Jeanna Falk was a dancer, a dance teacher, a choreographer, and a teacher of stage blocking. She strongly influenced the development of modern dance in Sweden, which contributed to an improvement in its status.
Jeanna Falk’s childhood was surrounded by music and dance. Her father, Ferdinand Falk, was a cantor in Stockholm’s Jewish congregation and her mother, Ida Rosenberger-Falk, was a singer and very interested in dance. Jeanna Falk and her sister, Gabo Falk, began their dance training at Anna Behle’s Plastikinstitut (institute of movement). When their mother separated from their father she trained to become a physical therapist in order to be able to accompany Gabo Falk on her travels to study with the music teacher Émile Jaques-Dalcroze in Austria and Germany.
In 1920 Jeanna Falk travelled to Dresden in order to study music and rythmics with Dalcroze. She has described the training as comprehensive and musically perfect. Her mother Ida felt that the element of dance was lacking, however. She suggested that Jeanna Falk should transfer to Mary Wigman’s school. Jeanna Falks had the fortune presen of attending that school during its initial years, when “die Meisterschüler” (master students) Gret Palucca, Harald Kreutzberg, and Hanya Holm were all there. Jeanna Falk spent three years as a student at the school. When Mary Wigman was away on tour with her group Jeanna Falk would take over the running of the school. For over six months she taught every class at the school, thus gaining wonderful practical experience. Wigman and Jeanna Falk remained in touch throughout the rest of their lives.
Jeanna Falk returned to Stockholm in 1924 and opened an institute for performative movement and artistic dance. This was the first Wigman training programme in Sweden. That same year she made her debut in Stockholm when she held her own dance evening and demonstration. Some reviewers complained that she was ruining Swedish youth through her relaxed movements and that her students were losing their posture. Jeanna Falk believed that the reviewers had no idea what relaxation meant and that was why she put on stage demonstrations. Over time a certain understanding developed. The technical, physical dance drills were not the main focus, rather it was the manner of expression that mattered.
During the 1930s and 1940s Jeanna Falk’s school offered the same subjects that Mary Wigman taught at her school, along with expressionist dance and music history. From 1935 onwards the terminology she used for her movements was clearly inspired by Kurt Jooss, but she remained loyal to Mary Wigman’s methodology for life. Music had a special place in her teaching and the pianists who played it were very talented: some of these included Margareta Carlberg, Vera Backman, Brita Edén, and Margit Öman. In 1925 Jeanna Falk’s student corps comprised five year olds through to grandmothers in their 50s. Her sister Gabo Falk taught the youngest students. The “ladies’ classes” contained middle-aged high-society ladies who took their exercise dance classes in the mornings. The younger enthusiasts and those who worked in office jobs came in the evenings. By 1939 the school mainly catered for adults, from teenagers onwards. The students also included prospective dancers, dance instructors, and choreographers who belonged to the generation that became responsible for the breakthrough of modern dance in Sweden. The professional group included Birgit and Ulla Söderbaum, Birgit Cullberg, Barbro Thiel-Cramér, Agneta Prytz, and Inge Södersten. The training course was three-years in duration.
The professional group took a class in expressionist dance every morning. Despite being physically technical, and quite acrobatic, the movements were focused on the form of the movement, or on what one felt when moving in a certain way – whether it originated from within the body or whether it was an external movement. The professional students also had an hour-long private lesson in both composition and improvisation each week. Inge Södersten believes that Jeanna Falk’s strength lay in teaching and that she taught her professional students to create lessons, to explain movements, and to vary the body’s movements. Birgit Boman, a dance instructor, has described in detail her memories of her 1941–1943 period as one of Jeanna Falk’s professional students. She emphasises what she views as distinctive about the classes – the flow and the musical-rhythmic process, as well as the great variety of ways in which Jeanna Falk used space.
Almost every summer Jeanna Falk travelled to Europe in order to study. In the summer of 1935 she and her top professional students – Birgit Cullberg, Barbro Thiel, and Ulla Söderbaum – all went to England to see Kurt Jooss. Jooss was so impressed with them that all three of these students became stars in his troupe. Ulla Söderbaum became a principal dancer in the Jooss ballet corps.
Jeanna Falk’s school served both as a platform for dance and choreography and as the establishment of a professional training programme. Jeanna Falk herself mainly danced on the Stockholm stages. Initially she danced and did most of the choreography herself, but after setting up her dance troupe she tended to give it more leeway. One of the usual programmes for one her 1920s dance evenings consisted of several solos by Jeanna Falk, alternated with contributions from the dance group. Jeanna Falk’s early choreography bears traces of Wigman, partly through her use of drums and gongs, and partly in her use of links to the supernatural, magic, and ritual. Typical titles of her choreographies at the time include: Furie, Måndyrkan, Bön, Trance, Mörkrets marsch, Drömbilder, Dance des Diables, and Vision.
The darker, uglier aspects of the dance were not favourably received by the public, who expected the dances to be light-hearted enterainment. However, Jeanna Falk was lauded by other reviewers for her simplicity and for her particularly beautiful arm movements. After spending time with Jooss she made clear changes to her dance vocabulary and her dances became lighter. The 1930s saw Jeanna Falk at the pinnacle of her own dance capabilities. Her abilities and skills in choreography, rehearsals and teaching never diminished. She stopped doing solo performances and became a part of her group. The last time Jeanna Falk gave a major performance as part of a group was in 1940.
From 1926–1934 Jeanna Falk taught stage blocking at the Dramaten students’ school. During her time there she was responsible for many blocking studies for the stage. She taught everything from amateurs to professionals and also took on private students, including Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman.
Jeanna Falk often worked with the director Olof Molander, and helped him to produce En midsommarnattsdröm in 1927. She retired from Dramaten in 1934 in protest at the dismissal of director Helge Wahlgren. She then began to teach at the Opera school and at the Kungliga Opera (royal Opera house).
Jeanna Falk married the airforce officer Björn Bjuggren in 1933. She often had to move with her husband depending on where he was stationed. In 1943 they moved to Frösön, where they lived for four years before returning to Stockholm. After two years in the capital city her husband became head of squadron in Gothenburg, where they moved to and remained for seven years during the 1950s. Two of Jeanna Falk’s former students, Karin Kavli, who was head of the Stads theatre, and Bernhard Sönnerstedt, who was at the Stora theatre, were already in Gothenburg. Jeanna Falk was immediately hired as a teacher and choreographer at both theatres. The family returned to Stockholm towards the end of the 1950s, by which time Jeanna Falk was no longer teaching.
Jeanna Falk was an important person in the dance world of Stockholm. Her training background and her European experiences allowed her to demand respect for the new, modern dance form. Despite mixed opinions and reviews, she was always respected for her efforts, both within dance and within theatre. She not only introduced professional modern dance to Sweden, but above all she introduced a well-developed dance method which is still in use today (2017).
Jeanna Falk died in 1980.