As a warning, just in case you didn’t get this from the title, this post is going to attempt to encapsulate a great variety of my thoughts and musings coming from this entire project as well as the final performance. With that disclaimer taken care of, there’s nothing left but to dive in!
This project was an amazing experience. Like if a prospective student came up to me on the street and asked me about my Yale experience, there’s a good chance that this would be the first thing that would come to mind, and that I would spend the next fifteen minutes rambling excitedly to them about it. This is true for several reasons. First of all, the people I’ve met, or in some cases gotten to know better, through this project: Jenny and Katie, Rose, Sara, Emily, Juliette, Patrick, Derek, Elena, and Aren are amazing, and spending time with each of these people as part of this work has really added a lot to my Yale experience. Secondly the chance to move for three hours, twice a week is invaluable when you do as much sitting around working on problem sets as I do. I was often at my most productive after Wednesday rehearsals, when I could go back to my room feeling like I had done something different for a few hours. However, just because I was moving doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning. In fact, the number one reason I would call this experience amazing is because of how much I’ve learned. My brain did a lot of work during rehearsals, and not just in terms of remembering steps. To a certain extent, rehearsal is not so different from reading for a class, the goal of which is generally to absorb the thoughts of the author and assimilate them into your own understanding of the topic. Similarly, learning Eight Jelly Rolls, particularly from such knowledgeable sources as Jenny and Katie, a significant amount of what’s going on inside my mind and body is absorbing the information they present and incorporating it into my existing framework for what dance is. The great thing is that this gets to happen through my mind and my body. For someone potentially interested in dance academia, and at the very least very committed to the intellectual consideration of dance, there’s nothing like moving through a choreographer’s work in terms of research and fuel for thought.
Now to try to get down to some of the specifics of what I’ve learned, or started to learn, over the course of the semester. In terms of dancing and my body, I’ve learned the difference between placed or held weight and true weight, a distinction I had never considered before this. I’ve also been able to connect my experience Irish step-dancing to my experience of other forms of dance. Irish step-dancing is so different from ballet and even modern and post-modern dance in general that there was never any overlap between the way I learned Irish dance and the way I learned other material. So much of Eight Jelly Rolls relies on the rhythmic structure of the steps that one day while being taught the phrase for the second section, it suddenly dawned on me that I was approaching learning this material the same way I approach learning a new Irish step-dancing combination. This was great for me, as I am generally much better at learning Irish step-dancing steps than other types of material. This is rather challenging for me to explain, but because it relies so much on rhythm and sequence I consider it to be more of an intellectual challenge than a physical one, and I am habitually more comfortable with the former than the latter. As a dancer I’ve learned a lot about what it feels like to improvise. I have improvised some in the past, but particularly having to repeatedly improvise based on the same instructions from week to week in the Mournful Serenade solo, the final section, etc, gave me an idea of how improvisation can and must change over time. The first time we tried the Mournful Serenade improvisation, it came very easily to me. Having only recently managed to get most of the steps in my mind, they were fresh and exciting to explore. Several weeks later, I found myself struggling to do anything I personally found interesting or enjoyable in this same improvisation and realized that it was at least partly because I had become more comfortable with the material. The ever-practical Jenny stepped in to rescue me from this conundrum, advising us to consider the way I was interacting with the floor in each moment, and to spend the improvisation working through the material, considering what it is, how it can be different, what is essential about it, etc, etc. With this deeply engaging physical/intellectual task (I’m starting to feel like I need a word for this, phystellectual, intsical, nope that’s not going to work, tell me if you come up with a better solution) I realized that I had actually only become comfortable with the material superficially, and that I could work on this new improvisation task for three hundred repetitions without ever running out of things to explore. Learning Eight Jelly Rolls at the same time as I was taking Advanced Dance Composition has also made me aware of how much I learned choreographically from this experience. Observing the exquisite, intricate, and oftentimes undeniably baffling construction of some of the sections, my understanding of choreographic possibilities was greatly expanded. (Anecdote: When I say baffling I’m mostly referring to the second section, originally a duet between Rose and Sara. The first time I watched it, which was during the fall semester for a class, I spent the entire time wondering what the instructions could possibly be. Somehow it achieved a marvelously spontaneous feel while also being clearly structured, and the variety of situations occurring between two dancers was mind-boggling!! Well, I joke that I really shouldn’t have wondered, because this semester I got an answer, and it was about as complicated as I had assumed it would have to be). The other main take-home in terms of choreography is the usefulness of a really well-constructed phrase. In working on my project for Dance Composition I really tried to take this point to heart, taking the time to develop one phrase that I was really pleased with, and then playing around with it. Sometimes I think of the relationship between Tharp and her phrases as the same as that between some tribes of Native Americans and the buffalo. Go with me here. When you find a really valuable resource like the buffalo or a really rich phrase, you don’t throw it away until you’ve gotten literally everything out of it that you can. In some cases, like the Mournful Serenade solo, Tharp allows the thorough use of material by allowing the performer to work with it over and over and over and over again, and in other cases such as the “drill phrase” in the fifth section, Tharp choreographs a small catalogue of variations on a phrase. As I learned from Jenny’s anecdotes, sometimes a phrase would get worked through this way by the dancers and would then disappear for years, only to show up later in another piece, or perhaps never, and I imagine that’s just because it wasn’t interesting enough. A scrawny buffalo. Speaking of baffling…let’s move on.
The only other thing that I feel is vital to address in this post, seeing at it’s already getting to be sort of mammoth, is the format of the final presentation. Basically, I am such a fan. When presenting a work which I personally find to be so thought-provoking, important in the canon of dance in America, and fundamentally awesome as Eight Jelly Rolls, I’m understandably afraid that people just won’t get it. Okay not so much get it as appreciate it. I know my friends, and equally understandably (well that’s a bit of a lie but moving on) they are not as invested in dance as I am. They want to come see me and support me, but they’re more likely to say, “so when is that jelly bean thing again?” than anything else. Based on all of this, I think that a lecture/demo style of presentation is invaluable. When I saw my roommate after the performance, her first comment was, “That was SO INTERESTING!” Now, I don’t mean the kind of “interesting” that you say when your cousin shows you a picture that is supposedly of a llama but actually looks more like a pizza, I mean the sincere kind. And coming from a Yale student, finding something to be legitimately interesting is a really valuable experience. This was the feedback I got over and over and over again from the people I knew who came to see the show. “I learned a lot,” “Wow I didn’t know anything about this coming into it, but it taught me so much,” etc, etc, in addition to comments about how I did a good job, instead of empty “great job, congrats, thanks for inviting me, wow you can kick your leg really high, etc, etc.” It makes me so happy that I want to go shout “My dance performance was interesting and educational!” from a rooftop somewhere. Listen, I never said I wasn’t a little bit weird. Dance like this really, really, really deserves to be appreciated, and if the only way to do that is to break it down to a certain extent and let people in on what’s going on and how it’s constructed, then I think that’s absolutely what needs to happen.
This process also brought up a lot of interesting and important (and occasionally frightening) questions about dance reconstruction and staging, but you’ll have to hope that one of my classmates addresses those, since I fear if I go on I may end up writing some kind of yak analogy.
Finally, to EVERYONE involved in and/or responsible for this, THANK YOU and lots of love.