Grants to honor dancer's memory

Mark Ryder's family hopes to foster creativity

Dancer's family plans fund to encourage original work

December 27, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

The family of Columbia dancer Mark Ryder is honoring his memory with a new program that will encourage the creation of original dance works while serving as the Howard County Arts Council's first grant for individual artists.

The award was established by Ryder's widow, Mary Ratcliffe, and his family after he died of Alzheimer's disease in July at age 85.

"For me, it's a much better memorial than a large stone," Ratcliffe said. "He felt very strongly that for an artist, the most important part is being involved in the creative process."

Ratcliffe worked with the Columbia Foundation to establish a fund that will provide the money every year, and teamed up with the Howard County Arts Council to handle applications and awards.

A panel of dance experts will determine the recipient among applicants in central Maryland who need financial assistance to create a new, original dance work. Ratcliffe said choreographers could use the money to rent a dance space, purchase costumes, pay dancers or other expenses.

The first grant, to be awarded in 2007, will be for $500, and Ratcliffe hopes it will grow in future years.

Ryder began dancing as child in New York and joined Martha Graham's dance company in the 1940s, where Graham created several roles for him.

He founded the Dance Drama Duo, which was later called Dance Drama Company, with his first wife and dance partner, Emily Frankel. The group toured the United States and internationally.

Ryder went on to teach dance at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., and was chairman of the University of Maryland, College Park dance program for two years in the 1970s.

After he retired in 1988, he continued to be involved in Howard County's dance community.

He choreographed shows at Howard County Summer Theater and worked with Caryl Maxwell and the Ellicott City Ballet Guild. The two created a dance production of A Christmas Carol in which Ryder performed the role of Scrooge for seven years.

"We choreographed it with his modern approach to the drama and the acting and my classical approach to the dancing," Maxwell said. "A lot of dancers came though Christmas Carol."

Maxwell recalled that Ryder encouraged her to found the ballet guild as a performing arm of her classical ballet school and often gave guidance to the dancers there.

"He was a good mentor to anyone who was trying to find their way in the dance world," she said. "He knew how to point people in the right direction and help them find their niche."

She said she thought a grant in his name "was a wonderful idea, because way, way back in the early days, he was always a voice for developing talent at the grassroots."

Following 30 years in which the arts council has developed programs to support arts organizations, Executive Director Coleen West said, "certainly part of our long-range goals is how to provide more meaningful opportunities for individual artists to grow."

The council holds a Rising Star contest, in which the audience at the council's annual gala votes for the best among 10 live performances. The winners receive a cash prize.

But, West said, in terms of setting up more traditional grant programs, it is difficult for the council to choose one art form and to find additional resources. Ratcliffe's offer of funding and direction was welcome.

The arts council does not usually invest funds, only distributes them, West said. So she suggested that Ratcliffe work through the Columbia Foundation.

The foundation's president, Barbara Lawson, said such a project is exactly what her community foundation is set up to do.

"It's kind of a perfect circle," she said. "We're not experts in art, but were experts in managing money."

Lawson said people do not need to be particularly wealthy to set up charitable programs. "For a minimum of $10,000 we can help you do your philanthropy," she said.

Ratcliffe, a physics teacher at Howard High School, said she hopes people with similarly moderate incomes will be inspired by what she established.

She is leaving the grant-making decisions up to the experts, but said, "I'm intending to attend a lot of dance performances" supported by her gift.

Of Ryder, she said, "I think he'd strongly approve of this."

Application information for the Mark Ryder Original Choreography Grant is available on the Howard County Arts Council's Web site at or by calling 410-313-2787.

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