A Chance to Recognize Jennifer Muller’s Full Spectrum

April 12, 2011

Last Friday the University of California at Santa Barbara celebrated Jennifer Muller, giving us a chance to reassess this multi-faceted dance artist. Muller got a lot of attention in the 70s and 80s (she was on Dance Magazine’s cover in April, 1978) for her full-bodied, theatrical, even ecstatic dances. She continues to produce dances, perform internationally, and engage the community in strong education programs (see “Beyond the Books” in the June issue.)  But Muller’s name hasn’t always been in the forefront of our perceptions, so UCSB dance department set out to correct that.

The UCSB faculty and students threw themselves into this one-day conference with gusto. Titled “Transformation & Continuance: Jennifer Muller and the Reshaping of American Modern Dance, 1959-present,” it consisted of a beautiful exhibit, a series of talks, and a performance. The idea was sparked by UCSB faculty member Christopher Pilafian and taken into action by Ninotchka Bennahum, also on the UCSB faculty.

To kick off the day, I interviewed Muller, who is a vibrant, articulate, funny woman of great depth. She told us about the dances she made as a child, and how, when she performed Desdemona to José Limón’s Othello, he was so fierce that she was afraid he would really strangle her. We also learned of the abrupt, shocking way that she and Louis Falco were ejected from the Limón company (and in the bargain Muller lost her teaching job at Juilliard).

It was moving to hear her former dancers talk about working with her. Pilafian described his first sight of Jennifer’s dancers: “The air between them was crackling. The whole stage exploded with the personal energy of relationships. On top of the pieces being beautifully danced and crafted, a circle with everyone shining in their own individuality created group synergy.”

Lana Carroll said, “The movement came out of your breath, yourself, the deepest part of your being.”

Former Limón dancer Alice Condodina, described Muller’s dancing: “Her whole soul was being sculpted out into space.”

Muller said just a bit about her technique: “The plié is grounded, energy coming out of the floor, and when you rise the body is elongated, electrified.” That reminded me of how juicy her own dancing was, and thus her choreography too.

Pilafian talked about taking Muller’s ideas into teaching. “It’s difficult to feel the body; you have to be introspective. When many of the students are thinking about whether they want to be an engineer, awakening that awareness in the body can be challenging. If students are be engaged in that process, they can direct their energy to playfulness and other qualities.”

As the day unfolded, more and more aspects of Muller’s work came to the fore. Scholar Suki John talked passionately about the eroticism and tenderness of mature relationships in Lovers (1978). Historian Linda Tomko examined Muller’s use of early music, showing sections of the windblown, ingenious Aria (2008). For context, critic Marcia B. Siegel talked about how modern dance has evolved and showed some landmark videos. And I spoke on how feminism affected downtown dance in the 70s.

I have to admit, I had seen only a few pieces by Muller, so I had a limited view, which this conference enlarged. I thought of her works as being sexy and full-bodied, but not particularly structure-oriented. After this day, however, I’ve seen more of her works on video, more of her trajectory as an artist. I’ve gotten a sense of how daring she is—in her movement, her theatricality, and her collaborations. She’s been more accepted in Europe, where at least one choreographer (Jochen Ulrich) has called her a seminal influence on dance/theater.

At the end of the talks, Muller, an artist who has a 40+-year span, pointed out that certain areas of her work, e.g. dance with scripts, her “gritty” pieces, and her socially conscious pieces, hadn’t been discussed. Her use of visual art was also barely touched on.

And that’s where the book-size catalog comes in. For a complete analysis of her work since the 60s, read Bennahum’s lead essay, which is more comprehensive. It has articles by Siegel and others too. Plus, the photos in the book are gorgeous. (Email [email protected] to order one.)

The day was capped with a faculty/student concert in which the students performed Muller’s exuberant, witty Speeds. The aspects of theater, humor, and communicativeness that Muller had spoken about were all there. It was an exhilarating ending to a lively, interesting day—and a triumph for UCSB.



Students at UCSB in Muller’s
Speeds, photo by David Bazemore, courtesy UCSB