Teacher's Wisdom: Jennifer Scanlon
Jennifer Scanlon’s calm presence is infectious. As the former Limón dancer approaches, her students exhale, lengthen their spines, and allow their sternums to soften. But don’t let her guru-like nature fool you; she can also demonstrate the suspensions, overcurves, and side bends of Limón technique with vigor.
Scanlon teaches modern dance and Alexander Technique at Boston Conservatory, imparting a deep-rooted knowledge of José Limón’s heritage and a mindful approach to all movement. In 1963, after attending Juilliard, she joined the Limón Dance Company for a tour of the Far East. During her 21-year tenure with the troupe, Limón made the solo “Niobe (Mourning Mother)” from Dances for Isadora on her. She was also part of the creation of A Choreographic Offering (1964) and Psalm (1967). Scanlon has traveled the country to set Limón’s repertory at universities and companies like the Joffrey Ballet and Kansas City Ballet. Former student Jenny Dalzell caught up with her to discuss her role as a teacher preserving Limón’s legacy.
What was it like working with Limón? Challenging, inspiring, and demanding. He was prolific in terms of bringing in material when choreographing a piece. He also had a great sense of humor. When he’d get stuck or stymied, he would tell us these not-so-funny jokes, and we’d laugh and say, “Oh, José, you tell the worst jokes.” We were so much younger, but he was accessible if you didn’t feel threatened by him. He had many interests and was articulate in so many ways. He played the piano, listened to music, and read voraciously. He was a Renaissance man. He was politically astute, and his dances spoke of humanity.
What is the core of Limón technique? The Limón technique uses the Humphrey-Weidman principles of fall, recovery, and suspension, and of course, the use of the breath is primary. The technique is very grounded, but energy is always moving past your fingertips, and there is a sense of conscious abandonment. You allow the energy of a fall to determine the next moment of suspension. It’s not simply plié-relevé—you cannot force suspension. I tell my students to think of a suspension as a musical fermata or an ellipsis at the end of a sentence, never a period. It has no end; it reaches a place where it becomes a new beginning.
Do Limón classes differ depending on the instructor, or are the exercises codified? The movement principles in each class would be the same, but José never wanted any kind of syllabus. Limón teachers may share some exercises because we had the same teachers. What I teach is certainly imbued with Limón, as that was my life, but I am an assimilation of all my experiences. My practice of Alexander also plays a big role in my classes.
What aspects of Alexander do you bring into your modern classes? I often talk about the use of “primary control,” which is one’s head being movable at the end of the spine, allowing a freedom of movement in the rest of the body. One day I led an Alexander meditation of the breath to help students gain awareness of their rib cages and avoid the arms-up/ribs-out syndrome. I had them lie down and put their consciousness inside their rib cage. For five minutes, I asked them to feel and watch the movement of their ribs with their natural breath. When they stood up, I had them stay with the meditation as they raised their arms—and what a difference! It was wonderful.
Many of your first-year students have studied only ballet. Do you have advice for someone entering their first modern class? Don’t try to translate this vocabulary into something you know. Think in terms of activities, not shapes: You are bending. You are folding. You are standing. In your inner dialogue, use verbs. Go into class with a clean slate; don’t worry about looking awkward. It’s not easy, but you have to be free to fall over and play with ideas.
When casting a Limón piece, what qualities do you look for in a dancer? My attention jumps to students who are dancing, not those who are trying to dance. I look for dancers who are able to make choices. When I present new material, I want to see you go for it. Especially if I give you feedback, I want to see a change, to see that you can take direction. It’s the flexibility of mind that allows the flexibility of body.
What do you hope your students leave with after every class? I strive to create a workplace where students feel safe enough to take risks and explore their individual possibilities. I don’t want to present ideas that they only replicate back at me. If I ask someone, “How was that, how did that feel?” I don’t want them to look blank or, worse, ask me, “Was that OK?” I want students to experience themselves in the movement and be their own teachers. I’m there to provide feedback and lead them to new open doors, but they have to walk through and face challenges. I want each one to have a voice, to give themselves permission to explore, rebel, to have opinions.
Pictured: Scanlon teaches Limon technique at Boston Conservatory. Photo by Jaye Phillips
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: