The Body Tells a Story

By Stefan Slater ’10
Photo by David Bazemore
Rosalynde Leblanc Loo dances with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Erick Hawkins’ “Early Floating” in 2002 at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California.

Storytelling, and the ability to use the body to express emotion, is what drew Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo to modern dance. She grew up studying the techniques of Martha Graham, one of the original founders of modern dance. “Her dances told stories,” says Loo, noting that Graham focused extensively on the expressionistic aspects of the human form, and that movement, to put it simply, had meaning.

Loo looks to the past, to the rich tradition of modern dance in New York, to inform her views on the importance of storytelling when teaching modern dance at LMU. Many of the first modern dancers in the early 20th century were women — true pioneers, in Loo’s opinion. “If they weren’t dancing, they would’ve been with the suffragettes,” she says. “The whole idea was that a woman’s voice could be expressed through her body.” A dancer could be barefoot, rolling on the floor, or driven by electric anger or angst — whatever the dancer did or felt, all that truly mattered was that a message, one that was potent and relatable, was delivered to the audience. Though radical for its time, that sense of emotional storytelling formed a basic cornerstone of the art form, which is why Loo works with her students so they can understand both the traditions of modern dance, as well as its purpose as a storytelling medium.

Raised in Baltimore and introduced at a young age to the New York dance scene (her mother was a professional dancer for the Paul Taylor dance company), Loo worked with some the most acclaimed dance companies in the city and nation, including the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project and the Liz Gerring Dance Company. She’s worked with choreographers like John Jasperse, Lucinda Childs and Noemie LaFrance — the latter had Loo “standing on a six-inch platform and doing the entire dance leaning out 30 feet in the air.”

Moving to Los Angeles has introduced Loo to a different aspect of the American modern dance scene — one that’s not as steeped in tradition. In New York, current modern dance techniques and styles have their roots in the original modern dance movement of the early 20th century. But in L.A., some of her students aren’t aware of those founding techniques. And while many in the New York dance scene might’ve been exposed to and influenced by live dance at a young age, many dancers at LMU are influenced by television, in particular Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”

With that in mind, she notes that the line between artistic and entertainment dance (a kind that’s more about show and less about statement) seem to blur in L.A. That’s why Loo focuses so intently on teaching storytelling, and blending the idea of performance and technique together into one effective dance form. “You have to be able to stand there in silence, and have every single person watching you,” she says. If Loo has students that aren’t familiar with certain techniques, it isn’t an issue; but what’s vital is that they understand the idea of portraying a message.

Loo works to highlight dance traditions to her students while also keeping it all relevant. “I try to introduce [those traditions] in a way that applies to them, and not like taking them back through a museum,” Loo says. She also wants students to understand that modern dance is built upon expression. Whether the students are aware of traditional modern dance techniques or not, there’s one critical concept that they should comprehend.

“The ability to hold the stage, simply with one’s body,” Loo says.