We’re all college students. We write papers, analyze articles, construct theoretical arguments and perform other “mental tasks” that society – and the world of academia – has deemed productive. And so, dance first appeared to me as a way to get out of the realm of the mental and connect more to the physical. I wanted to spend time moving and using my entire body, and not just my hands to type on a laptop.
That’s exactly what dance brought me – at least at first. During the beginning of our Eight Jelly Rolls project, I busied myself with learning the steps, the weight and the movement of each piece – it was purely a physical endeavor.
But as we’ve continued adding layers to each piece – whether it’s the problem of retrograding or inverting a phrase, playing games with fellow dancers in the context of a piece, working out the nuances of an improvised bit of solo or recycling a set phrase to different beats – I’ve realized that I’ve gotten back to thinking in my head again. And that’s something I wasn’t expecting, but now realize makes the crux of what Thwarp dance is all about.
Yes, ballet dancers, tap dancers, jazz dancers – all kinds of dancers – must think. But what makes EJR so unique is the fact that the line between choreographer and dancer is blurred: each dancer must constantly solve and re-solve problems, improvise transitions, play with movement quality and a whole host of other concepts I probably can’t even grasp yet. Yes, the choreographer might set the context and parameters for the game or challenge at hand, but any particular instantiation of the number will look different, and it’s not a mistake: it’s just a sign that the dancers have come to own that piece of choreography and made it their own. Doing that successfully and meaningfully requires a lot of thought.
It was a jump I was unwilling, or at least hesitant, to make until Sara Rudner came to one of our rehearsals. Up until then, I was grasping onto every technical piece of advice I could get – point your foot more, move your left leg out farther, tuck your hip in and push around – because getting a position “correct” was a tangible goal I knew I could accomplish.
But Sara pulled me out of my unhealthy obsession with technical precision when she asked me how I was doing partway through our rehearsal of the Mournful Serenade. I responded by mumbling something about “technique” and “getting things right,” and she responded: “Patrick. Technique is sensation. It’s how you feel.” She went on to explain that for her, and especially in the solo we were going through, what mattered most was being grounded in your own body. Technique, then, wasn’t about getting a sequence of steps and movements correct, but about feeling how your internal organs were situated in your abdominal cage for a particular moment, feeling the twist of your torso for another one, and on and on.
When we asked her what we were supposed to do with our arms during a particular moment, she responded, “My arms have been known to move away from my body before.” The point is, it’s not as much about striking and replicating poses as it is about drawing on your own internal system – your mind, your emotions, your body – for the particular intention that will drive and motivate action in that moment. You need to have that spark – the catalyst – ingrained in your body so that every time you do the dance, it flows from the original inspiration and, although it might not look exactly the same each time, it maintains its integrity of style and intention. This level of thinking is one that takes up a lot of brainwaves – at least for me – and our rehearsal with Sara was the first one in which I really understood the multitude of possibilities opened up by thinking about dance on this higher plane.
But a word of warning: you can’t stray too far from the fundamentals, either. That’s where Rose Marie Wright comes in. Last Saturday’s rehearsal was one I had been dreading for a long time, ever since I heard Katie and Jenny talk about Rose as “the keeper of all material.” They assured us that any disagreement – any imprecise or incorrect movement – could and would be resolved and corrected by Rose, which is objectively an important part of learning and mastering new material.
It’s also why I was scared of the rehearsal: as a newbie to the world of dance, I’m still learning how to read and process movement: I focus first on the basic facts – where do the feet move, where does the weight go, what’s the rhythm like? – and then I drill it out ad nauseum. Only then can I start devoting brainwaves to what Sara worked on with us – the style and feeling of the movement at hand – although ideally, I’d be able to process everything in one go. Needless to say, it takes me longer to figure things out, and I thought that rehearsal with Rose would probably be the toughest one for me so far – if only because I knew I was doing a lot of things “wrong” and probably would be hearing a lot about that.
I was completely wrong. Rehearsal with Rose was one of the most clarifying experiences of my (short) dance career, because it gave me a chance to do the same thing that Sara talked about in terms of technique: by thinking back to the basic elements of movement, I was able to re-ground myself in my body and lose some of the stressful complications of thinking too much in my head. Knowing that there is a definite right and wrong – even for something as postmodern as Eight Jelly Rolls – is a comforting thought, if only because I feel like I now have a better mastery of the foundation that lies at the core of telling a compelling story through dance. Having the guts to go Rose’s rehearsal (despite being scared of her at first) paid off, because (a) I will never forget the corrections she made, as they are forever burned into my memory, and (b) I now know she is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.