "nobody is one or the other."
Ms. Nanon has decades of sophisticated choreography behind her, but she admits she struggled with how to end this piece. She knew neither group could win. "I had a hell of a time, thinking what to do," she says. "I thought, there is no way of getting out of this." Yet each side, she muses, needs the other, a point she believes is made in the dance.
At the time of the interview she was still finalizing steps. "I got off on the wrong track in the third section, and, oh, I panicked because I had much too much material but still it just wasn't saying what I wanted it to." At last it worked.
She smiles, but she is distracted, working out the week's rehearsal schedule with emerging choreographer Adam Hougland, who this year has the prestigious Patricia Nanon residency at The Yard and will present work in the same program.
Her music is done. Her costumes are to be fitted that day. She has a deadline for the program notes, and is still torn about how much to reveal in her explanation of Today Tomorrow Yesterday and how much to leave for the audience to interpret.
Is it as much fun as ever? "No," sighs Ms. Nanon. "Because I get too tired. The joys and the despair - that's another dance - are there as they have always have been there, but the despair comes more quickly. I do get very tired. There just isn't enough time. I do so little else. I used to even go to the beach sometimes during the six weeks [of the residency and rehearsal]. Now, are you kidding? I really don't get to do anything else. And I don't like to talk about my health either."
Her doctor has told her he knows no one else her age who do as much as she does. But she suffers for it, waking up aching.
Most of the time, she doesn't let on. She zips through up-Island dirt roads in her shiny convertible, even though the rheumatoid arthritis in her fingers makes it hard to get the thing in gear.
Few people like to age, fewer still dancers. Friends say Ms. Nanon has done pilates for years, had a hot tub and tried other ways to keep her body going. They also suggest, however, that the limits of the body have had an expanding impact on her choreography. Legendary choreographer George Ballanchine said there was a benefit to his being injured young, because he learned to work with movement vocabularies beyond his own.
Some close to Ms. Nanon believe she is doing some of her best work in years. "Absolutely not," she scoffs, though agreeing her issues have become more complex and personal.
Ms. Ray notes: "As Patricia has matured and has dealt with the issues of family and loss and things like that, she has become increasingly reflective about life with a big L."
Of course, Ms. Nanon's own life's work has been not just her own dancing, but building this place of experimentation for other dancers.
When it began 34 years ago, The Yard had none of the professional patina it has today. Like much of the Vineyard, it retains its relaxed environmental feel while actually becoming a slick operation. It is hard to recall that once there were no formal application guidelines, deadlines or even a theatre. "I just wanted a place for people to be creative," Ms. Nanon simply explains. Sometimes, dancers are mistaken that The Yard's funding is as lavish as its opportunities. One who complained about taking the bus from Boston drew a tongue-in-cheek retort from Ms. Nanon: "Tell him the corporate jet is not available."
NYU's Ms. Tarnay, who is on the board of directors, recalls when she came for her first residency at The Yard in the 1970s: "We were being rehearsed in a hay barn, which Pat rented from David Flanders off Middle Road. There was literally hay in one end and a stage in the other. We had a blue outhouse and we changed costumes in an old school bus."
There were no stage lights. Ms. Ray recalls "at least one piece lit by headlights from a car in the back side of barn."
In her glassy, contemporary Island home, Ms. Nanon became a legendary cook and entertainer. Ms. Ray says, "Pat loves social occasions, loved a party, social dancing, loved to flirt - in the innocent sense - with those gorgeous big blue eyes."
Islander and friend Anne Gallagher agrees. "She is never, never dull. But whatever conversation you start with Patricia, you end up talking The Yard. It all comes back to that," she says.
Ms. Gallagher says Ms. Nanon has educated the Vineyard to modern dance.
"I am so impressed with her vision to have a place where artists could come without pressure of a performance. I have watched the calibre of students, and what she has done is unique. She put her own money in. She danced, she put on pieces of her own, she interviewed the dancers, she saw every detail to fruition. She would go to schools or adult groups, anybody, she spread herself all around for this cause. A lot of people have a vision, but not too many pull it off like she has," Ms. Gallagher says.
Ms. Tarnay adds: "Just the blessing of having the dancers there with nothing to do but dance - they don't have to run off to their part-time job, scrounge every week looking for a studio to rehearse in . . . ."
Is the need as great as it was when The Yard began 34 years ago? "Absolutely," Ms. Tarnay says.
Will it outlast Ms. Nanon? "It has to," Ms. Tarnay says, "because it helps choreographers at the most perilous stage in their careers, when they are still emerging."
But she agrees, nothing is certain in the arts. "I think it's a miracle it has kept going. Few arts organizations go three decades, especially one that supports such an edgy kind of art. This is not The Nutcracker, it's unpredictable, cutting-edge art," she says.
Few have such a feisty, unpredictable woman behind them, either. Patricia Nanon smiles at that, but shrugs off a comment. She stubs out a cigarette in an old coffee can and heads back into the latest incarnation of the barn, a 100-seat theatre where her life's work continues.