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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
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.