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ROCKINGHAM—In 2020, Nurnia Bowart and Jared Williams, friends and colleagues who are both going through life transitions, decided to become business partners and purchase a 48-acre former inn.
As they transform the property into an arts education nonprofit, The Field Center, they create what Bowart describes as “a center for contemporary artistic practice, with dance and performance at its heart.”
Accustomed to alternative education, Bowart and Williams met while attending Putney School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and despite quite different lives they remained friends and kept in touch .
Bowart went to college in Bryn Mawr and later became a dancer, artist and teacher. She did therapeutic work, living in the San Francisco area for many years. She got 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 returned to Boston for 20 years. He practiced the Brazilian martial art of capoegoawhich combines elements of dance and acrobatics, and, with Bowart’s encouragement, he began to find a love for improvisational dancing.
“The way I do things is to give it my all,” Williams said. “I really wanted to get good at dancing. I wanted more access to things. I started bringing in really good dance teachers and producing dance events. I fell in love with teaching improvisational dance.
Williams is the co-founder 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 dance world, Williams said he naively invited “high profile dancers to come” and, to his surprise, they accepted. It created “a bit of a buzz” around the festival, he said. It was then that 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 house and, with her nearly adult children, she was ready for a fresh start.
It was then that they discovered the Williams Road property which was purchased in 2010 for $1.9 million by a consortium of Indian biotech colleagues, with the intention of creating a spiritual retreat. That plan fell through, and after an incarnation as another hostel, in 2019 the buildings were seeing very limited use as Airbnb rentals.
In 2020, the property was back on the market for $750,000, which the real estate listing described as “well below replacement and appraisal values.”
While attending Putney School, Williams and Bowart became familiar with the area and they loved the artsy and creative vibe they found in Bellows Falls’ bustling music and arts scene.
After the property was sold in February 2021, they moved into the property in the spring and each live in one of three apartments. Field Center chef/artist/dancer Lillian Kane moved up to 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.
The team is rounded out by Residential Life Coordinator Anya Smolnikova, who also runs the center’s Working Resident Program, a long-term work exchange for artists.
A campus for 28
According to the city’s most recent major listing, the property, valued at $745,800, spans 47.8 acres. It includes the large and sturdy main post-and-beam structure, a three-unit apartment building, and a pond a short walk away.
Williams said the sheets were still on the beds and the dishes in the sink when they moved in. Tools, furniture, and other equipment also came with the buildings.
The Field Center has nearly 12,000 square feet.
The large main building offers bedrooms with bathrooms for 28 attendees and staff, large practice areas, fireplaces, sauna, library, recording studio, comfortable spaces for socializing and watching movies, a carpentry shop, a laundry room, a movie studio, smaller classrooms, a large restaurant-level kitchen and a large dining room. The property’s organic gardens 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 goals,” Williams acknowledged, “and then there’s what’s actually going on in life.”
For now, The Field Center offers weekend-based three- to four-day workshops and events a few times a month, or more immersive workshops for up to 10 days once a month.
Locals are welcome, and dancers and performers from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore regularly drive or ride Amtrak to Bellows Falls to attend programs.
“We usually have at least two teachers for every 15 to 20 students we have,” Williams said.
A “transformative experience”
Sol Cort, who has attended the Center’s workshops four times, grew up in Harlem and now lives in Philadelphia.
“After graduating from college, I came to Vermont for the first time to attend an improv workshop,” Cort said. “It was really transformative. I felt like I needed to be here.
Cort had studied dance in college, ballet and modern dance in particular. She’s also a bassist and music producer, and she noted that the Field Center’s built-in curriculum, combining dance, art, music, recording and film, is “ideal” for her job.
Workshop participant Marielle Abell, who has worked in the medical field for 30 years, grew up in Brattleboro but left the area. She recently moved.
She described the Field Center as “a magical center”.
“It really draws people from the area and from other states,” Abell said. “There are all kinds of programs, from costume design to dance.”
She describes the atmosphere at the Center as “like an instant welcoming family”.
Abell started coming to the monthly improv dance jams and since then has participated in several workshops.
She describes the current Contact Improv workshop as “aikido meets a very friendly mosh pit.”
“This dance form is integral to building trust,” Abell said. “We need this.”
Improvised contact was first developed about 50 years ago. It involves using dance fundamentals to explore awareness of weight, touch and movement with a partner. The dancers support, assist, protect and can even lift and move their partners. Women lifting male dance partners was a unique feature of improvised contact.
Nancy Stark Smith of Northampton, Massachusetts, who died in 2020, was one of the founders of improvised contact and a strong influence on Field Center teachings and philosophy.
Bowart observes that in improvisational contact, dance partners who are also life partners may dance differently than dance partners who do not have this connection.
Creativity without competition
Bowart said their goal for The Field Center was 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 academics. This includes collaboration, inspiration, networking and skill cultivation. »
In addition to dance, film and art, the center’s offerings include scenography and costume making.
The Field Center also hosts a monthly contact improv dance jam every second Wednesday of the month after a class.
“I’ve seen artist friends struggle in a society that doesn’t value artists,” Williams said. “And dancing is the worst. You spend most of your time applying for grants and competing with other dancers to get them.
Bowart noted that at Field Center, “we do it in a way that takes away the competitive part.”
Inspired by Black Mountain College
The Field Center mixes theatre, dance, art, music, film and painting, with students taking charge of cleaning, cooking, gardening and maintaining the school.
It continues the educational tradition of Black Mountain College, established in 1933 as a new type of college based on the progressive educational principles of John Dewey.
Formed at a time when the United States was still reeling from the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler was booming in Germany, and artists and intellectuals were persecuted across Europe, Black Mountain became a legend during of its short existence of 24 years.
The college, which closed due to financial problems in 1957, attracted a highly influential array of artists, musicians, writers, poets, designers, filmmakers and inventors. Many of them came to the United States to escape the rise of fascism and anti-intellectual populism in Europe.
Among its most famous alumni and teachers are the 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; director Arthur Penn; writer Francine du Plessix Gray; poet Charles Olson; and inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller.
The Internal Revenue Service recently recognized the Field Center as a nonprofit, tax-deductible, tax-exempt educational charity, and the organization has begun seeking grants. Bowart and Williams said they hope the center will become a cauldron of creativity, similar to what Black Mountain College has become.
“It’s not that we’re building something that will last forever,” Williams said. “It’s more about the impact we can have.”