This post features a professional dancer and post graduate from Texas State University. I worked with her, I taught her, and I sat next to her during our fateful graduation day in May. But this is also very much about Isadora Duncan and the Duncan technique in the 21st century dance world. Please enjoy Shannon McMullan’s story and take a further look at the The Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation!
Many times we as dance students are told that we hold the future in our hands. But many times we are denied opportunities to prove that because of a harsh working environment that wants nothing more than to keep the past concrete and looming over all aspects of creation. We see this in ballet with the obvious Balanchine bruise still wounding many prominent companies to hire choreographers to create after him rather than for themselves. And this is true in classical modern dance, too.
The story of Isadora Duncan’s dance fundamentals and her decoratively deemed “Isadorables” is a story still going on today. The 21st century dancer, however, learns about Duncan in history class as a mother of modern dance, then moves onwards to learning and taking Limon or Cunningham classes, dance techniques more established and modernized. Many do not know that classes, workshops, lectures, seminars, etc. are held in Duncan’s name, and that they can be a part of this historic section of the dance world.
Duncan dancers are alive and proud of their history. But when 21st century dancers, like Shannon McMullan, get their bodies into the mix of it and their minds moving towards new ideas, the changes that can happen for this technique could be entirely beautiful and useful. I truly hope that new generations enter into Duncan classes with open hearts and find their voices and paths with this technique.
Who are you and What do you do right now?
- My name is Shannon McMullan; I am a contemporary dance artist with modern influences and postmodern ideals. As a dance artist this is how I describe myself because I am a current dancer in this contemporary world, my movement language comes from the influences of our modern pioneers, and artistically I want to push the boundaries of dance and define “what is dance” for myself. Right now, I am currently preparing for my big move to New York in September!
Who and/or What artistically inspires you?
- History, children, and pushing all boundaries. I love looking at what our dance ancestors did and then try to make that relevant to the 21st century dance world. Through my work with children I get a great amount of experience with observing how they move; children move in such a natural and authentic way, they don’t care what they look like. I’ve had an idea that I’ve been pondering on for a while now; I want to collect footage of children moving/dancing around and then directly imitate them. I want to portray the difference between a child moving and a trained dancer.
I know your dance background from TXST, but tell me what you were interested in and trained in before you entered TXST. Had you ever heard of Isadora Duncan before?
- Well I started dance at the ripe age of 2 and did the whole ballet, tap, and jazz deal until I decided to quit and do sports. Later, I became a line member in my high schools drill team and I loved it. I decided to go to college to become a drill team director (lolol). I first went to SFA in Nacogdoches for fall semester and then HCC for spring semester. The only training I had at those two places was ballet and modern, but I thought modern was really weird. At that point in my education I didn’t even know what modern was or anything about the history. All I knew about it was I thought it was really weird and ugly. Honestly, before TXST my biggest dance goal was to dance like they do on SYTYCD and to be able to do a la seconde turns. I still can’t do a la seconde turns…
How did you get directly involved with Duncan technique and fundamentals ?
- One semester I had Meg Brooker for I think three classes, so I grew close with her. The following semester she contacted me asking if I would be interested in working on an outside project with her and of course I said yes. A week or so into rehearsals the initial project wasn’t working out so she asked us if we would like to learn the Duncan technique! And the rest is history…
- I think it is probably the first thing someone should really learn about when approaching the technique. Her history and what she did in her life shows through her work. Her repertoire directly reflects her life and the way she viewed life. I believe to be a true Duncan dancer you need to experience and understand where it started from.
What were some similarities you found in Duncan with Hawkins or RAD [we were taught Hawkins and RAD at TXST]?
- There are a lot more similarities to Hawkins than expected. I hear terms like under curve, over curve, and “relax your ankles”. The contraction within Hawkins and the solar plexus release or contraction are also very similar. When working with releasing and expanding the solar plexus you have to breathe into that space; it is very similar to breathing through the Hawkins contractions. I’ve found a lot of similarities to ballet too, less of RAD technique and more of what they teach at Ballet Austin (which I’m not sure what they do, I’ve never asked). RAD is too squared off and there’s a lot of opening within Duncan. There are a lot of body positions within Duncan, like the Dionysus, where your arms and legs are in a very specific position. In ballet pretty much everything is very specific on where the arms go and legs go. Of course, you do see direct ballet within Duncan such as third position or wide second position, or even your arms in fifth.
Describe the overall mood, feeling, and emotion behind dancing Duncan pieces and practicing in her technique and fundamentals:
- I definitely think I need a lot more experience and training in the work to properly answer this. I’m at the point where I’m trying to just understand how my body is supposed to be moving correctly. I really feel like I’m a baby learning to walk all over again, it’s such a new way to move. My body and brain aren’t linked up yet. But when I dance her repertoire I am so elated. It feels like flying, you kind of are because there is an enormous amount of skipping, but who doesn’t want to learn to fly while staying on the ground? Because that’s what Duncan is, it’s flying.
You’ve been a part of nearly every recent historic dance event at TXST, from the start with Meg Brooker’s Duncan classes to the latest with the Dancestry at the Long Center in Austin with Loie Fuller reconstructions. What draws you to keeping this past history of dance alive and working for the present? What do you think the future of these modern dance pioneers will look like?
- Honestly, I’m not totally sure why I love the history so much. I realized in 20th and 21st dance history that I was extremely intrigued, I kept wanting to know more about all these people. It is so important to keep studying our modern dance ancestors and their work, it helps us understand where we came from. In basic history classes the first thing we learn is “we learn about history so we do not repeat it”, I feel the same about dance history. We need to learn, know, and experience the past, but we know it’s time to stop repeating and start moving forward with it. I have a vision of these historical techniques being utilized in a new way of expression and research, but I think everything is being held so tightly it is hard to do that. Some people are already doing this and I want to join them.
How did The Isadora Duncan Symposium in Chicago go? Were there any specific moments of inspiration or awe or personal growth for you as an artist while there?
- First of all, Jennifer Sprowl, Meg Brooker, Julia Pond, and Valerie Durham are the steering committee for the symposium and they did a beautiful job this year! They created this event so people from all Duncan backgrounds could share their love and knowledge for Isadora and her dancing; they were really wanting to bring this community together and they succeeded. But…not every experience I had there was a positive one. To give you a demographic, I was one of three of the youngest dancers there. A vast majority of the attendees’ were 20-30 years older than me, if not older. Now this definitely isn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t good either. When you see this drastic age difference you kind of wonder why our generation isn’t more involved with this work. So that really led to a realization of mine that this work and technique needs to desperately be contemporized. I mean the only people participating in this work are 2 generations behind us, which again is not bad what so ever, but we’re in 2015 and new things are happening. The Duncan work is held very dearly and preciously to the Duncan community, so tightly that it seems no one is wanting to ‘revamp’ it or do their own research in it or create something new from it. Although there are some people who are doing this! Including: Raleigh Veach of Locomotive Artistries, Elyssa Dru Rosenburg or isadoraNow!, and Catherine Gallant of Dances by Isadora. For me I’m really thinking, “If Isadora was here right now, what would she be creating?” and that’s what’s driving me within this work; how can I preserve what she started, but also utilize it for the experiences that are happening now. To keep continuing on this small tangent…I almost felt as if I was participating in a cult while at Chicago. Some women worship Isadora. I mean, they treat her as a deity and she was pure genius. Which Isadora was a genius in what she was doing, but so are a lot of other dance artists. I sat in on a panel and listened to one woman really kind of make fun of post-modern dance artists. She stood in front of everyone and mimicked Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, pretty much saying what they did destroyed the art of dance because they did not use the same aesthetics as Isadora did. I was extremely upset by this. Why can’t we find a way to connect these different dance artists? Being at the symposium brought so many new ideas and perspectives in view for me. It made me realize that everyone has their own way of interpreting, and that doesn’t make my view any less valid than theirs. Side note: I did speak to Meg about it feeling cult-like and she said that’s is not what the true essence of Duncan is about, but someone people can make it feel that way.
You also went to the Dances by Isadora event in NYC. Two wonderful Duncan experiences outside of Texas! How do you feel as a dancer with so much direct Duncan experience under your belt now?
- Going to NYC and participating in this intensive really sealed the deal for me. Catherine Gallant and Loretta Thomas were the teachers and Catherine is the artistic director of Dances by Isadora. Which just for information purposes there is two divisions for Dances by Isadora, one in NYC with Catherine and the other is located in Boston. Catherine and Loretta are contemporizing the technique, just how I said it needs to be! They’ve created extra barre exercises including, tendus and grand battements, because they feel that’s what dancers need now days. It still feels surreal to me because I never in my whole life imagined myself traveling to New York City alone, or even moving there. 4 years ago I was on a bee-line headed for a high school drill team job, and now I want to dance professionally…what, I’M doing this?? I also feel more confident now in the work that I have found two teachers that I connect well with. To be considered a Duncan dancer you have to have studied under a master teacher for a few years, and it was very important to me to be able find teachers that I resonated with and I found that with Catherine Gallant and Loretta Thomas. It is also so ridiculously cool that I got to learn Furies and Bacchanal while there. Two dances of Isadora’s repertoire that I have always wanted to learn and I got too. I embodied Furies because it was so natural with my body, it’s what I was meant to dance
For those interested, can you get certified in Duncan technique? What’s the primary Duncan resource that you know of to contact for more information, classes, performance opportunities, etc.?
- An archive was just released for those questions! Isadoraduncanarchive.org is the encyclopedia for all things Duncan. You can find almost anything you have ever desired to learn about the work; there’s all the repertoire, music samples, a list of all Duncan practitioners, and a few videos. Lori Belilove, artistic director of The Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, has a teacher certification course that can be taken by people wanting to become Duncan teachers. From my own experience the Duncan community is very tight-knit, almost secretive in a way, so it can be difficult to get into it. There are people all over the world who are still teaching and performing the technique and I never knew that, I thought Lori Belilove was the only person to go to. The archive was created so that all Duncan dancers/practitioners/teachers could stay in touch with each other; it can also be used to contact master teachers that someone would want to study under. The best advice I can give if someone wanted to start in the technique is to go to the archive, find out who is teaching near them and contact them. From all the people I have encountered, this is a very welcoming community and if you want to learn it they are eager to teach you; this is also because people very much want the technique to continue and the community to grow.
And lastly, what is your favorite Isadora Duncan quote?
- I can tell you my favorite anecdote I heard about her while in New York! The reason she took her sandals off, and then danced barefoot, is because she spilled her whiskey on them. But I do love the quote, “You were once wild here, do not let them tame you.” I think it speaks for itself.