The Muller Technique Introduces East to West
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Jennifer Muller, the award-winning artistic director of a world-renowned dance company, The Works, has the distinction of having a signature style named after her. The eponymous Muller Technique, informed by early reading in Asian philosophy, is central to her 12-member company’s mission — multidisciplinary performances and education programs — and it continues to influence her direction as an original choreographer. The I’s have it — Muller is innovative, imaginative, impassioned.
The company’s studio on West 24th Street may not be large, but its accomplishments are. Just recently, Muller Technique was designated by Tanzplan Berlin as one of only seven unique contemporary dance teaching styles in the world. To date, Muller has led workshops and performance demonstrations in over 30 states, 40 countries on four continents, and is a familiar presence on the New York dance scene. Theaters in the city where the company regularly appears include The Joyce, New Victory, City Center, Citigroup, Roundabout Theatre and Kaye Playhouse, as well as numerous community outreach venues such as botanical gardens, museums, bookstores and tourist areas.
A poised, highly articulate woman of enthusiasm and focus, Muller began dancing professionally at 15 with the Pearl Lang Dance Company, then went on to become Principal Dancer with the José Limon Company — a time coincident with her graduation from The Juilliard School. After nine years with Limon, she became associate artistic director of the Louis Falco Dance Company for seven years and, after founding her company in 1974, she started collaborating with well-known artists in various disciplines (including opera), among them Keith Haring, Keith Jarrett and Yoko Ono. She founded The Works 36 years ago, eager to apply and promote what she felt was essential to dance that was being ignored or undervalued.
Typically, dancers study “vertical” technique, but when Muller toured the Far East with Limon at the age of 18 she starting reading Asian philosophy and soon became “ravenous” to know more about ways to incorporate its concepts and lore into the discipline of dance. Specifically, Eastern philosophy applied to dance, for her, came to mean “relaxing” tension in the legs for a plié, for example, rather than sustaining that tension by way of muscular control. The relaxing would come largely from visualization, an important part of Eastern philosophy that would become an important part of Muller Technique. In regard to the plié, the technique asks students to imagine their legs as roots that extend to under the floor. This “deeper grounding” generates new energy, which in turn generates “higher ups” — “polarities of energy.” Energy is now concentrated in the abdomen, not the legs, and, only after, flows to the extremities.
Muller acknowledges that the technique after all these years is still considered “unusual” in the dance world, difficult to master and taking years to perfect, as members of her own company well know. She believes, however, that the rewards of staying with the training are worth the effort personally and professionally. Those who study in the Scholarship/Apprentice Program say that they leave as “better dancers,” having a stronger technique, more range and control, and being more energetic, better able to visualize energy flow and its effect on body structure and alignment. They feel, they report, a more “intimate” relationship with their bodies, down to the most “miniscule” parts, and they sense that what they have learned and experienced could be applied to any dance style.
The Scholarship/Apprentice Program is just one of several education ventures associated with The Works. Developed primarily, though not exclusively, for professionally oriented young adults, many participants stay on for years, and every member of The Works (mostly women, but some men) has gone through the program. The Works also runs “HATCH,” fall and spring mentoring sessions designed mainly for emerging choreographers who receive audience feedback from drop-in visitors. “HATCHED,” the next level, similarly conceived, accommodates longer works.
In addition to Muller’s busy schedule, she superintends two arts awareness programs for school children. The 18-year-old “Faces of Wonder,” for grades K through 6, introduces Bronx and Manhattan youngsters to expressive contemporary dance, often for the first time, and culminates with a full performance (lights and costumes) at Hostos Community College. The 9-year-old “Imagine That!” consists of multiple sessions in classrooms, most recently for fourth-graders (a different school each year) that teaches nonverbal communication skills, encourages youngsters to express themselves more clearly through body language and the delight in exploring their imaginations. Toward the end of the year students take situations from their own lives and construct nonverbal movies. The confidence-building effects of both arts awareness programs, Muller says, get youngsters to believe in themselves and learn how to work with others in teams. Too much instruction in schools is still rote, she observes, engendering in students “ennui and distrust.” How wonderful for children to recognize that they each have “validity.” #