On Janet Holladay’s nursery school report it read “Janet loves to move to the music.”
She began tap dancing at the age of five, but it wasn’t until she was an adult and newly-single that she started partner dancing.
“Like Goldilocks, partner dancing fit me perfectly — it wasn’t small like belly dancing, it wasn’t big like expressive movement . . . it was the right speed, the right intensity . . . the right music,” she said, while sitting on a chair at a recent rehearsal, her eyes closed and feet slightly tapping. “Partner dancing is the sizzle when you cook. It’s the smack of a baseball into an outfielder’s glove, it’s a biker moving into the curve and a singer’s voice blending into the choir. It’s the ocean saltwater unfolding your body, it’s the sunrise colors steaming your eyes.”
Ms. Holladay is one of 25 Vineyarders setting their personal stories to dance for From the Horse’s Mouth, a collection of short vignettes to be performed at the Yard starting Thursday. Last week, Ms. Holladay met with choreographer James Cunningham to develop her story. The instructions from Mr. Cunningham were simple: tell me a story.
“To partner dance is to be happy,” Ms. Holladay said. “But the thing about partner dancing is that you do it with a partner. My disappointment with partner dancing is that you need a partner.”
“You don’t have one?” Mr. Cunningham asked.
“No,” she laughed. “That’s my problem and we were supposed to bring our problems.”
“Are you talking about life or art or both?” Mr. Cunningham asked.
Ms. Holladay paused. “I actually would do either,” she said. “When I first wrote it, I said one needs a partner. And then I said no, that’s me.”
The choreographer and dancer spoke then of how to enhance this idea and give the twist of a partner dancer needing a partner extra emphasis. Ms. Holladay, who can be seen on many dance floors across the Island, said when she performs it is usually through song or dance.
“That’s one of the nice things about this piece, you get to talk and a lot of dancers have never done that,” Mr. Cunningham said.
From the Horse’s Mouth is a mixture of spoken word, movement improvisation and choreographed movement, all coming together to tell stories in a “moving memory quilt.” Some stories are humorous, some serious, but they are always personal, Mr. Cunningham said.
Mr. Cunningham and fellow choreographer Tina Croll have been creating From the Horse’s Mouth dance pieces for the past 14 years, working with 1,000 different people, all of whom produce different stories and dances. The productions range from tributes to particular people such as Martha Graham to community gatherings such as this week’s performance at the Yard. The dancers first meet with the choreographers to develop their stories and then return for a second rehearsal to set the story to movement.
In an interview after the rehearsal, Ms. Croll said this type of piece allows both choreographers and audience members to get to know the dancers on an intimate level.
“Hearing a dancer tell a story, it breaks through that wall that you have about a dancer as a distant precious creature; you get to know them,” Ms. Croll said.
Leading by example, Mr. Cunningham frequently begins each interview session with his own story.
“When I was about 14, I was obviously being very difficult and my mother sent me to a [child psychiatrist],” he said. “That was the first person I ever said [the words], ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m attracted to me.’ He [the psychiatrist] told me some of the most distinguished men and women in history have loved their own sex, and honestly, it was like he flicked a rhinoceros off my back.”
“I tell them that because I want to tell something personal and they need that encouragement,” he added.
Mr. Cunningham said one of his favorite tales came from a “beautiful Indian classical dancer, a middle-aged woman who said, ‘I’ve been dancing for 30 years and I realize now that dancing is what brings me closer to God; dancing and a night of good sex.’”
“The audience sat up on that one,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Back at rehearsal, Mr. Cunningham was trying to extract a conflict out of Tsuyu Bridwell, who had immigrated to Paris when she was young to study ballet. She now lives and dances on the Vineyard.
“What comes into your head, what kind of conflict, big or small, did you have to deal with in your own life?” Mr. Cunningham asked. “It doesn’t have to be about dance. Tell me something else that comes into your head.”
Ms. Bridwell paused to think.
“Was it difficult being Japanese in France?” Mr. Cunningham asked.
“Yes,” Ms. Bridwell replied. “I think it was more complicated because I’m half Japanese and half Korean.”
“Okay, tell me about that.”
“I came to France in a time when there were not too many Asian people besides Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees,” she began with a melange of Japanese, Korean and French accents. “To be really integrated into the French culture and the French life you had to speak it fluently, which feels very different now because I have two children. Now I see if you have different cultures and you speak different languages you are more nourished. Back then, you had to speak French in order to be like the French people.”
Mr. Cunningham asked if the same was true when she came to New York city after an opportunity to be in a play. Ms. Bridwell said American culture was much more accepting.
“We could talk about that,” suggested Mr. Cunningham, and then, without hesitation, Ms. Bridwell began to tell her story.
“The first time I came to New York I thought, oh my God, there are lots of people like me . . . they never asked me where I came from because you’re just a New Yorker,” she said. “I remember the first time I took a subway in New York, there were as many Asians who were speaking perfect English than there were white or black. In France back then, they were asking me where I came from and if I still ate with chopsticks or a fork and knife. When you come from another country, in New York it’s a complete melting pot.”
After Ms. Bridwell finished, ballroom dancing couple Tom and Dorothy Newton walked in to the studio; he wore black dance sneakers, she dressed in elegant high heels. Mr. and Mrs. Newton moved to the Vineyard full-time in 1996. They had a lot of experience with ballroom dancing, and after they saw an advertisement in the Gazette, they began dancing at St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown, later the founding site of Ballroom Dance Martha’s Vineyard.
“It’s a wonderful nucleus of Islanders and visitors who gather each Sunday night for lessons and ballroom dance. The journey of 16 years continues to this day,” Mrs. Newton said.
“We are still getting together each Sunday night of the year,” Mr. Newton continued. “And as Dorothy and I like to say, to dance is to live,” they said together, throwing their hands in the air.
Mr. Cunningham wanted more and encouraged them to share the story of how they met.
“This man had a German shepherd dog that he wanted to breed and I had a German shepherd kennel, and that’s the story,” Mrs. Newton said. “I was breeding, judging and training.”
“We’ve been together for 41 years,” Mr. Newton added.
“Honestly,” Mr. Cunningham said. “That’s inspiring.”
The evening’s rehearsal had come to a close and Mr. Cunningham reflected on the assortment of dancers that From the Horse’s Mouth brings together.
“The piece is very inclusive,” he said. “It’s all ages, races, sexes, cultures and I think that’s part of what’s interesting about it, they all dance in their own style. It always reminds me of a little United Nations on the hoof – you get everything.”
From the Horse’s Mouth is performed Thursday and Friday, August 2 and 3, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, August 4, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for students. For tickets and more information visit dancetheyard.org or call 508-645-9662.