A ‘magical hub’ emerges in Rockingham
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Participants in a Contact Improv group workshop at the Field Center in Rockingham.

A ‘magical hub’ emerges in Rockingham

In a sprawling former inn, a new nonprofit offers artistic education and community, with dance and performance at its heart

ROCKINGHAM — In 2020, Nurnia Bowart and Jared Williams, friends and colleagues who are both in the midst of life transitions, decided to become business partners and buy a 48-acre former inn.

As they transform the property into an arts education nonprofit, The Field Center, they are creating what Bowart describes as “a center for contemporary art practices, with dance and performance at its heart.”

No strangers to alternative education, Bowart and Williams met while attending The Putney School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and despite leading quite different lives, they remained friends and stayed in touch.

Bowart went to college at Bryn Mawr, then became a dancer, an artist, and teacher. She did therapeutic work, living in the San Francisco area for many years. She married and started a family.

Williams grew up in the Boston area. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied visual arts, he worked as an illustrator for many years. In 2000, he moved to Brattleboro and got married.

He then moved back to Boston for 20 years. He was practicing the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, which combines elements of dance and acrobatics, and, with Bowart’s encouragement, he began to find a love of improvisational dance.

“The way I do things is to give it my all,” Williams said. “I really wanted to get good at dance. I wanted more access to things. I started to bring in really good dance teachers and producing dance events. I fell in love with teaching improv dancing.”

Williams is the cofounder of the Lion’s Jaw Performance and Dance Festival, a contemporary dance festival in Boston that has been in a state of suspended animation since the pandemic.

Being new to the world of dance, Williams said he naively invited “some high-level dancers to come,” and, to his surprise, they accepted. This created “a bit of a hum” around the festival, he said. That’s when he decided that creating a workshop/performance space might be the next logical step.

Williams and Bowart had talked about becoming partners in the project. Williams wanted to be in the East, and Bowart had just sold a home and, with her children nearly grown, she was ready for a fresh start.

That’s when they discovered the Williams Road property that was purchased in 2010 for $1.9 million by a consortium of biotech colleagues from India, with the intention of creating a spiritual retreat. That plan faltered, and after an incarnation as another inn, by 2019, the buildings were seeing very limited use as Airbnb rentals.

In 2020, the property was back on the market for $750,000, what the real estate ad described as “well below the replacement and assessed values.”

While attending Putney School, both Williams and Bowart had become familiar with the area, and they liked the artistic and creative vibe they found in Bellows Falls’ lively music and arts scene.

After the sale of the property in February of 2021, they moved to the property in the spring, and each lives in one of the three apartments. Field Center chef/artist/dancer Lillian Kane moved into the third.

With the help of many volunteers, some coming for up to three weeks, they began to transform the property into a functioning school, where Bowart is director of systems development and Williams is director of dance and performance programming.

Rounding out the team is Anya Smolnikova, residential life coordinator, who also manages the center’s Working Resident Program, a long-term work exchange for artists.

A campus for 28

According to the town’s most recent grand list, the property, valued at $745,800, is 47.8 acres. It includes the expansive, ruggedly beautiful post-and-beam main structure, a three-apartment building, and a pond that’s a short walk away.

Williams said linens were still on the beds and dishes in the sink when they moved in. Tools, furnishings, and other equipment also came with the buildings.

The Field Center has almost 12,000 square feet at its disposal.

The large main building offers bedrooms with bathrooms for 28 attendees and staff, large practice areas, fireplaces, a sauna, a library, a recording studio, comfortable areas for socializing and watching movies, a woodworking shop, a laundry, a filmmaking studio, smaller classrooms, a large restaurant-level kitchen, and a big dining area. Organic gardens on the property provide food for the kitchen.

Williams said they are in the planning stages of building a performance center next to the main teaching center. One goal: more live performances.

“We have some goals,” Williams acknowledged, “and then there’s what actually happens in life.”

For now, The Field Center is offering three-to-four-day workshops and events based around weekends a couple of times a month, or longer, more immersive workshops up to 10 days once a month.

Local people are welcome to attend, and dancers and artists from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore regularly drive or take Amtrak up to Bellows Falls to attend the programs.

“We usually have at least two teachers for every 15 to 20 students we have attending,” Williams said.

A ‘transformative experience’

Sol Cort, who has attended Center workshops four times, grew up in Harlem and now lives in Philadelphia.

“After graduating college, I came to Vermont for the first time to attend an improv workshop,” Cort said. “It was really transformative. I felt I needed to be here.”

Cort had studied dance in college, ballet and modern dance in particular. She is also a bass player and music producer, and she noted that the integrated program at The Field Center, combining dance, art, music, recording and film, is “ideal” for her work.

Workshop attendee Marielle Abell, who has worked in the medical field for 30 years, grew up in Brattleboro, but moved out of the area. She recently moved back.

She described The Field Center as “a magical hub.”

“It really brings in people from the region and from other states,” Abell said. “There are all sorts of programs, from costume design to dance.”

She describes the atmosphere at the Center as “like a welcoming, instant family.”

Abell started coming to the monthly improv dance jams and since then has attended several workshops.

She describes the current contact improv workshop as “Aikido meets a very friendly mosh pit.”

“This dance form has trust building as part of it,” Abell said. “We need that.”

Contact improv was first developed some 50 years ago. It involves using dance fundamentals to explore weight, touch, and movement awareness with a partner. Dancers support, assist, protect, and may even lift and move their partners. Women lifting male dance partners was a unique hallmark of contact improv.

Nancy Stark Smith of Northampton, Massachusetts, who died in 2020, was one of the founders of contact improv, and a strong influence on The Field Center’s teachings and philosophy.

Bowart observes that in contact improv, dance partners who are also life partners might dance differently from dance partners who do not have that connection.

Creativity without competition

Bowart said their goal for The Field Center is pretty straightforward.

“We want to provide education and the opportunity to be with other artists, but not in an academic space,” she said. “We wanted to build a space where teachers could teach without being an academic. This includes collaboration, inspiration, networking, and skill cultivation.”

In addition to dance, filmmaking, and art, the center’s offerings include stage design and costume making.

The Field Center also hosts a monthly contact improv dance jam every second Wednesday of the month following a class.

“I watched artist friends struggle in a society that doesn’t value artists,” Williams said. “And dance is the worst. You spend most of your time asking for grants and competing with other dancers for them.”

Bowart noted that at The Field Center, “we’re doing it in a way that takes away the competitive part of it.”

Black Mountain College inspiration

The Field Center mixes theater, dance, art, music, filmmaking, and painting, with students taking on responsibility for cleaning, cooking, gardening, and maintenance at the school.

It carries on the educational tradition of Black Mountain College, created in 1933 as a new type of college based on the progressive educational principles of John Dewey.

Formed at a time when the U.S, was still reeling from the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler was on the rise in Germany, and artists and intellectuals were being persecuted across Europe, Black Mountain became a legend in its short, 24-year existence.

The college, which closed due to financial issues in 1957, attracted a highly influential array of artists, musicians, writers, poets, creators, filmmakers, and inventors. Many of them came to the United States to escape the rising fascism and anti-intellectual populism in Europe.

Among its more famous alumni and teachers are artists Josef and Anni Albers, Bauhaus instructors who escaped Nazi Germany to teach art at the school, Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Weil, Willem and Elaine De Kooning, Cy Twombly and Jacob Lawrence; dancer Merce Cunningham; composer John Cage; film director Arthur Penn; writer Francine du Plessix Gray; poet Charles Olson; and inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller.

The Internal Revenue Service has recently recognized The Field Center as a nonprofit, tax-deductible, tax-exempt educational charity, and the organization has begun seeking grant funding. Bowart and Williams said they hope the center becomes a cauldron of creativity, similar to what Black Mountain College became.

“It’s not that we’re building something that will last forever,” Williams said. “It’s more about how much of an impact can we make.”

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