Last Friday morning in a long, sun-filled studio, a group of American University dance students took their last class with guest artist Risa Jaroslow. The Manhattan-based choreographer had spent most of October here, sharing her technical know-how and teaching them great swatches of her loose-limbed, buttery dances.
While a bearded pianist played and belted out an Italian aria, the students leaped, zigzagged and whirled about the space, some of them quick as rotating eggbeaters, others a trifle behind the beat. Jaroslow, a striking woman with a shoulder-length mane of dark curls and immense blue eyes, seemed to be everywhere at once -- demonstrating, correcting, clapping rhythms.
By the end of the session, some of the students had begun to capture the Jaroslow style. Some of them, in fact, would go on to perform a scaled-down version of her "Fine Line" at their student concert.
"My experience at American University was wonderful, mostly because the students were eager and worked very hard," says the choreographer several days later, now preparing for her company's performances this weekend at the Dance Place. "There were the inevitable differences in ability or experience, but I had the feeling that whatever stuff I gave out they would just eat up. It's a very noncompetitive atmosphere, and the dancers are very generous with one another."
Jaroslow has spent much of her professional life commuting, both literally and figuratively, between the world of academia and the creative realm of dancemaking. In addition to numerous short-term residences around the country, she spent four years shuttling to and from Trinity College in Hartford, followed by a stint at Long Island University's C. W. Post Center.
At times this dual career has made perfect sense, and at others it's proven quite tedious, almost an obstacle. "In the last couple of years, however, I've had a renewed enthusiasm about teaching," she says. "I use a lot of material from pieces that I'm working on or performing, and that material in a classroom makes me see new things about my work."
Born into a family of actors and musicians, Jaroslow found herself immersed in dancing by the age of 5. "My parents were of that enlightened set that sent their children to 'modern dance' rather than ballet class. At one point, they even ran a studio in New Jersey. One extraordinary teacher there had a profound effect on me, so much so that by the age of 12, I knew that dancing was what I would do from then on."
She went on to study at Bennington College, a school renowned for its dance department. Though she values the four years she spent there, she now believes that a fledgling choreographer can be nurtured, but not trained, by the university environment.
"I think, as regards making dances, that the greatest advantage of being in an academic setting is that you have the time and the place to do it, and someone to look at your work. That's a gift. You don't have that in the real world." She smiles ruefully. "But nobody can teach you how to make dances."
Making dances -- about order and chaos, decisions, relationships, politics, patterns -- constitutes the core of Jaroslow's artistic existence. She has never felt a burning need to perform in other people's companies, and the fact that she gave birth to a daughter in the prime of her dancing years didn't help matters any.
"I didn't fit too well into other choreographers' ideas of what a dancer's life should be like. It never interfered with my own work, though. Fortunately, more dancers and choreographers are starting to have children now."
Though she couldn't imagine herself doing anything else, Jaroslow admits that dancing is not the easiest of life styles. "You certainly do make sacrifices," she says. "It's sort of the nature of the beast to make lots of them. It takes an enormous amount of energy and organization to pull it all off."