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By Hannah Gilfillan
A founding member of Twyla Tharp’s original group, Sara Rudner helped define the Tharp style. As a dancer, she had a sensuality and largesse shaped by a keen intelligence, and the look of utter spontaneity. She was mesmerizing to watch—and still is. Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic of The New York Times, recently named her one of the treasures of the New York dance scene. As a choreographer, Rudner moved away from the proscenium toward more informal settings, always with the idea of “dancing first.” Her recent projects include Dancing-on-View and This Dancing Life. Since 1999 she has been the director of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, where Hannah Gilfillan recently spoke with her.
When did you begin teaching, and why? I began teaching while I was with Twyla Tharp’s company. We would give performances and master classes at colleges and universities. And though all of the company members were interested in these experiences, I seemed to be the most curious. What I’ve realized in my years of teaching is that no matter what level we’re at in our learning, we’re all dealing with very similar things––how to stabilize, how to balance, how to feel our feet, how to discover our true rotation. I’m going to be 65 and I’m still working on these things. I think it’s good for students to keep in mind that we’re all in this together. Some of us have danced a little bit longer, but we’re still working on a basic foundation.
How do you feel you’ve changed the dance department at Sarah Lawrence College? I came into Sarah Lawrence when the dance world was undergoing a really wonderful shift; it was opening out. Dancers were beginning to study more broadly. Not just ballet and modern but jazz, tap, bharata natyam, flamenco, African, hip hop. I felt we should be cultivating the dancer as a whole human being so our students would be multifaceted in this newly broadened field. After four years of study, a student may want to concentrate on performance, scholarship, or choreography, but I see these as a jumble, all co-existing.
Another change is that we’ve expanded how long students spend in a practice (technique) class, rather than scheduling two classes back to back. In many undergraduate dance programs or conservatories, students do a modern class followed by ballet or vice versa. And each begins with pliés, so you’re doing pliés for more than an hour a day. But if you’re working very consciously the first time around, you don’t have to exhaust your joints in that way. It’s a more holistic point of view.
What’s the best way for a dancer to avoid injury? I don’t think people should be doing the same class five days a week. What we do here is a mild form of cross-training. Not in the sense of going to a gymnasium but looking at your physical practice from other perspectives. And that means yoga, tai chi, improvisation, and contact improvisation, which give you insight into the workings of your own body. This also prevents you from hammering away at your body with the same types of activity. It can be very hard for a dancer because she might think, “I’ve got to dance every day or else I’m not going to get any better and I might get worse.” That’s just not true. If something hurts you, we’re going to show you a more balanced way to approach that movement.
What do you pass down to your students that you learned from your 20 years with Tharp? Dancing with Twyla, I learned how to find my own way through movement. And my way was very different from someone else’s, which in our company produced an aesthetically richer pool. We were never asked to dress alike, look alike, or dance alike. Twyla gave me the space and respect to find myself. That was a gift. And I hope it’s something we can do for our students. No one person, teacher, or choreographer knows everything. You’ll always find holes where you need to catch up or where you have a different point of view. I think that’s a very good thing. It means that you’re starting to think for yourself.
How do you challenge students to grow as technicians? First I try to establish a safe atmosphere, where a person doesn’t feel tense, so they can sense the parts of their body. Once that happens and we’re working on a certain movement, I challenge them with a variation by asking, “Can you do that with your eyes closed or with both legs? Can you do a side bend while you’re doing the turn?” You can do simple things, but with great awareness and a fresh mind. Each day everything will feel different and you’ll go through your checklist: Can I feel my toes, can I feel my hamstrings? Am I little too far back on my feet, am I a little too far forward? And then you run around the room and forget about it. And then you try again.
What do you learn from your students? When they say, “I don’t understand this movement” or “I don’t feel it this way,” that encourages me to take movements apart and try to understand them again. If you have questions, ask. It’s very helpful on both sides—for yourself and for the teacher’s understanding of what is going on.
Photo by Nathaniel Tilestone, DM Archives.