Community

Standard

Juliette, Elena, Aren, Amymarie, Derek, Jenny and Katie are some of the only people in my life that I first got to know in a nonverbal way. We didn’t meet at a stuffy cocktail party, or in a class, or at a sports competition, or in the library, or at Walgreens. We met in the studio, and we learned to communicate our insecurities and fears and share our triumphs and idiosyncrasies through movement, grunts, panting, laughter and sweat.

The eight of us shared something irreplicable and utterly unique, much like every manifestation of Eight Jelly Rolls itself: our attempts to march, and at times slog, through the choreography bonded us in a way specific to our personalities and quirks. During the rehearsal process, we grew together as a community of people not only invested in learning and embodying dance, but also invested in each other.

And so, I recognize that my technique – that of someone having jumped headfirst into Eight Jelly Rolls without any dance experience– is far from perfect. I recognize that I’m still getting used to using the floor, associating movements with French words, being aware of my body and engaging my entire being in expressing intent through movement.

But I also recognize that, if there is one thing Tharp dance is about, it certainly is not perfect technique. A mistake can become inspiration for a brilliant hand gesture or a choreographed moment – a mentality that lends the work being created a sense of authenticity and rawness that a rigid sense of right and wrong cannot.

Of course, there is a right and a wrong to be had in learning Eight Jelly Rolls, but the process of divining just what qualifies as right versus wrong entails an elaborate, time-consuming and exhilarating search through videos, interviews, tapes and pictures, and even direct training with the primary sources. But one week after our performance, what I am left with is not the memory of whether my knees were bent for that part of the phrase in #8, or whether my rondejambes in #3 looked good. Instead, I’m left with a very real and very present sense of the community we built and the journey we shared. That journey still continues on, but our storyline has split back into eight individual threads – each unique, but forever changed by the experience we shared in adding a bit to dance history. I now consider myself a dancer, not because I’ve learned the basics or because I own a pair of jazz shoes, but because I am part of a community of dancers that, upon hearing Jelly Roll Morton’s music, will always react a little differently than the general population. And who knows? I might be in a particularly nostalgic mood one day and, while walking down the sidewalk, start marking the drill phrase. 1, 2, da duh, da duh…

In Memoriam: Michele Elizabeth Dufault

Standard

December 6, 1988 – April 13, 2011

My friend Michele passed away a few days ago. She was working on a class project late at night in the machine shop. Her hair got caught in a lathe, which ultimately resulted in her death.

Michele was beautiful. She was one of the hardest working people I knew, and yet she always made time for you – not out of begrudging obligation, but out of pure sincerity and generosity of spirit. She had an insatiable curiosity that led her to examine every nook and cranny of the world around her: she was a fearless and humble scientist who never stopped exploring.

I entered into the Yale Dance Theater pilot project with the same relentless, innocent curiosity that I like to think motivated Michele in her pursuits. I wanted to see and feel and learn what it was like to be a dancer. And so I dedicate this dance – the work that I’ve put into learning something completely new and creating something from the ground up – to Michele.

I write this after having shed countless, exhausting tears. The exhaustion and tears are ephemeral, but my remembrance of her is eternal.

I miss you so, so much Michele.

Thinking Too Much or Too Little?

Standard

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.

A Dance Dance Revolution, Part I

Standard

As a second semester senior about to graduate in May, I’ve suffered through my fair share of all-nighters spent finishing term papers, cramming for exams, whipping together Powerpoints and doing all the other things a college student does in his free time. And I can tell you that it’s hard work.

But about a month ago, I enrolled in my first-ever ballet class, bought my first pair of jazz shoes and started rehearsing pieces of Twyla Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls. And every single day that I’ve danced since then, I have felt a kind of full body exhaustion and naive excitement that I hadn’t felt since I celebrated my ninth birthday at the local Chuck E. Cheese’s. And I can also tell you that working on EJR has taken my notion of hard work to a new level.

I have never felt as fully worn out and giddily fulfilled than I did after our first rehearsal – which was also my first intensive dance rehearsal, ever. I learned how to feign understanding of fancy-sounding ballet terms (i.e. rond de jambe. Granted, before I googled it, I thought Katie was saying “rounded jam,” and had no idea what that referred to) and I quickly learned that looser fitting, stretchy pants are better to dance in than slim-fit khakis.

I’ve also learned that dance is like learning a new language. But unlike the five-days-a-week of intensive Chinese that I’m taking, I can’t just show up 30 seconds before class starts – hair disheveled and barely awake – and sit, on my butt, for fifty minutes of passive grammar review. Dance engages your body and brain in a way that writing papers and memorizing new vocabulary doesn’t. For me at least, it requires being well-fed so that my brain works well so that I can read movement clearly and fully engage my body in expressing something meaningful. And it takes a lot of repetitions of viewing archival footage, watching a real person recreate it and then doing it myself in front of a mirror before I can fully internalize the choreography – and that’s before I can even free up a few brainwaves to start thinking about style, the kind of character I’m trying to portray, the little details (Foot extended? Right wrist bent?) and everything else that makes choreography more than just a series of mechanical changes in weight and rhythm.

I’m hoping, through these blog posts, to trace the triumphs, foibles and revelations of a novice dancer learning how to learn how to dance – and in the process, hopefully doing justice to EJR, his fellow dancers (who have been all too friendly despite the number of times I have stepped on their feet) and his two very patient teachers.

If anything, I’ve learned that it’s not about success or failure. It’s about commitment and gusto – of which I have plenty, and which I’m hoping will make up for my lack of dancing experience. And when all else fails, there’s nothing that a good chuckle at myself (or curling up in the fetal position for a few minutes) can’t fix.