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
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.