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Limón Dances Bring Isadora Duncan to Life at UW

Written by Mariko Nagashima
Student Nicole Rover (left) and Brenna Monroe-Cook
during a rehearsal for Dances for Isadora.
Photo by Jacob Lambert.
“You can’t be wrong, dancers, if you know who you are,” said Jennifer Scanlon matter-of-factly in a November rehearsal. “It’s absolutely impossible to be wrong then.” An original member of the José Limón Company and a professor emeritus at Boston Conservatory, Scanlon was finishing setting Limón’s Dances for Isadora on students at the UW for their upcoming Faculty Dance/Collaborations concert. She moved spryly about the studio, directing rehearsal with an encouraging hand, seeming to offer instruction on life as well as dance.
Dances for Isadora, Limón’s tribute to Isadora Duncan, whom he regarded as his “dance mother,” is composed of solos for five women, each evoking a different facet of Duncan’s life. Duncan’s story and work was hugely influential for Limón, as reading her autobiography was one of his first experiences with dance. In turn, this particular piece of his has shaped Scanlon’s life. “My relationship with it is like it’s a part of my life. When I think of it now, it’s my whole life!” Limón created the piece in 1971, a year before his death. He had wanted to pay homage to Duncan’s spirit and life and to try his hand at making dances for women. “He was very nervous,” says Scanlon. “He even had Agnes de Mille and Martha Hill come watch and make sure he was using language that was acceptable for women.” Scanlon was originally cast in “Niobe,” the “mourning mother” but when the woman in the “Scarf Dance” wasn’t able to perform, Scanlon stepped up and said she knew the part. “Until 1984, I performed both parts every time it was in the repertory from tours in the Soviet Union, to Moscow, Idaho.” Since then, she has proudly reconstructed the piece for many different groups, and was excited to be working with UW’s students.
Jennifer Scanlon in a solo from
Dances For Isadora
in 1971.
Scanlon has an infectiously vibrant presence but still brought a sense of calm to a rehearsal where time was limited—she had a little over a week to audition dancers and set the piece. In this particular rehearsal, three dancers were working on the final solo, the “Scarf Dance,” which is performed in silence. It’s a schizophrenic recap of Duncan’s life, as if she’s looking back through a fractured lens at her most wondrous and most painful moments. The choreography merges Limon’s characteristic fall and release principles with a lilting, free-from quality evoking Duncan’s style. Like Duncan’s real life, it exudes drama and passion; the long silk scarf the dancer uses as a prop becomes a lover, a baby, and eventually a curse. The movement is powerfully evocative even in the rough stages of rehearsal. When Limón set it “he gave us rhythms,” relays Scanlon, “he never told us how fast or slow.” Similarly, she encourages the dancers to find their own timing within the choreography. “If I talk you through it, I’m determining the timing, which I don’t want to do. I want you to make choices as they mean to you and then see how they read [from the audience],” she says.
Her rehearsal t-shirt seemed to perfectly encapsulate her experience: “When young sow oats, when old grow sage,” it read. Scanlon reflected on her own experiences with a genuine sense of wonder. “Here I was working with José Limón! How does one dare?! I guess you don’t think it.” With this kind of artistic life “you don’t get paid in green backs,” she says, “but paid with joy and sorrow and a life that you believe in.” This seemed to be as true for Scanlon as it was for Duncan, and as it is for dancers working today.
Scanlon’s restaging of Dances for Isadora can be seen at the UW Faculty Dance/Collaborations concert Friday and Saturday January 18-19  at Meany Hall. Also on the bill are Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring re-imagined by Jürg Koch and a new work by Jennifer Salk. Tickets are available here.