The Art of Making Dance
Lisa Hahn keeps the dream of her mother, the noted dancer Ina Hahn, alive in Pigeon Cove
The sign is very easy to miss when you’re driving through Rockport’s Pigeon Cove. But the Windhover mystique is by design.
“Ina wanted it that way,” says Lisa Hahn, Executive Director of the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts. “My mother (Ina Hahn) believed that Windhover was a place of magic, beauty, and discovery. She cultivated the secret. She deliberately just hung the sign on Granite Street with no explanation and no marketing. She wanted people to discover it for themselves.”
Deliberate and mysterious, Windhover is a little village of one-of-a-kind buildings: a few cottages, a chapel, a barn, a dance studio, and an outdoor stage. Originally a small farm — the last working farm in the Cove — it was redesigned in 1967 as a performing arts center for dance and theater by Ina Hahn and her husband, Herbert. Fifty years later, its mission is the same: to showcase quality performances designed to foster imagination and connection to the outdoors.
Windhover is more than just a place. It is the life-long dream of its founder. To understand the place, one must also understand Ina, a world-renowned modern dance choreographer, a Broadway star, and Rockport resident who made sure the art of dance merged with the already rich artistic tradition of Cape Ann. Ina died in January, 2016, at the age of 86.
Windhover is a magical place.
Young and old are drawn to Windhover. Dance is magical, and it is the natural movement of children. My mother’s work has some of that magic in it, too.
How did it get its start?
When my father and mother saw the property in 1967, it was a transformational moment — it all came together. They knew in an instant that it could become a performing arts center with a dance studio.
Windhover is the best part of my parents coming together and dreaming. My father was a self-taught architect and collector of antiques, as well as a teacher of English literature. He looked for churches that were run down and would buy the architectural salvage and stained-glass windows. He was a collector before he bought Windhover. He transformed all the buildings on the property.
The small cottages, which are individually named, are original outbuildings, including my favorite: the former slaughterhouse. I remember looking down at the floor of the building and my father saying, ‘We are going to put in a new floor and a Tiffany lamp and this place will be called Tiffany!’ Wood Nymph was the chicken coop. The Music Barn was a horse stable. My father built some of the buildings from scratch; the Chapel is one of them. The dance studio is the other. It’s the last building he worked on before he died.
You’re known for the Quarry Dances.
The Quarry Dances are art and nature together. My mother believed in the art of dance in natural surroundings which is why Windhover meant so much to her. It was a quintessential idea of hers, having dance outdoors, no fuss, not a lot of sets, not a lot of stuff. It’s about the wind and the trees, and even the turkeys, the flowers, the plants, the stars. The natural backdrop of the stage — there really is nothing like it.
I never got to see Ina’s choreography performed. Do you have a favorite piece?
Many people who come to Windhover are unaware of my mother’s choreography. It is my intention to reconstruct some of her works this summer so that people can get reacquainted with it. I would like to revive one of Ina’s iconic pieces called “Cycle.” This dance was my mother’s favorite. It’s about the cycle of life, a short piece about a mother and child that is no more than five minutes. The dance begins with a young child who is dependent on the mother. Then, the dance shifts to a duet depicting the time the mother and child spend together as equals. As the mother fails, the child takes her place. The dancers end as they began yet have changed places. This piece is never dated and represents one of the big ideas that she worked with.
Your mother achieved a certain level of fame in the dance world, yet here she was in Rockport of all places! How did she get her big break?
Ina was born to move and loved dance. She went to Newton High School and graduated from Wellesley College in 1950. She moved to New York, danced in small repertoire company productions, and auditioned for Broadway. Her first Broadway show was The King and I, but her big break was when she was cast as the understudy to Gwen Verdon in Can-Can.
My mother would tell this story like it was yesterday. Gwen hurt her shoulder early on in the show. It was a Saturday night, and there was a matinee performance earlier in the day. Before the evening show, she went to dinner, had a glass of wine, and walked back to the theater. The cast was waiting for her, saying “You’re on! You’re on tonight!” and she was like, “Oh my God, I’m the understudy and tonight I’ll be the star of the show.”
She had an extraordinary performance that was written up in all the New York papers, with headlines like “Ina Hahn, the understudy is now the lead in Can-Can.” It was a discovery moment. She went from Can-Can to other major shows on Broadway like Plain and Fancy and worked with the choreographers she most revered like Michael Kidd and Jerome Robbins.
She felt that Michael Kidd was more brilliant than Robbins. Until her dying day, she wanted a dance company to revive Kidd’s choreography. She had Broadway fame, which never left her.
Describe Ina’s influence on modern dance.
Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey are the iconic figures of modern dance. Ina was a contemporary of Paul Taylor and José Limón, all of whom are second-generation choreographers of modern dance. Third generation choreographers influenced by them include creators like Dusan Tynek, a Czech choreographer, who choreographs the Quarry Dance. Ina discovered Dusan in New York and loved that he used literature and art for his subject matter, just like she did.
How did Ina discover modern dance?
She discovered serious modern dance during a summer dance program at Connecticut College in New London, Conn. That’s where she met Doris Humphrey. She also enrolled in dance classes with Martha Graham in New York City. Graham offered Ina a position in the soon-to-be-famous Martha Graham Dance Company. My mother did not take that position. She was fond of telling us that she never regretted what she had done, and tried to make positive choices, but that was one decision she looked back on and wondered what life would have been like had she taken it.
In an interesting twist, Ina actually ended up working against Martha Graham’s style. She knew the technique, knew the pieces, had performed them, and felt that the technique was filled with angst, that it was restricting, and overly dramatic. It was egotistical choreography about the star and the lead character, who Martha always played. It was hierarchical. When my mother discovered Doris Humphrey, it was the exact opposite.
What was your mother’s connection with Doris Humphrey?
Doris had a technique that was in keeping with how my mother moved and danced and her philosophical beliefs. Humphrey’s dance was about joy and passion, based on gravity — falling away and coming back. Humphrey talked about her work as being the arch between two deaths. The two deaths are absolute vertical, which is stasis, and absolute horizontal, also stasis; motions that are motionless. Exciting movement happens in the arch between the two. It is a beautiful, elegant, simple vision. Humphrey was an early pioneer in modern dance, ahead of her time. A visionary. She was at her most creative just as modern dance was being freed from ballet and the constraints of the past.
Doris Humphrey wrote a seminal book about modern dance called The Art of Making Dances. My mother felt this book was her bible. She taught it, breathed it, experienced it, and passed the philosophy onto generations. It was part of her being. I refer to that book often to remind me about what it takes to make a great dance. As an audience member you want to have a critical eye.
These early visionaries, including my mother, used metaphors that were inspired by poetry, literature, art, and music. Dance is the physical manifestation of that inspiration.
Did she have an overall philosophy that carried throughout her work?
Ina’s focus was on big ideas and serving those ideas. She wanted to serve the pure joy of moving. One of her pieces is called “The Pleasure of Merely Circulating.” This dance is similar to Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade,” which I think is one of the great masterpieces of modern dance. It celebrates moving, starts with walks, moves into runs and skips and falls and leaping into arms. It is a gripping feeling of the joy of moving in the world, movements that everyone can do and graduating to more complicated movements.
How did Ina go about her work?
Some of the earliest memories I have of my mother are embedded in choreography. She was always creating. My mother never stayed still. She was always working. She did floor work, barre work, and she practiced every day.
Much of her choreography came from surprises. She had a beautiful studio on Center Street in Gloucester. Later, she moved her classes to the dance studio here at Windhover. Members of her dance company would work on concepts that she choreographed in the studio by herself. But, when the choreography is translated to the dancers, mistakes can happen. My mother wanted to capture those moments. She would say, “That mistake that you think you just made, that was brilliant. Do it again!” Or, “Stop. Freeze. Go back and repeat.”
Was she connected to other artists on Cape Ann?
Cape Ann was important to her. She did a piece honoring the Folly Cove Designers. Luckily, the Folly Cove Designers are becoming better known as a result of the Cape Ann Museum’s permanent exhibit. Ina brought these designs and textiles to life through the movement of dance. There is one dance called The Gossips, which is based on a design by Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios. Ina believed these women needed to be celebrated, so why not do it in dance?
What’s happening with Windhover now that you have taken over as its director?
I am continuing Ina’s legacy while also having my own vision going forward. Windhover will be a summer-only performing arts center focused on dance, theater, and movement. I hope to have experimental theater return.
Of course, we will continue to host well-known dance companies, including the Dusan Tynek Dance Theater and the Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company. The Dusan Tynek Dance Company will return this summer in July for Quarry Dance 6 and a two-week dance intensive for teens. Paul Taylor 2 will be back for a mini dance festival in late June. We are exploring ideas with Rockport Music, which may include open rehearsals or master classes here.
Our most exciting news is that Windhover is forging ahead to build a new indoor theater. We do not have enough space currently to accommodate a large audience if we need to move a performance inside due to inclement weather. Ina was behind the indoor theater, which will help us expand and maintain the natural, rustic, magical beauty of the place.
Ina founded Windhover based on the connection between dance, performance, and nature. The architecture and design of this special place will remain intact as will the overall vision my parents had for Windhover, bringing the visual arts into the out of doors in harmony with nature.
Eoin Vincent is a Rockport-based photographer.
► Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, 257 Granite Street, Rockport. (978) 546 3611. The 2017 season begins with a dance performance by Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company on Thursday, June 29 at 7:30pm. For more details, visit the website.