What Are You Thinking About?

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Many classify dance as a performing art, but I feel this is sometimes conflated with “performative art.” From ballet to Broadway, dance is often expected to be larger than life in its emotional expressivity and pyrotechnic virtuosity. One gets the impression that dancing just springs up on stage, or even that dance exists solely to be performative.

While training in ballet, desire to perform was always secondary to my love of class. Class is where you work and where you see improvement, whether it’s a few inches more height on your développé or finally landing a double tour en l’air. You can try and fail that triple pirouette, and then try again. Barre is especially important; each exercise holds the familiarity of routine while also requiring one hundred percent of your mindfulness and effort. There’s a lot more to closing a tendu or ascending from a demi-plié than one might think!

The movement was enough for me, but it wasn’t always enough for the stage. I was often asked to smile more or project more feeling, even though I wasn’t always sure what I was supposed to be feeling. As for smiling, I didn’t always feel happy in that way on stage. If I smiled, it would be because I particularly enjoyed whatever movement I was doing, usually a grand jeté or another big jump. Otherwise, smiling just felt like added muscle tension (and who knows, maybe that’s all it really is).

Cunningham technique has been particularly appealing to me for its integrity of focus between class and rehearsal thus far. Each rehearsal begins with an hour long Cunningham technique class; the focus on alignment, rhythm, and technique begins here and is sustained through the entire rehearsal.

This task-like attitude towards dance may bring up an existential question for the dancer: What are you doing, and why? After rehearsal last Wednesday, our rehearsal director Meg Harper provided an elucidating analogy that captured perfectly what I love about dance, and the Cunningham technique in particular. She said the movement was like cooking, and since I love this image (and also enjoy cooking) I’d like to pursue it a bit.

Referencing another Cunningham work called Winterbranch, Meg mentioned that although the piece communicates heavy themes of death and renewal, these shouldn’t be what the dancer is thinking about while moving. In fact, it will spoil the effect that comes naturally from the movement itself. I like to think of these movements as individual ingredients: They don’t exist solely to create one dish, and no one flavor is more important than another. The impression of the piece is the result of its numerous “flavors,” and each one is integral.

An example of this from Roaratorio is the beginning section of jigs and duets. The accumulation of rhythms and movements on stage creates a textured environment of fun and a feeling of community, but these impressions rise organically from the steps themselves and the dancer doesn’t need to think about forcing it to have a certain mood or emotional timbre.

Secondly, cooking can be considered an apt metaphor for the internal experience of dancing Roaratorio. Most importantly, both require that your mind be fully present. You are not focused on projecting to an external viewer. There is no pressure to feel any certain way, think in cosmic terms, or even daydream about tomorrow. There is a task-like simplicity of focus on what you’re doing, but there is something highly satisfying about both activities, too. They never seem menial or monotonous, even during the umpteenth repetition.

The movement in Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls that we learned last year demanded a similar focus, but in a different way. The choreography was problem solving, forcing the dancer to constantly think about weight shifts, energy, and momentum so the movement could be manipulated and performed backwards, sideways, and inside-out. Improvisations within complicated parameters were also a part of the choreography. While vigorously athletic, it was also highly cerebral.

By comparison, I feel a bit more grounded rehearsing Roaratorio. I feel the steady rhythm of the movement, and focus on clear articulation of each curve, twist, and tilt. It is often meditative for me, but never meditation. Rather than trying to transcend or clear your mind, you are engrossed entirely in the now of what you’re doing. If I were to sum up the experience of Roaratorio thus far, I would say that it feels like I’m doing something that requires my full presence, and meaningful work. In doing this, something is made that others can experience. The process and the result are simultaneous, and viewer thus gets a more real and uninflected glimpse at the experience of the dancer, I feel.

 

 

Space, Time, and Movement: What to Prioritize?

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Comparing this year’s work on Cunningham’s choreography with the Twyla Tharp project last year, I’m interested in exploring how both choreographers make use of space and spatial manipulation.

Cunningham’s choreography, as we’re discovering in working on Roaratorio, makes extensive use of spatial manipulations. Movements are performed oriented towards different “fronts,” at different angles in space, and the Cunningham technique expands the range of movement by extending the repertoire of the ballet “en croix” pattern and making use of diagonal orientations of the torso and legs.

Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls also implemented spatial manipulations; movements were only performed on different fronts as well as inverted, retrograded, and side-switched. In Eight Jelly Rolls, movement was spatially modified to create something new, or even obscure the original step into an entirely different movement. A single step might be modified in terms of frontal orientation, side, and level change. The effect of the spatial manipulation on the integrity of the movement itself was key; how does the modification alter its energy, weight, and momentum? Although working in space, they were more of a means towards choreographic innovations. The effect was a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting movements, and a prioritization of the movement that was happening in space, rather than its relationship to space.

A further contrast I noticed was the difference in duets between the two pieces. The duet in Eight Jelly Rolls presents an image of controlled entropy; two dancers whirl through space and seem to interact incidentally (although a VERY complex set of rules underlies the structure). The “twos” section of Roaratorio, in contrast, is comprised of two independent individual sequences that fit together like intricate puzzle pieces in space. I also wonder what role the use of chance mechanics plays in Roaratorio’s use of space, versus improvisational techniques in Eight Jelly Rolls. Perhaps this results in the kind of “fitting-togetherness” present in much of Roaratorio.

Another interesting aspect of Roaratorio is its equal treatment of the performance space. Rather than being exclusively oriented towards the proscenium front, it displays movement towards all angles and shows each facet of the movement like rays of light refracting from a rotating diamond. Indeed, I often feel that the walls of the room are moving as work on Roaratorio, simply because it destabilizes notions of front. Also, Roaratorio explores different ways in which movement can be presented in space. In the “5/4” section and the “2s”, the presentation of the movement is amplified through the number of people onstage all at once. During Events, Cunningham would often deconstruct large group steps to show the movement in a condensed format, also playing with methods of presentation.

What I love is the openness of the choreography, and the new dimensions of spectatorship that it opens up. The question of staging Roaratorio is also intriguing. Perhaps it would be best seen if the audience could walk around the dancers to see things from every angle, but it could also be interesting to view dance structured for 360 degree spatial utilization from a single viewpoint. What is lost and what is gained by opening up the performance space to allow the viewer to walk around (or maybe even through) the movement? How do you define what it is to view Roaratorio? Does a single vantage point suffice, given the use of chance mechanics to manipulate the space?

 

Next I’d like to talk about some of things that came up during Saturday’s rehearsal. Firstly, we had our first technique class with music. I discovered that I actually prefer to warm up in silence, because music changes the nature of what I’m doing. In rhythmic terms, in silence I feel that I am shaping my movements to some sort of internal rhythmic “goal”, just as I am shaping my body to an external geometric goal. The music serves more as rhythmic accompaniment than rhythmic goal, because it encourages musicality. In my experience thus far, the choreography is less about phrasing movement to music, but rather working around an internal metronome.

Neil Greenberg offered some fascinating insights into choreographic reconstruction by asking us whether we prioritize space or time in learning the choreography. He divided time further into ideas of tempo and rhythm, and space into location and shape. I conceptualize these four components as a kind of four-dimensional graph that is superimposed on the studio space, and it is the interactions within these quadrants that create the rhythmic and spatial landscapes I described in my last post.

This is evident in the beginning section, in which the initial duet sets the tempo for the piece. Within this, the introduction of new participants introduces new rhythmic structures, which add up into texturing that is as interesting to the ear as the shapes being made are to the eyes. Herein there is also the question of how the spatial versus temporal aspects of choreography are preserved and reconstructed. Shape and location can vary immensely when different bodies and different performance spaces are involved, but tempo and rhythm are much easier to replicate. In terms of reconstruction, the rhythmic legacy of choreography is often obscured since so much of it is held in the music, and thus taken for granted, but in Roaratorio its importance really comes to light.

 

Rhythmic Landscapes

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While some may consider dancing in silence to simply be a way to break with convention, our studio work in Cunningham technique and choreography has shown me that this artistic choice critically shapes the aesthetic of Roaratorio, in both execution and perception, in a way that is far more complex than the simple removal of one of two disjunct elements.

Like hearing John Cage’s 4’33’’, dancing in silence has not highlighted my awareness of the absence of music, but rather made me critically more attuned to the sounds and internal rhythms that abound while moving. While practicing Neil Greenberg’s jig, I felt a measured internal focus as I jumped in a circle because I had to establish parameters of time as well as space that were not dictated by musical counts.

Trying to maintain a steady internal rhythm while my breathing and pulse quickened with exertion made me more attuned to the actions of my body, and more aware of the inaudible metronomy of the steps. My realization was that we have an entire score playing in and around us as we perform these steps, and the steady rhythm of each jig primes us to note such rhythmic deviations.

Grounding the rhythm of the jig in the steps themselves, rather than allowing the music to dictate how the time should be manipulated, also makes the choreography inherently easier to memorize. Each phrase has a unique cadence that is easy to keep in one’s head and executing the steps has the feeling of easy fluid speech rather than a string of unrelated words. This coupled with the heightened awareness of the rhythms of each movement give the movement a kind of logic that I’ve never experienced before.

Finally, I feel that this internal focus lends itself to a unique kind of aesthetic. Watching others in rehearsal, I enjoy the hypnotic quality of coordinated group steps in which each dancer clearly has an individual internal focus, and yet also forms an integral component of the ensemble. Herein is to be found, for me, Meg’s description of the “landscapes” that Cunningham created in his choreography. While executing these movements, I don’t feel I am actively creating a landscape, but rather navigating one. Attention to movement, rhythm, and those around me creates an environment that is both exciting to interact with and striking to watch.

Wrapping It All Up

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Participating in this project over the course of the semester has been incredibly enriching for me. Studying a work from the Tharp repertoire as an active participant rather than a viewer has given me access to a bit of the embodied knowledge held within Eight Jelly Rolls. Before Yale Dance Theater, I’d had the opportunity to watch Eight Jelly Rolls in my Advanced Dance Repertory course with Emily. While I could analyze the work visually to see the influences of popular dance, postmodern dance, a variety of dance techniques, and the use of movement manipulations, it was only through trenchantly delving into the material through rehearsal that I could really fully understand the masterful crafting behind Eight Jelly Rolls.

Certainly, this is a work with so many nuances that it could be rehearsed for years; I’m far from knowing everything, but the glimpse I’ve had through this project has still yielded invaluable experience. I feel that I am a stronger dancer, and that I’ve found new ways to use the floor and to manipulate a phrase choreographically. I’ve also learned about one of my personal interests, dance preservation and reconstruction, through actively practicing it. Reading Katie’s copious notes, hearing Jenny’s insider knowledge about the video tapes, having Sara correct my movements in her solo, and watching Rose piece together the four little phrases are all examples of the extensive work and decision making that go into recreating a work of dance.

So why is this important? In my opinion, dance pieces (like visual art, music, and works of theater), are part of our collective cultural heritage. They can tell us so much about artistic processes and philosophies of another time, and serve as a window into the minds of great artists like Twyla Tharp, whose pasts are an important part of their legacy. However, unlike other art forms, dance doesn’t have a form of notation that lends itself well to reconstruction: You can’t read it from a playbook or a musical score. This is the reason why video and authentic coaching are so important.

Although the hurdles towards recreation are greater, in my opinion the rewards are richer as well. Learning a dance is a truly intimate process; you learn how other people move and think about movement, and come close to understanding the intentions of the choreographer. Through deep research, practice, and working with experienced coaches, I feel like I’ve developed a huge appreciation of Eight Jelly Rolls as well as a wealth of movement knowledge and experience.

Problem Solving

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Exploring the Tharp style has been a truly eye-opening kinesthetic experience. Last semester I took a class with YDTPP’s Emily Coates called Advanced Dance Repertory in which we learned Tharp’s Torelli (1971), and I feel that Eight Jelly Rolls is a continuation of this kind of movement research. For me, two very important aspects of learning Tharp’s work include sensation and manipulation.

Manipulation is evident in the systematic working of the movement. It’s mind-boggling how many permutations can be applied to movement: retrograde, inversion, direction, level, speed, force, tension, weight…the list goes on and on! With this material, you literally have to learn things inside out and backwards. At the YDTPP audition, I remember being given a phrase of Eight Jelly Rolls and then being asked to perform it in retrograde (moving through the steps backwards). What was fascinating about this was how dramatically the impetus for each movement was altered. Suddenly a drag of the leg backwards was a push forward, and a lowering of the ball of the foot became a rock back onto the heel. Not only must the sequence be reversed, the very bones of the movement are changed.

This feeling of movement impetus brings me to the second thing I’ve noticed in working on Eight Jelly Rolls: kinesthetic sensation. When we were studying Torelli, Jenny Way came to work with us as a guest coach. She reemphasized the importance of the work we’d done with Emily during semester, which was to find the embodied energy in the choreography.

Unlike ballet (my original training), Tharp’s work does not involve moving through a series of standardized poses and steps. Jenny and Emily told us we needed to focus on weight, impulse, and solving movement problems in our own bodies. This was a complete departure from techniques I’ve studied in the past. In ballet, you have a vocabulary of steps that can be adapted to choreography. With Tharp’s work, on the other hand, a step and its kinetic quality seem to be one and the same, creating a dynamic situation where function informs form. This is what makes the movement interesting; the dancer must ask, “how far can I tilt my center of gravity while turning on this leg?” or, “what happens to my arm in response to the movement of my torso?”

I’m still struggling a bit to get this way of working into my body, and to direct my attention inwardly on sensations and problem solving. When Sara Rudner came to coach the “Mournful Serenade” solo she originated in Eight Jelly Rolls, I found myself wrestling with my habits to get closer to the amazing fluidity of her movements. From the very beginning of the solo, I had to start changing my ideas about movement. The initial turn into a tilted leaning position is not a turn into a pose, but rather a turning shift of weight. The arms are not set into a position, but spiral in response to the torso.

We continued to work through the material from here, focusing on finding the correct sensation for each step. When something clicked, it was almost magical. I felt like I wasn’t learning a dance, but a whole new way of moving. Simple step, kick, ball changes involved thinking about how the leg folds at the hip joint, the fluidity of the torso, and how the arms and head move in response to changes in direction. Since the step is born from movement exploration, the process and the result become one and the same. This means that you need constant focus on kinesthetic sensation in order to “get it.” I’ll need to keep working at these problems, but trying to solve them is what really creates the muscle of the dancing.