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By Johanna Kirk
Jeanne Bresciani is celebrated as an Isadora Duncan scholar, a soloist, a reconstructor of Duncan’s work, and a choreographer in her own right. Today, she devotes herself primarily to The Isadora Duncan International Institute, Inc., where she serves as artist in residence and director of education. In addition, she directs the Duncan program that she founded at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, runs training programs in Duncan’s technique and ideology out of High Falls, NY, and directs two dance companies—one for adults, the other for children. Johanna Kirk recently spoke with Bresciani about the guiding principles of her work and her passion for sharing it with students.
How would you describe quintessential Duncan technique? Movement travels in rays through the body, emanating from the solar plexus (the top of the ribcage, where the two sides connect, below the breastbone). The core move in Duncan is to put your fingers on the solar plexus and breathe and find yourself at one with the harmony of the universe. The dancer is not an isolated, narcissistic, lost little creature. She is not out of touch with the exquisite vastness of music; the incredible, eternal source of nature; or the stimulus of others.
Are there any rules in Duncan that are maybe not so apparent? There’s no such thing as a straight line in nature, so there are no straight lines in Duncan dance. One wouldn’t come from a living source like the solar plexus and then jut out in a straight line. That has a deadness to it, it has a finitude. We don’t point the toes. We don’t end anything sharply. There is always premovement, movement, and after-movement. There is no isolation of parts in Duncan. Even a movement of the foot is related to the solar plexus. We don’t work in a forced turnout; it’s always an anatomical turnout. It’s “organic ballet.” Flow is essential. Even the strongest movements are still in “free flow,” in the terms of Laban. There can be strain, but not bondage. It is more about sensation than presentation. The animal, human, and divine levels are always operative.
Would you call Duncan’s movement “natural?” Isadora demanded that we be body, mind, emotions, and spirit. She wanted the highest intelligence and the freest body. We are nature embodied. We are felt nature. We are nature cultivated. We are nature imagined. So it is not just “natural” movement. It is nature revivified with beauty, strength, and freedom. These three qualities are our birthright as American dancers. They are what we take out to the world.
What is the relationship between the Duncan dance and its music? Our goal is to be visible music. The first music for us is our breath. We must attune ourselves to the waves of our breath. Then, we study other wave patterns: waves in water, light waves, and sound waves. If one can dance these waves, it gets the rigidity out of the body. Then, the musicality will develop. We cultivate a sense of rhythm early on. We don’t speak to the little ones, we sing to them. We make them laugh and lose themselves and then they can discover something new.
Will you tell me about skipping and other expressions of buoyancy in Duncan technique? Skipping is our way of being with weight and carrying it forth. We have to create a great deal of air in the body. We shine our knees up to the sun to get higher, rather than focusing on traveling forward. We don’t plié, and we land on the balls of our feet.
What’s the hardest thing for students to learn when they begin studying with you? If they come with a lot of technique, it is a process of undoing. Sometimes the core has already been bridled in a way that doesn’t allow letting go. If you can’t release and be vulnerable on the stage in front of people, you’ll do a nice formal job, but it won’t capture the full trajectory of the human potential of movement.
What do you love about teaching? I can have brand new dancers who somehow get to that place in themselves that is pure and cleansed, and what’s more beautiful than that? They expose their very soul and discover something exquisite within themselves that they never knew existed. And it can happen to someone who is 5 or someone who is 70.
How can the work benefit dancers trained in other styles? In Duncan class, you feel beautiful immediately. It’s instant gratification. Recently, two dancers in my training program with extensive dance backgrounds told me, “Jeanne, if I hadn’t found you, I would have stopped by now.” The Duncan work brings us up and out and into the world again with something fresh within ourselves to give back. Duncan was a paragon in the art of living; she called her school a “school of life.” Her movement reignites the fire for going out into the exquisite world of life as well as professional dance that is so thrilling, but can be very blistering too. If we could go back to our sources instead of being cut off from our whole selves by schooling, we could reunite with our faculties.
Should dancers learn about Duncan’s life and ideas to really benefit from studying her work? Duncan’s “palace of wisdom” can be reached by many paths: her life, mythos, transcendence, glamour, ideas, music, era, and what she passionately loved. The key is to realize that by reaching back into the source, you will become more in touch with yourself right now.
The work is a great tradition, not just a technique or an aesthetic. Isadora’s words were prophetic. She was not only a dancer, but a thinker and philosopher. I don’t like it when we teachers claim it all as our own. It honors us to be in someone else’s footsteps; it doesn’t make us less. I don’t want to co-opt her greatness, but I’m very grateful to be in her train. It is a privilege to carry her work.