A Dancer’s Legacy

Pretty straw hats hung in the trees on Saturday afternoon at The Yard, a quiet adornment to the hushed, leafy campus off Middle Road in Chilmark that has served as a summer colony and retreat for dancers and choreographers for thirty five years. A small crowd gathered to remember the life of Patricia Nanon, the woman who created this place which is the Vineyard’s Jacob’s Pillow.

Inside the barn that is dedicated to Ms. Nanon, fans whirred softly, stirring the humid air. People sat in the tiny theatre and listened to sweet, simple eulogies infused with memories from two daughters and two grandchildren, and watched Wendee Rogerson perform a stunningly beautiful short dance piece in Patricia’s memory. A large vase of flowers stood in the shadow box at the rear of the theatre, illuminated softly by a single stage light above. At the conclusion of her dance, Wendee stood quietly in front of the flowers and bowed her head once before exiting back stage.

“This is the new life of The Yard, but Patricia is still everywhere, as you can see,” said artistic director Wendy Taucher in remarks.

“She always said be open, come without preconceptions, don’t predict, express your emotions. If you feel like laughing, laugh. If you feel like crying, cry,” said former executive director DiAnn Ray.

“Patricia sowed the seeds and nourished the garden — now it is up to us to keep it going.”

And so it is.

Patricia Nanon was trained in ballet in the 1940s but later became swept up in the modern dance movement, studying with the pioneers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Hanya Holm.

She died in March of this year at the age of 84.

Thanks to the generosity of her family, the summer dance colony will remain in perpetuity; last year the Nanon family granted ownership of the Chilmark property to The Yard.

On Saturday as I listened and looked around and held hands with everyone in a circle afterward during the planting of Kousa dogwood in Patricia’s memory, I thought about this gift and this place and how it reminds me a little of Chautauqua, New York, where I visited often during childhood summers. My sister is a dancer and she studied at Chautauqua, among other places. With her background — classically trained in ballet but later becoming immersed in the expressive and creative world of modern dance — I have always thought she would like to study at The Yard.

The late Martha Graham said: “Great dancers are not great because of their technique. They are great because of their passion.”

Patricia Nanon had passion. She had the foresight and determination to create a legacy. And these days, when it seems like the Vineyard is for sale to the highest bidder, I am struck by the fact that her gift to the Island is not measured in dollars, but in the elegant, wordless expression of a short dance by Wendee Rogerson in the tiny barn theatre off Middle Road in Chilmark.

— Julia Wells