Marlena Duncan sounds more like the star of an action movie than a dancer when talks about her craft. "I enjoy the adrenaline, the fear, the surprise and the delight of entertaining people," she says.
While she can chasse and pirouette as well as any other ballerina, her passion is modern dance. Duncan, 30, has studied dance since age 10, but she was a performer before she ever had a single lesson.
"It was an interest before someone taught me about movement," the Brandon native says.
As a 7-year-old, Duncan performed her own routines before friends and family.
While growing up, she studied ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance in Nashville, Tenn., for seven years under Kaylee Cahoon, a former Alwin Nikolais company member. She returned to Mississippi and graduated from Brandon High School and Hinds Community College.
Duncan moved to Franklin, Tenn., shortly after graduating from Hinds, to pursue a bachelor(tm)s degree in psychology, but then had a change of heart as she was preparing for a spring dance recital at the Franklin School of Performing Arts.
"I was sitting in my dressing room backstage, and I realized that if dancing was something I wanted to be great in, I needed instruction," she says. "It wasn(tm)t enough to just take lessons. I needed an education."
Duncan decided to return to Mississippi and attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where she earned a bachelor's degree in dance performance and choreography. Upon graduation, she studied in New York City with professional choreographers Pamela Pietro and Andrea Woods.
In 2007, Duncan moved to Jackson after three years of studying in New York and formed Duncan Dance, her own modern-dance company.
Duncan says modern dance is her favorite genre. "With jazz tap and ballet, it is what it is," she says "In modern, you're able to put individual movement ideas into dance."
One way Duncan expresses these ideas is through improvisation. As a member of the Mississippi Improv Alliance, Duncan and other dancers perform unrehearsed pieces while an ensemble of musicians play instruments. "Improv lets you listen to the firings and shootings in your body. It's very spontaneous,"Duncan says.
Duncan, who is also a dance teacher at the Academic and Performing Arts Complex in Jackson, says she prefers improvisation to choreography but that the two are codependent. "The choreography is the craft. The improvisation is the play," she says.
Duncan credits the Mississippi Improv Alliance for her creative development as a dancer and says that it also promotes growth in other artists, whether they are musicians or singers or poets. "Improvisation is a firework for inspiration," she says.
The Mississippi Improv Alliance performs Sunday, July 18, at the North Midtown Arts Center, 121 Millsaps Ave., at 2 p.m. as part of its 3rd Annual Summer Sundays series. The performance features three ensembles, including Arts in Motion and deejays Hot & Lonely, and is free of charge.