Alison Manning and Jesse Keller can always return to the dance floor. It’s a lesson they learned at the age of six when they began to dance, and one they’ve carried with them throughout their careers. Now they hope to teach that to the next generation.
“I think Alison and I can both say that we wouldn’t have gotten to the places where we are now without the discipline of dance,” Ms. Keller said sitting on the dance floor of the Yard’s theatre this week as she warmed up for her next rehearsal.
“What we do here is a direct result of having creative inspirations and the outlets that our parents put us in,” Ms. Manning added. “One of the biggest issues with this Island is there is not access to dance for most people out here, especially in the offseason.”
Ms. Manning, managing director at the Yard, and Ms. Keller, resident director for the Yard of Island programs and education, are finishing their sixth and fifth seasons, respectively at the artist colony in Chilmark. They’ve seen the nonprofit in its darkest days, when it had a deficit of $230,000 in 2010, to its celebration of its 41st season this year with multiple sell-out shows. And with the final show of the season set for this weekend — at which they both will perform — the team behind the inner workings of the Yard is turning their attention to broadening the scope of the Yard’s presence in Island schools.
“We want to start getting dance in the schools as much as possible,” Ms. Keller said. “It is something that disciplines children, it makes them proud and gives them motivation in whatever field they want to go into.”
But first there’s a final show to put on. One weekend at the end of the summer is dedicated to showcasing the talents of the Yard staff, including Ms. Manning and Ms. Keller. On Friday and Saturday at the annual YardWorks performance they will perform original choreography, with help from Yard interns and the Island dance group What’s Written Within.
YardWorks began when artistic and executive director David White came on board in 2011. Ms. Manning said he quickly discovered she and Ms. Keller “were these really serious dance artists.”
“He saw the potential the two of us had,” she continued. “It’s an outlet for Jesse and me as choreographers to make our own work and perform as dancers, as well as an extension of the idea of mentorship of our interns who we bring into this program every year. The interns are a part of the team, and that’s the most surprising thing that’s added to the Dance the Yard collaborative. It feels like everyone has been working together for years and it’s just been a summer, but they jumped in and they love it.”
Ms. Manning came to the Yard by way of a senior thesis project at Marymount Manhattan College. She was creating a hypothetical environmental and dance nonprofit center, and on the recommendation of her thesis advisor she called Wendy Taucher, Yard director at the time, for advice. Ms. Taucher was so impressed with Ms. Manning that she hired her.
Ms. Manning’s introduction to dance began with “tap dancing and rolling around with modern dancers” at an early age with “Vermont hippie-influenced type of experiences,” she said. She also studied under the Jose Limon company and did a Jacob’s Pillow summer residency.
Ms. Manning grew up in the Northeast Kingdom area of Vermont. She said the sense of community there sparked her interest in the community element of the Yard and its potential to thrive in underserved areas.
“I happened to be fortunate enough to have had three very key dance teachers in towns that were pretty far away from me who had migrated to [Vermont] and took us under their wings and gave us so much that so many people up there don’t have,” Ms. Manning said. “The Yard has the capacity to actually make an impact in that way, in a way it hasn’t really done in an in-depth way in the past. David, Jesse and myself feel there’s a way we can have a meaningful and deeply-rooted impact in terms of dance education.”
Ms. Manning and Ms. Keller bring different techniques, both administratively and choreographically, to the table. Take their training, for example. While Ms. Manning began with a more holistic approach, Ms. Keller is a classically trained ballerina.
“I didn’t enjoy dancing until fifth grade and that’s when I made my mind up that I wanted to dance,” Ms. Keller said. “From fifth grade on I was pretty serious about being a dancer and I knew that then.”
Ms. Keller continued with a ballet company through high school before turning to modern dance at Ohio University, where she earned her bachelor’s in fine arts in performance and choreography. She joined the Yard as a summer intern in 2009.
“I came in June and didn’t know what I was coming into, but by the end of July we all started to mesh, and I didn’t want to leave,” Ms. Keller said. She did leave in October of that first year to travel with a modern ballet company but came back for good in 2010.
“I had a strong connection to the Yard and the Island,” Ms. Keller said. “A lot of times I ask myself, could I do one without the other? And I’ve never been that way...they’ve mutually created my life here and I do consider it my home and these people my family.”
YardWorks begins Friday night at 8 p.m., with a Saturday matinee at 11 a.m. and Saturday evening performance at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available at dancetheyard.org.