David Woodberry stands in his yard in Brattleboro with a photo of himself from 35 years ago. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
David Woodberry stands in his yard in Brattleboro with a photo of himself from 35 years ago. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Saturday May 11, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When David Woodberry, production manager of the Strolling of the Heifers and area stage manager, was a postmodern dancer in New York City in the 1970s, reviewers all, unwittingly, it seems, saw in his work the balancing of opposites.

In a 1978 New York Times review of his dance titled "The Nijinsky Suicide Dance Club," the writer noted that "the physical daring (of the piece) would seem masochistic were it not executed with a coolly relaxed abandon."

Six years later another Times reviewer wrote that David's work contained "strenuous movements that must be performed with utter insouciance."

Everyone saw it. In "Dasan," a physically arduous solo piece, a reviewer likened him to a "sort of gentle Evil Knievel.

" "Nijinsky" was a study of "energy held in check and energy let loose," according to another, who also described the dancers as "eccentric but responsible" in their interactions with each other on stage.

"The piece," concludes the reviewer, "is both nutty and wholesome ... Balance is what Mr. Woodberry's choreography celebrates."

The inventiveness and energy of New York's dance scene at the time might have contributed to David's ability to explore and synthesize contrasting movements and ideas with with humor, openness and daring.

Dancers could live relatively cheaply in the city, and there was more public funding to be had for dance groups and individual artists, who were pulling up formality by the roots, staging dances in parks, in trees, in their apartments. Contact improvisation, a form of partner dance that depends entirely on how the dancers physically communicate with each other as they maintain contact, flowered in the 1970s; David was among the first dancers to practice the contact improv with its founder, Steve Paxton.

For whatever cultural or historical reasons, postmodern dance in the 1970s seemed to be an irony-free art form, too. Dances and dance companies were weird and interesting and hopeful, even eager in their embrace of bold movement, discovery, emotion -- and they could find audiences just as eager to be affected by the work. In other words, there was much less, or least a different quality of snark.

A young dancer could be "nutty and wholesome." He could fling himself around a room or roll into a freight elevator or hang from park trees and still appear in delightful control. He could be in a piece that was five hours long and toured Europe for months. He could be "eccentric but responsible." He could contain multitudes, and reviewers would find value in the striving.

In 1986, David left New York. He was 38 years old. He'd been dancing since college, and professionally for 13 years, when his plans for graduate studies fell through (he more or less figured he could just show up and attend; the school disagreed) and he landed at a friend's apartment in Manhattan.

"In the dance world, 38 is over the hill," he says with a half-smile, sitting at a round table in his Brattleboro backyard, where he lives with his fiancée. He has prepared cut cantaloupe and coffee and set the refreshments on a round table covered with a white cloth.

"So I decided to retire. My sister had moved to Brattleboro maybe 10, 15 years before, and then my younger brother did, too. It seemed like a good place to settle after New York."

At first, David, now 65, visited New York a couple of times a month, but slowly his life took root in Vermont.

"I can't imagine living anywhere else now," he says. "I mean, look at the amount and quality of the arts alone! It's extraordinary.

"

Brattleboro was also a place where "nutty and wholesome" made sense, even as the artistically expansive 1970s shrank under the arts-defunding of the 1980s. There was room for creative tension in this region; to be a little kooky or daring or strangely brilliant but essentially reliable in your work was, and by and large still is, culturally OK, even heralded.

But now that David had shown up in Brattleboro, he did need to figure out how to make a living as something other than a dancer. Over time, he became a freelance stage manager.

"I basically created this job for myself." He spears a piece of cantaloupe, thinking over the happenstances and decisions that led to this point. "I remember in college, right before performances the tech guys would say something like, ‘Have a good show!' and then they'd go up to do their thing and not be nervous at all."

He envied their calm, and when he started stage managing local shows, he loved it. David has been the longtime stage manager for the Latchis Theatre, as well as for the Brattleboro Music Center, the Windham Orchestra and a great number of one-off productions. He also stage managed the New England Bach Festival during its final years with director Blanche Moyse.

"I think the thing I love most is that I am part of the drama of performance, but I don't have to be nervous," he says. "And I'm taking care of all the details so the performer can concentrate on his or her art. I have a great time."

Twelve years ago, David showed up to participate in the first Strolling of the Heifers parade.

"I was a pooper-scooper," he laughs. "I choreographed this whole dance, and well, I guess you could say I worked my way up from the bottom to being Production Manager."

In this role, David oversees all the logistics required for an event of this size. "My job is to ask all the questions before the day of -- to talk to the Fire Department and the Rec Department and the Department of Public Works, everybody -- so that when the day comes, it's set. It's ready to go."

On the morning of the parade, David arrives at his command central tent at 5 a.m. And then he sits still all day.

"Really, this is true. My crew, 10 to 15 people, they're coming in and out, with questions, or issues come up, and I am in one place. I get very, very calm. I am there to be the calm."

And in this stage and production managing work, David is again balancing opposites. He loves both the drama of performance and event, and being the still point in the storm. He loves sitting alone in the dark, utilitarian cave of the control room, while working the lightboard that magically transforms the performers on stage.

After more than a decade being utterly visible to his audiences, he is now happily, necessarily invisible to them.

Energy let loose and energy held in check.

Strenuous movements performed with kind insouciance.

A gentle Evil Knievel (ask him about flying trapeze).

David Woodberry may show up behind the scenes, but he's still putting together complicated, demanding movements in specific sites. It's just that now, his choreography is helping other people in this nutty, wholesome town find their balance, find their light -- and dance.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.