West County residents, when they want to see some of New York’s better known dancers perform, generally turn to venues like the UMASS Fine Arts Center or perhaps consider making the trip all the way into the city. Quietly but steadily, a new resource is being developed in the other direction. Vermont Performance Lab (VPL), created in 2006 by Sara Coffey and her husband David Snyder, has been working in partnership with Marlboro College to bring esteemed citizens of New York’s dance world to this community of less than 1000 a few miles northwest of Brattleboro.

Last Saturday evening was the culminating performance of a week-long residency by choreographer Shannon Hummel and her company Cora Dance. The hour long performance, in Marlboro’s Serkin Center for the Performing Arts, featured a short, humorous solo take on trying to fit into a beautiful evening dress called Good Side (2000) and “raw material” from an untitled work-in-progress which the company had spent the last week developing in Marlboro’s unhurried atmosphere. This trio had a concentrated emotional power which kept the audience, a mixture of Marlboro College students and community members, in a state of rapt attention.

After the performance, Hummel and the dancers sat with Coffey to answer questions about their work. It was a unique opportunity for the audience and the dancers – an intimate forum where if you had a question there was no doubt you would get a chance to both ask it and receive a thoughtful answer from one or more artists.

When one audience member inquired what the residency had meant for Hummel, we were given an insight into what it’s meant for her to balance motherhood with career. After a “horrible pregnancy” she wasn’t sure how she’d be able to continue choreographing with son Henry in tow. She quickly realized that the old pattern of rehearsing for a couple of hours, “2 or 3 days a week” wasn’t going to work. Instead, she looked for opportunities to have “concentrated periods of time” devoted to dance – enter Vermont Performance Lab. Hummel stated that the last ten days were “the most valuable residency I’ve had as a choreographer . . . [they’ve been] the most incredible blessing. I started crying this morning at breakfast [thinking about what it’s meant].”

Hummel, raised in rural Virginia, has also developed something called the Crossroads Project “to create accessible programs in performing arts to a broader audience.” Thus far, she’s reached small communities in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, New York and there are plans to include Vermont in 2008.

Hummel is the third artist to be supported by VPL’s Lab Program. The first residency featured choreographer Jody Sperling in September, 2006. Then choreographer/performance artist Yasuko Yokoshi was connected with a group of Brattleboro teens to create Reframe the Framework DDD (Dance-Docu-Drama) which they plan to perform at NYC’s The Kitchen in April, 2008. All of the residencies have featured free master classes and performances open to the public.

Coffey’s long range vision is for VPL to become a regional resource, “reaching out to communities in Southern New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts.” Her energy comes out of the insight that “dwindling audiences” are connected to a feeling of “intimidation” people have about contemporary dance. She states, “it’s really important audiences have the opportunity to [make contact with artists] . . . Art-making [doesn’t need to] happen in isolation.” Perhaps her creative partnerships will grow to include some of West County’s artists, schools and organizations. In the meantime, Marlboro is a scenic Sunday drive away. Updated performance/class opportunities are listed at www.vermontperformancelab.com.