Wrapping It All Up


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.

Final Thoughts


Twyla’s work is more challenging than I could have ever imagined. No, you’re not being asked to put your leg behind your head or to whip out thirty-two fouettes or split your legs in the air. Instead, her work forces you to reevaluate your body’s natural weight and tendencies, and to then put these tendencies to use in a very pedestrian, jazz-based technique. Working with the choreography over the course of this semester, I found that I was introduced to a completely new relationship with the floor. Suddenly, my feet were grounded, always stroking, as if my sole purpose in dancing was to create a fossil-like impression in the floor, recording my every movement. This led to greater cohesion between different steps, as this flat weight-bearing unifier connected them all.

Even though it may not be “technically challenging” in the way we normally think of dance (relating to ballet and more classical forms of modern dance), it definitely increased my stamina. Eight Jelly Rolls is virtually non-stop, especially since we had all the dancers performing each jelly roll, not allowing for the breaks that were in the original version. Added to that, the juggling of the many different counts, inversions, retrogrades, etc. made my mind and body work overtime. This intellectual stimulation, I believe, is the key ingredient in what makes Twyla’s work so compelling. It’s not just movement—it’s equations and sentences and rhythm changes and games —it’s the whole world boiled down to a twenty-five minute dance.

Not only do Twyla’s dances consist of worlds, they create them as well. For me, Eight Jelly Rolls created a world, a community (whatever you want to call it), where I was free to explore a new kind of movement, free to make mistakes, even free to get angry. Twyla’s pieces, originally constructed in a utopic studio community, create an environment that encourages learning and forces you to become closer with the other people involved in your exploration. Thus, at the end of this semester, I found that I had a new community whose shared movement experiences made us closer than many other groups of people I’ve encountered. When I injured my knee during the dress rehearsal for the final lecture-demonstration and was unable to perform the next day, I realized that the people surrounding me made me feel safe, even in a time of vulnerability. I truly believe this is because they know me through movement, through kinesthetic interaction, which is so much more soul bearing than these constructed, premeditated sentences I now write on this page, so much more raw than a verbal conversation mediated by forethought.

As cliché as it sounds, dance is life. It’s not performance; it’s not pointed feet and stretched legs. It’s you and me, walking along the street doing the drill, marking the steps of the second jelly roll on the subway platform, dancing, moving, living.



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…

Variations on a Theme


So, after working on this material during the past several weeks, I find that the lingering question is – so what exactly is this that we’re doing?! In rehearsals, I just had the sense that Jenny and Katie knew something that we didn’t know, even when I thought I was “getting it.” For example, when Rose Marie Wright ran rehearsal, Amymarie and I were going over the end of Sara and Rose’s duet when they play the trombone sort of bent over towards the ground. And Rose’s telling us, “Okay, so you need to improvise.” And Amymarie and I reply, “Oh! So we can play the trombone up here?” And Rose replied (perhaps without any sense that this was our feeble attempt at improvisation), “Well, no. You have to play it down here.” Insert confused glances.

And more generally speaking, I’m really interested in what it is that makes Twyla’s work what it is. What is the essence of this movement? Is it that anything can become “dance”? (Polishing a table, sticking your little finger out, flipping a coin, etc…) Is it the way you hold your weight? (I second Amymarie’s observation on what she calls held and real weight.) Is it the structure and manipulations? Or is the essence of this movement so intimately tied to the people who helped create it that with each degree of removal, it loses some of its Tharpness (Tharpateity)?

I wonder about the role of the original individual dancers to the movement. To talk about creation gives the impression of something being static—like: check that off the list. It’s been “created.” But from what I understand, that’s never how this piece operated to being with. It was in a constant state of creation, to the extent that there was something of a foundation (an essence, if you will), and then the accoutrements were layered on top of the essential movement.

And maybe this gets at a question about dance—is it intrinsic or extrinsic? Or both? And how? It seems like it’s intrinsic in the sense that it can’t exist without the individual dancer, but extrinsic in the sense that it is something you can pass on. But not perfectly. And not unless you have bodies. Which is crazy. I mean, I guess in some cases you have dance notation—but dance notation isn’t dance.

That makes me head spin. Here are some other random thoughts about the performance:

1. The SHOES! The shoes made a huge difference. I didn’t use suede-soled shoes until about two weeks before the performance, and baby: I’m never goin’ back. Katie and Jenny kept telling us that the shoes would make a big difference. I don’t know why that didn’t really sink in. Pointe shoes make a big difference. Tap shoes make a big difference. So why not suede-soled shoes? I hope at some point I get the chance to work on Tharp repertory again, and I’ll start at the beginning with the shoes. Dancing with them hugely changed how I experienced a relationship with the floor (more massage-y and fluid, less rubbery and sticky), and I think it would make a difference to get that right at the start of a piece.

2. Performing Sarah’s solo in darkness was so awesome! I think there were 3 factors at work: I couldn’t see the people watching us, I wasn’t aware of a mirror (because there wasn’t one), and the darkness made it feel sort swanky. This time doing it I tried to conjure up in my mind what it’s like dancing outside at dusk in the French Quarter, in the humidity. I wonder what it would be like to dance that with a live band. An alive band. Yesss. I also LOVE the way Sara and Katie and Jenny talked about that solo as a duet, and working with the music and being attentive to it. In a lot of ways, Eight Jelly Rolls is something like embodied jazz—the give and take, the responsiveness and attentiveness to what’s going on around you, but still being grounded in a theme. I love it. Makes it distinctively American, too.

This whole experience was such a gift!!! MERCI BEAUCOUP to all who made it happen. Virtual love, comin’ atcha.

Concluding Remarks, an Amalgam of Thoughts


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.

Reflections from Katie Glasner


Rehearsal director Katie Glasner has submitted the following reflections on mastering Twyla Tharp’s choreography:

We’re coming to the end of the Jelly Roll project and reflecting on the process, it’s had its ups and downs – as is the case with every creative process.  Restaging an extent work can be done in myriad ways, but it’s rare for dancers to have primary sources before them. The YDT dancers have had time with Sara Rudner and Rose Marie Wright, original creators of the piece and they’ll soon have time with Rika Okamoto, a dancer of recent vintage Tharp material.  Jenny and I have brought our individual and committed ways of digging in to the material.  Opening up the sections of the piece to audience members will surely introduce many to the 1970’s world of Tharp choreography.   This seemingly casual material is anything but casual.

As Elena and Juliette have written, the simplest motions can often be the most challenging and sometimes a hip roll is just that.  Just a hip roll.  Not an invitation, not a reference to another work.  It’s just the femur working its way in the hip socket, the gluteal muscles getting a stretch.  On counts 7 and 8.  And to the left on those counts.

It’s been most challenging to – and it is for everyone – make peace with the necessity of repetition in order to find ease.   Tapper Savion Glover puts it pretty succinctly:

“I try to keep my chops up,” Glover told Jane Goldberg, for Dance Magazine, ‘so I can just be.”  You have technique so that you can forget about technique, and say something.”

I think Twyla’s work and all of the dancers who have ever worked with her manifest a quote from Sojourner Truth, “It is the mind that makes the body.”

Just being in any Tharp work takes time.  Takes humility.  Takes proverbial microscopes to look into movement and those pesky transitions.  Takes humor.  Takes fortitude.  Takes collegiality.  And advil probably doesn’t hurt.  The intellectual pursuit of any crafted physical motion takes intellectual effort.  That effort ultimately lets the dancer just be.

Katie Glasner, NYC, April 28, 2011

In Memoriam: Michele Elizabeth Dufault


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.

Reflections on a Visit


What I’d like to hone in on for a moment is Sara Rudner’s visit. First of all, when Emily told us that she’d be coming, I nearly wet my pants I was so excited. This woman – who has been referred to as “the greatest dancer in the world” (here) by the New York Times is a personal hero of mine – her simultaneous embodiment of class and sass in Eight Jelly Rolls has won Sara a permanent place in my heart, that’s for certain.

A couple of random thoughts:

-Who ever knew walking could be so complicated?! How do you make sense out of – relax, release your pelvis, walk normally, swish your hips, relax your shoulders – all at the same time? Why is looking cool so freaking hard?! As a dancer, I really like to pat myself on the back sometimes and congratulate myself on my own superb physical and spacial awareness. And then I meet someone like Sara, who gives you a firm, metaphorical kick in the rear end, forcibly removing you from the High Horse and reminding you that, actually, you look pretty spastic right now, and you’re only walking.

-Sara Rudner: “This dance isn’t a solo. It’s a duet with the music.” Awesome Awesome AWESOME. Sara Rudner, please tell me you have more nuggets of wisdom like that up your sleeve. What an awesome way of thinking about it. Actually, the first time I started listening to the music (and before I put it together that it was Jelly Roll Morton), there was something about it that felt really natural about it. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but it just made everything seem kind of right with the world. And then, when it dawned on me that Eight Jelly Rolls = Jelly Roll Morton = New Orleans, LA, it made a lot more sense why the music sounded so familiar. (I myself hail from the NOLA). And then I got to wondering what that solo would be like if it were performed with a live band, and how/if that would affect the musicians. I would imagine in that case there’s a lot more mutual energy-sharing that goes on.

Oh! And another thing. Something that I have found really fascinating throughout this whole process is how movement—something visual—is consistently described with vocabulary traditionally associated with sound. And to think of your body as an instrument “playing” with the other instruments is completely bizarre and awesome. Hm. I’ll have to think about that some more.

-Also, my favorite moment was when Sara started improving and totally got in the zone. It was funny, because she was sort of working through it, and then suddenly – the look in her eyes just totally changed and you could see something click. And it was so crazy to see her do the solo now, because even though her physical accidents are older now (accidents as in the features about you that aren’t intrinsic to your being, like eye or hair color), the dancing revealed something very essential about her that was revealed in her movement.

By the way, what does it mean to have a “look” in your eye? It can’t mean expression, because the expression comes from the muscles in your face. And to the best of my knowledge, eyes are generally the things doing the looking. Or when we talk about someone having a “look” it usually refers to their trendy habiliments. Hm. That’s kind of confusing. But there was definitely an intensity of focus in her eyes. It’s funny how we pick up on things like that – but I would love it if someone could explain to me what that actually means…

I don’t know if anyone else felt like this, but my perception of time was totally manipulated while watching her dance. (The mark of a successful performance!) While I was watching her, it was as if time had stood still. And when she finished, I had this moment where I felt like I had been standing there for either hours or seconds. Really weird. And since one of my favorite things to read about is how people conceive of time, here’s a little gem from Plato’s Timaeus for you:

“Now it was the Living Thing’s nature to be eternal, but it isn’t possible to bestow eternity fully upon anything that is begotten. And so he began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call ‘time.’” (37d)

A moving image of eternity!!! Isn’t that awesome? I don’t think that human beings were made to exist in time as we know it, which might explain why we can never really get a handle on it. (This week is going by slowly! Or maybe, I can’t believe how fast this year has gone by!) And also maybe speaks to why some of our loveliest moments are ones where we aren’t aware of the passage of time. Anyway, watching Sara dance was definitely one of those really delightful moments where your awareness of everything just dissolves.

I could say more about her visit, but I think those were the highlights. It was really wonderful to have her here. But before I can really aspire to Sara’s sass and class in her solo, I think first I’ll have to work on my walking issues and incontinence problems.

Performing Eight Jelly Rolls


One thing I appreciate tremendously about Tharp’s choreography and the process of learning it is that it is much more than a process of learning steps.  Eight Jelly Rolls demands that you have a relationship with the movement, and encourages you to explore nuances in a much more active way than in the dance I’ve done before.  The question of performance is one that is often ignored in the dance world.  When taking classes, the emphasis is solely on technique.  The few teachers who do address performative aspects in class treat it as a bonus to be placed on top of proper technique. The same thing can be said for many rehearsals.  While there may be minor notes about the emotions of the piece along the way, it is not until the steps are perfect that the choreographer delves into a discussion of what the face is doing.

With Tharp it is completely different.  Yes, it is true you still need to learn the steps before you can perform the piece, but perfecting the steps is completely dependent on the dancer’s relationship to the movement rather than the technical mastery of them.  This relationship is something the dancer needs to form on his/her own.  The dancer is not asked to project a certain emotion out towards the audience. That often leads to the emotion to be isolated from the steps.  What is more crucial is letting emotion be informed by movement.  This is evident in the way Tharp choreographs.  Often times we’ll start by learning a phrase, and then proceed to distort that phrase in every way imaginable. By exploring all these options I am given the opportunity to explore several different ways of performing the piece and am allowed to choose the way that suits me.  Most choreographers would have the performance limited to the way they themselves see the piece, leaving the development of the dancers vision completely out of the picture.

When it comes to performance in dance, more often than not a choreographer will demand that the emotion be BIG (“big enough to reach the upper balcony”, as a ballet teacher once told me).  In Twyla’s work, the emphasis seems to be that the emotions be REAL.  Having a piece with BIG emotions throughout I find can often be boring.  But in Eight Jelly Rolls, especially in the solos but also layered throughout much of the ensemble work, the dancer is free to constantly adjust emotional response and the scale of performance based on reactions toward both the movement and the music that happen in the moment.  While it is definitely a more challenging way of dancing, it is also far more engaging as a dancer, and leads to a far more dynamic performance when watching.

Thinking Too Much or Too Little?


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.