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.