New dance program highlights classics

Yale’s dancers will soon be learning from the pros.

While Yale’s campus is home to more than 20 dance groups run and choreographed by students, there have been no extracurricular programs in which students perform existing choreography. The Yale College Dean’s Office and the Alliance for Dance at Yale announced plans Thursday afternoon to go forward with a new dance initiative intended to fill this gap, called the Yale Dance Theater Pilot Program. The faculty-sponsored extracurricular program will bring two professional dancers to campus to direct students in a performance of “Eight Jelly Rolls,” a dance piece originally choreographed by Twyla Tharp in 1971.

Yale plans to introduce a new dance initiative to provide students access to professional dancers.
YDN
Yale plans to introduce a new dance initiative to provide students access to professional dancers.

The time commitment for the 12 to 15 students who will be admitted to the program by audition, will be six hours a week — on top of rehearsals for the other dance groups. But Light said that six hours a week is a necessary time commitment to do Tharp’s piece justice; the choreographer herself probably spent eight hours a day working through the movements and adjusting the choreography with her dancers.

Theater Studies lecturer and World Performance Project artistic director Emily Coates selected Kate Glasner and Jennifer Way, two rehearsal directors from the Twyla Tharp Foundation and former Tharp dancers themselves, to direct the inaugural project which will open in late April.

“Having a group of students work with professional dancers and begin to familiarize themselves with dance repertoire will expand their practice and enable them to learn experientially about the history and meaning of dance,” said Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan. “This will take our offerings in dance to a new plateau, and give students a new opportunity that they haven’t had in an extracurricular arena.”

While music and theater are well-established at Yale, the dance scene on campus is relatively young, Coates said. The dance studies curriculum is only five years old and offers two classes this semester, she said, and most student-run dance groups only started to burgeon in the late 1990s.

Coates said that Cahan came to her with the suggestion for the program last August. By December, Cahan said, Coates was ready with a proposal, and on Thursday afternoon, the final approval for the funding came through from the University committee that administers the Arts Discretionary Fund, a fund that finances different arts projects each year and which will sponsor the project.

The project is meant to accomplish three goals, Coates said, starting with introducing students to major choreographic works in American concert dance history. Coates said the program also aims to give students a “really rigorous, serious experience of studio practice,” much like that which a professional dancer would have.

“I want them to realize how hard it is to be a dancer and how hard it is to dance well,” Coates said.

The third goal is to develop students’ understandings of studio practice and learned choreography as a form of “movement research,” the concept that learning another person’s choreography can inform the dancer about how that choreographer’s work fits into dance history, Coates said.

“The concept of movement research is really important to the project,” Coates said. “How are [choreographers] innovating on what came before them? How is their work new and original?”

The Dance Theater Pilot Program will also incorporate writing into the dance process as students will be asked to blog about the process, Coates said. Doing so will both document the program’s first project and extend the dancers’ thinking of movement as research, Coates said. She added that she has also seen a deficit in the quantity of insightful writing about Tharp’s choreography, which the blog will help remedy.

The piece Coates settled on — the 25-minute “Eight Jelly Rolls” — is one of Tharp’s early pieces of choreography, and mixes styles of dance while leveling distinctions between formalized and social dance forms.

“Twyla Tharp is incredibly important to American dance concert history,” she said. “Perhaps the most succinct way to describe it is she’s created this personal style that is a democratized vision and a democratized world view. She combines any and all movement into her choreography.”

Elena Light ’13, the artistic director for the Alliance for Dance at Yale and a consultant on this project, said she liked how nuanced the choreography was, citing it as some of Tharp’s best work.

But Light, who will likely participate as a dancer in the project, said that while the choreography looks fun, it will undoubtedly prove challenging for the dancers.

“[The choreographers] are gonna kill us,” she said.

The Yale Dance Theater Pilot Program will hold an information session on Monday, Jan. 24. Auditions will take place Feb. 9.

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