Problem Solving


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.

Following Function


Less is more. That’s what I keep telling myself as I go through the steps of Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls in my head. I’ve trained as a ballet dancer since childhood, so I’ve been conditioned to think that I should be doing as much as I possibly can with my body in order to appear to be doing as little as possible. Ballet consists of a huge expense of energy for a delicately veiled payout. But with the Tharp movement style, what you see is what you get. Each turn of my hip is exactly that, a rotating of bone in socket, requiring only as much muscle tension as is necessary for a functional movement. It’s akin to the modern architecture philosophy of “form follows function.”

What’s interesting, though, is that I’m not completely barred from accentuating the movements. As Katie and Jenny explain, you can add movement only if it is helping to better express the original step given. So, here’s my plan: first, I’m going to completely rid myself of excess movement or tension. Once I’ve mastered that, then I will allow myself to accentuate or enhance, while still remaining true to Tharp’s choreography. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Notes From Katie Glasner


Katie Glasner, one of our fearless rehearsal directors, has supplied the following notes on EIGHT JELLY ROLLS:

Dances only really, truly live when dancers dance them.

Yes, video and film capture dance, providing evidence of people moving through space and time in what we call dance.

Yes, notation symbolically captures dance, but one needs to be fluent in the notation system to both write and translate the symbols.

Yes, one dancer passes choreography on to the next dancer, the aural and physical transmission of information passing through the fragile gates of memory and physical ability.

But one dancer cannot dance an entire cast of a group work in live time and without the assistance of technology.

Twyla Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls, first performed in 1971 by a cast of six women to music by Jelly Roll Morton, was last performed by the Tharp company in 1987.  The piece had a 20-year hiatus, coming into the light in 2007 when I set the work on dancers at Barnard College.  It was performed in April, and culminated with an all Tharp concert by dancers from Barnard College, Sarah Lawrence College, Marymount Manhattan College, Hunter College and Juilliard a month later.  I went on to stage the entire piece at George Mason University and Duke University.  I began a staging at Kutztown University, but plans quickly shifted as a toxic leak was discovered in close proximity to the Dance Department and staffing needed to be reconsidered.  The KU Department was working on the Torelli at the same time and decided that it was better to do less.  A reigning quote of Twyla’s: “less is more.”  Kutztown University embodied her axiom wisely in a stressful time.  I set sections of the piece on a group of high school students under Alice Tierstein’s tutelage at Fieldston High School in NYC.  Another group of Barnard dancers performed the second half of the piece at Sharing the Legacy, produced by Hunter College.

This spring, Jenny Way – amazing Tharp colleague and friend – and I are staging sections of the piece on nine Yale students participating in the Yale Dance Theater Pilot Project.  Eight Jelly Rolls is a wonderfully rich piece of choreography set to eight songs of Jelly Roll Morton’s (hence the title), filled with brain bashing choreographic devices, all sorts of social dances from the 1920’s, luxurious movement to play around with and by way of extreme contrast, movement that is so fast it makes your head spin.  Every time I meet this movement, something new reveals itself.  Every time I meet this piece, I am grateful for the dancers who let the piece live.

Such was the case this past Wednesday evening – nine Yale dancers have had five sessions, Jenny meeting them on Saturdays, I on Wednesdays – when a section Jenny set the week before literally came to life before my eyes.  The last section, danced to “If Only Somebody Would Love Me” and the only section in the piece where the entire cast does the same thing at the same time, came together in a way that made me awfully glad to see this piece up on its proverbial feet again.  The Tharp movement is simultaneously highly stylistic and technically grounded.  But there’s no Tharp technique – at the moment.  And Eight Jelly Rolls called upon the variety of riches of the dancers making the piece 40 years ago.

What I’m most curious about at the moment is the question about movement “fitting” or making physical sense on, or to, a dancer.  How is it that some choreography simply IS that person?  And then how does another person who is  learning and ultimately recreating (and maybe interpreting)  that choreography find their way towards inhabiting what was created for someone else?  I guess the best analogy I can come up with is that if you’ve had a coat for a long, long time and it is shaped by how you wear it and the kinds of demands you put on it – if you carry your bag on your right shoulder, there may be a well worn spot there – and you give it to someone else, it’s going to fit that person differently, but your shape is going to be there for a while.  They carry their bag on their left shoulder, so it begins to show wear and tear there.  But there’s history of the original owner’s presence in that well worn spot on the right shoulder.

When I stage Eight Jelly Rolls, I work with the bride’s mantra: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Blue is easy – it’s in the title of one of the songs: Smokehouse Blues.

Something old is pretty obvious – the choreography.

Something borrowed is pretty easy as well – maybe the dancer learning the piece borrows a particular way of stringing movement together from another dancer who has performed the piece.

Something new – this is the challenging intersection as far as I’m concerned.  New is the dancer learning the piece and putting the old, borrowed and blue stuff together to make sense for the dancer.

The moment when all this comes together is incredibly satisfying because there’s something so ineffable about the rightness of the spirit of Twyla’s work.  To see that moment and to know the physical and intellectual delight in committing to work that hard is indeed a rare gift.

-Katie Glasner, February 25, NYC

A Dance Dance Revolution, Part I


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.

Two Heads (and Bodies!) are Better Than One


One of the things I am most enjoying about the Yale Dance Theater Pilot Program so far is getting to rehearse with two rehearsal directors, both of whom danced extensively with/for Twyla Tharp, Jenny Way Rawe and Katie Glasner (henceforth Jenny and Katie). First of all, they are both incredible, lovely to work with, and clearly know the movement and the movement style exceedingly well. In terms of my personal thoughts/musings, getting to work with them in the way that we do (three hours with Katie on Wednesdays, and three hours with Jenny on Saturdays) is proving to be a fascinating study in how individuals experience/know choreography.

Before I begin my discussion of my impressions, let it be noted that Katie and Jenny openly admit that they have different approaches to teaching the material, and that this is exactly what makes it so fabulous to be able to work with both of them. Now back to my ramblings. Where was I? Oh right, as someone who frequently stages Eight Jelly Rolls, Katie has a very “step-oriented” approach. She makes sure that we have the basics of the phrases – footfalls, rhythms, arm placements, pelvis placement – before we move on to manipulating them as the program dictates. She also takes us through these basics at a pretty reasonable pace. Jenny on the other hand, while she certainly knows the material equally well, has a more “style/energy-oriented” approach. Working with her we tend to go through material faster, allowing us (or at least me anyway) to get a less-thorough- no, that’s not right – a different impression of the material. When I first learn a phrase from Katie, I’m highly aware of exactly what the steps should be and should look like, but slightly less aware of what they should feel like. When I first learn a phrase from Jenny, I’m not always able to get a complete grasp of where my feet should be before we start trying it out with manipulations, but I have a good sense of what the energy should be like throughout the phrase and what it should feel like as I do it. In both cases, once I then rehearse said material with the other director, I get a fairly complete view of the material.

It seems to me that these different approaches come at least partially out of Jenny and Katie’s individual understanding of the movement. Katie seems to have a more codified, linear, thought-based knowledge of the material, informed by her muscle memory, whereas Jenny’s knowledge seems to come largely from her body’s knowledge and her muscle memory, informed by intellectual knowledge. It is always amazing to me to see her go through a phrase and then comment to us about how she didn’t do it exactly how it’s codified because she automatically falls into the solutions and habits she developed when performing in the work. This brings up all sorts of interesting questions about dance preservation (of which we know there are no end!), but I’ll leave that for another post.

Working with both Katie and Jenny over the past few weeks has also helped me to learn what works for me as a dancer learning material. Just as Katie and Jenny know the material in different ways, so I’m sure the group of dancers learn material differently. I find that certain phrases work better for me when learned in the Katie style, and others in the Jenny style. The moments of choreography where the end result is intended to be precise, such as most of the drill phrase (and especially the complicated program of retrograding, inverting, varying energy level, etc that goes along with it) for example, are easiest for me to learn and master with as many slow, painstaking passes and detailed instructions on where, when, and how to place my feet as possible, thus with Katie. On the other hand, the Mournful Serenade solo and the improvisational section of composed of social dances in the eighth jelly roll are easier for me to learn and rehearse with Jenny, because to a certain extent the end result needs to be based more on style and exploration than on precision. In the case of Mournful Serenade, I particularly appreciate learning the material from Jenny because she herself learned the material entirely from video, without codification, so she gives us less steps and more freedom. I’m sure that learning the solo as Katie teaches it will eventually lead to the exact same place, but as I was discussing with Emily, I find that if I’m given too many exact instructions for this particular section I lose the ability to be as free and relaxed in the movement as I feel is necessary for me to do it justice. I know myself well enough to know that because I’m not entirely comfortable with the style yet, if given enough details I will cling to them rigidly (remember I’m a Yale student, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I’m a little obsessed with doing things “right”) rather than having the freedom to explore.

Enough about me, Katie, and Jenny – I would like to turn briefly to my previous post. I would just like to thank Sara Rudner for commenting and filling me (and anyone reading) in about her experience of dancing Mournful Serenade. It is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking for me to hear which aspects of her experience I was able to detect from watching and to learn about those aspects I was unable to detect (notably exhaustion). Also as someone learning the solo it’s nice to hear that we are intended to draw upon the music during the improvisation, as I would have an incredibly hard time not doing so. The comment undeniably made my day, so thanks again.

Thoughts on Arms and a bit of Flow Envy


My dance training from an early age through the end of high school was in two forms which have very specific arm positions at all times, ballet and Irish step-dancing. Because of this or in spite of this – I’m not entirely sure – one of my favorite things about the Tharp choreography I have learned so far (Torelli and parts of Eight Jelly Rolls) is definitely the use of the arms. There are plenty of sections and phrases in which the arms are choreographed, yes, and these don’t do anything special for me as a dancer, but the phrases in which the arms are left to do whatever is natural/useful? Heavenly. There’s something incredibly invigorating and pleasurable for me about being able to let my arms do whatever it is that they are doing. In general, the arms swing in opposition to the leg movements, as they would naturally if you were running or walking, and it just feels wonderful to let them do that. It’s not that I don’t pay attention to my arms, per se, but rather that being able to use them however is comfortable for me makes a significant difference in how much I enjoy dancing a phrase.

This discussion of the arms ties into a larger theme in my enjoyment of Tharp’s work as a dancer. For me, the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of her work tend to be found in the freedoms she allows dancers, more than the constrictions, or perhaps rather in the balance of freedom and constrictions. I promise to elaborate on this in later posts, so stay tuned.

And now for something totally different:

Let’s not lie about it; I’m a little bit obsessed with Sara Rudner’s solo in Eight Jelly Rolls, Mournful Serenade. Truly, I could watch her perform it a hundred times and not run out of things to capture my attention or get tired of it. It’s hard for me to nail down exactly what it is about the solo, and in particular her interpretation, which is so captivating and wonderful for me. There are a number of factors, but right now at least I think that it is the incredible lack of self-consciousness which really makes it for me. This manifests itself in a number of ways – lack of attention to the “front” or the audience, but without constituting an intentional rejection, it’s really more like a lack of awareness, and most especially an incredible sense of ease and relaxation. It just seems like she’s having a fabulous time. Not the sort of fabulous time that you have at party, but the sort of fabulous time that you have when you are dancing material with which you feel so comfortable it’s like an extension of your being, when you are manipulating it and dancing it just because you can and you want to, when you lose all awareness of observation, or even self-judgment, and just enjoy moving in your body. Huh. Seeing as I’ve just described one of the most wonderful experiences in the world, it doesn’t surprise me that watching someone else experience it is captivating. Also this explains why I always feel at least somewhat jealous when I watch it. I’ve only experienced that feeling with dance, but I imagine musicians and artists can get into a similar state, I’m reasonably sure it’s even defined by some psychologists as “flow.” Well, there you go then.

What We’re Doing When We Say We’re Dancing at Yale


In August of 2010, Susan Cahan, Associate Dean for the Arts in Yale College, asked me if I felt I had enough strong dancers among my students to put together a dance performance that could rival the high quality of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. I thought of the many students yearning to dance at Yale – those who have enrolled in the dance studies courses, and others I have watched in extracurricular productions – and said I thought we could manage something. This is how the idea for the Yale Dance Theater Pilot Program came into being.

YDT builds upon the development of the dance studies curriculum at Yale over the past five years, and enthusiasm for dancing generated by the extracurricular dance groups. Like the dance courses, YDT emphasizes rigorous artistic practice as a site of research. In learning EIGHT JELLY ROLLS, students gain knowledge of Twyla Tharp’s worldview, as well as the particular historical and cultural context in which her thinking evolved. They also learn something about the benefits and pitfalls of dance reconstruction. We could not have asked for more expert advisors in having Katie Glasner and Jenny Way, both long-time Tharp dancers, stage the work, and Sara Rudner and Rose Marie Wright, the highly lauded original members of her company, guest coach.

This four-way input does, however, amount to four interpretations of choreography that in its essence admits and insists on a large degree of individual choice. Among other challenges, the dancers are navigating this bounty of information. An experiment in movement and words, YDT offers students the opportunity to reflect on these issues, articulating the value of their studio practice even as they are out of breath and sweaty, exhausted by the very ideas they are considering. The dancers of YDT are free to write about the studio work in whatever way they desire. Utmost creativity in dancing and writing is our guiding m.o.

The blog not only documents the process of learning EIGHT JELLY ROLLS, it allows us to hear from the dancers–voices so often undervalued in dance history. This blog allows us to hear about the experience of interpreting choreography from the dancers themselves.

Do you realize how chock-full of ideas even a snippet of choreography by Twyla Tharp can be? Read on!

Drum roll, please…