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.