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date: 18 November 2019

Modern dancefree

  • Claude Conyers

A general term applied to any of the styles and techniques of independent theatrical dance that emerged during the early twentieth century as alternatives to classical ballet. Rejecting classical dance as an artificial medium, choreographers in both America and Europe sought to discover new forms of expression through physical movement. For some, new attitudes toward dance led to a questioning of the role of music in its creation and performance. This new intellectualism in dance was distinctly modern at the time. As years passed, however, and what was once new and modern became old hat, dance historians began to chafe under the label “modern” and to prefer terms such as “free dance” and “expressive dance” to describe dance styles and techniques of currently modern times. The term “modern dance” nevertheless serves to identify a significant era of innovation in form, expression, and purpose of theatrical dance. For dance historians, that era was followed by an experimental period of “postmodern dance” and then by the current period of “contemporary dance,” which is characterized by individual choreographic development and by fusion of various modern styles with classical ballet. For the general public, however, all these historical periods are subsumed under the label “modern dance.”

Modernism in dance.

The issues that shaped modern dance were first addressed by three American women: Loie Fuller, Ruth St Denis, and Isadora Duncan. The kind of physical movement that influenced them came not from ballet, in which they had little if any experience or training, but from social dance, physical education, acrobatics, and dances of vaudeville, the music hall, and musical theater. Fuller was a child actress who began her improvisational dancing career as a skirt dancer in burlesque, vaudeville, and circus shows. She developed her skirt dances into a unique kind of dance presentation involving manipulation of voluminous silk costumes and spectacular lighting effects. She became famous in New York for her Serpentine Dance in 1892, but it was not until her appearance at the Folies-Bergère in Paris the following year that her influence on theatrical dance began. With performances of her Danse de Feu (Fire Dance), set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” she became the embodiment of the emerging Art Nouveau movement. She was the first to conceive of dance as a composite of art, theater, and abstract movement, a concept that became popular with many choreographers during the course of the twentieth century. To this mix, Ruth St Denis, performing in music halls and on concert stages in New York, added elements of spirituality, introspection, and exoticism. She anticipated and influenced the psychological focus of the modern dance movement through such works as Rahda, the Dance of the Five Senses (1905–6), set to music from Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, and dances entitled The Incense and Cobras (both, 1906).

It was isadora Duncan, however, who, in her writings and lectures as well as in her dance, confronted the issues of what constitutes danced movement and the relationship between dance and music. She regarded the discipline of classical ballet technique as an obstruction to the free and spontaneous expression of emotion; instead, she built her dance vocabulary from natural movements and looked to the simplicity and purity of classical architecture as her source of choreographic inspiration. Disdaining the traditional footwear and formal costuming of the nineteenth century, Duncan danced with bare feet and in flowing garments suggestive of classical Greece. In a further departure from traditional dance performance, she began to dance to “art music” by composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, and Chopin. Because this music possessed artistic stature and existed independently of dance, her use of it made audiences conceive for the first time of music for dancing as something more than accompaniment or a backdrop written or adapted for the purpose. After her performances in Budapest, Berlin, St Petersburg, and Moscow (1903–5), Duncan’s revolutionary style and ideas concerning music for the dance achieved widespread recognition.

Athleticism played an important role in the dance of Fuller, St Denis, and Duncan, as it had in other forms of American dance. The particular way in which these artists approached this element was influenced by the writings of French philosopher François Delsarte (1811–71), who made spiritual and geometrical codifications of body movement, and by Swiss musician Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865–1950), who developed a system of teaching music by translating gymnastics into rhythmic movements (called “eurhythmics”). The teaching of Delsarte first became popular in America in the later nineteenth century and that of Jacques-Dalcroze in the early twentieth, at a time when health and physical education had become a major social concern; they motivated American colleges to include modern dance in their physical education curricula as a means of promoting a better understanding of movement.

Delsarte’s theories were of particular interest to Ted Shawn, who incorporated them into the curriculum of the Denishawn school of dance, which he founded with his wife Ruth St Denis in Los Angeles in 1915. Shawn also encouraged athleticism in dance through his efforts to reestablish the masculine aesthetic in theatrical dance, forming the first all-male troupe of dancers in the 1930s. The national tours of the Denishawn company and the establishment of Denishawn schools around the country contributed much to the national acceptance and growth of the kind of dance envisioned by these early innovators. In 1932 Shawn established the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival on a farm in Beckett, Massachusetts, which remains today as the nation’s leading summer dance festival.

Modern dance: first generation.

What is known as modern dance finally crystallized in the late 1920s and reached a peak in the 1930s and early 1940s. A highly individualistic art to which the concept of a standard technique is antithetical, modern dance is defined by the belief that truth in dance movement can be achieved only through the expression of the individual dancer’s or choreographer’s emotional experience. Embodying this belief are the choreographies of the three major creators of the first generation of American modern dancers: Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham, all of whom had been members of the Denishawn company.

One of the basic principles of modern dance, namely “fall and recovery,” was established by Doris Humphrey, a prolific artist who created such influential works as With My Red Fires (1936; music by Wallingford Rieger), Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1938; music by J.S. Bach), and Day on Earth (1947; music by Aaron Copland). Charles Weidman formed a company with Humphrey in 1928, which survived in various forms until 1945, whereupon he formed his own company and eventually a school. Aiming to create a uniquely American style of movement, Weidman is best known for dances in a light satirical vein, among them And Daddy Was a Fireman (1943), The War between Men and Women (1954), and Is Sex Necessary? (1959). The greatest of the three pioneers of modern dance was, however, martha Graham, who turned the concept of emotional expression into introspection and relentless probing of the inner self.

Rejecting the classical theories of movement that rely on a rigidly held pelvis and hips to free the arms and legs, Graham instead required dancers to allow every part of the body to move freely. She established the dynamic, opposing principles of “contraction and release,” based on the Delsartean principle of “tension and relaxation,” as the most important in modern dance. Like the sharp contrast and reversals represented by these principles, Graham’s movements opposed the smooth, flowing, lyrical rhythms of the nineteenth century and reflected instead the sharp, angular, percussive rhythms she perceived in the restlessness and dissonance of twentieth-century life.

The pianist and composer Louis Horst, a colleague from the Denishawn company who became Graham’s musical adviser in 1926, had a strong influence on her career. He introduced her to the expressionism of German modern dancers and to the innovative schools of modern painting. He taught her about musical form and encouraged her to work with contemporary composers rather than choreographing to music from earlier times. He himself was adept at collaborating with her and providing music for her dances. When, after a trip to the Southwest, she became interested in making dances inspired by incidents in American history, he composed the score for Primitive Mysteries (1931), her first critical masterpiece, as well as her epochal solo Frontier (1935) and the subsequent El Penitente (1940). Further, he encouraged her to collaborate with Copland on the score for Appalachian Spring (1944), which was the apotheosis of her “American period.”

With Horst as principal accompanist, Graham founded her School of Contemporary Dance in New York in 1927 and within a few years had trained a number of talented pupils. Then, with Horst as music director, she formed a professional company and in 1929 began a long career as the doyenne of modern dance. The second generation of modern dancers and choreographers was composed largely of Graham’s pupils and partners, many of whom went on to form their own companies. Among them were Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor, each of whom soon demonstrated that the technical training they had in common was no bar to strikingly individual development.

Modern dance: second generation.

The first man to dance in Graham’s company was Erick Hawkins. Trained in expressive dance by Harald Kreutzberg, in ballet by George Balanchine, and in Graham technique by Graham herself, he joined her company as her partner in 1938, married her in 1948, and left her troupe in 1951 to found his own company. After divorcing Graham in 1954, he formed an alliance with the experimental composer Lucia Dlugoszewski, with whom he remained for the rest of his life. Departing radically from Graham’s aesthetic, Hawkins developed a personal approach to dance based on natural kinesthetic response. Eschewing realistic psychology, plot, social or political agenda, or simple musical analogue, his works, which are marked by strong elements of ritualism and mysticism, celebrate the human condition, natural phenomena, and animal innocence. Hawkins championed contemporary composers and always insisted on performing to live music. In addition to Dlugoszewski, his musical collaborators included Virgil Thompson, Alan Hohvaness, Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell.

Unlike Hawkins, José Limón had no connection with Martha Graham. Trained at the Humphrey-Weidman school and seasoned as a performer in their company, he founded his own company in 1946, with Humphrey as the first artistic director. He is remembered mainly as a teacher of modern dance and as the choreographer of The Moor’s Pavane (1949), a danced synthesis of the Othello story set to music by Henry Purcell. Far more influential has been the work of a somewhat younger and far more prolific choreographer, Paul Taylor. Trained in modern techniques by Graham, Humphrey, and Limón, and in ballet by Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske, Taylor danced with various modern companies, including Graham’s and Cunningham’s, before forming his own in 1954. Over the next five decades, he demonstrated not only that he is one of the most fertile, imaginative, and musical choreographers of his generation but that he possesses a rare sense of humor. In addition to works of astonishing lyricism he has created a number of dances that tickle the funny bone. His company’s repertory includes numerous works set to American music.

The freedom of the modern movement also permitted and encouraged exploration of non-Western dance forms. The choreography of Pearl Primus was based on African dance and was performed to traditional chants and rhythms of African music. A student of anthropology also trained in ballet, Katherine Dunham, formed a dance company and built a repertory based on the stories, music, and rhythms of Caribbean and African American cultures, including significant works of Americana. Her School of Dance and Theater, established in New York City in 1945, trained hundreds of dancers in various modern styles of dance. In her wake came other African American choreographers who developed distinctive styles of modern dance. Among the most successful were Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Postmodern dance.

A highly intellectual attempt to isolate and abstract the minimalist essence of dance characterizes the postmodern period of the 1950s and 1960s. Of particular importance to postmodern choreographers were the theories of French artist Marcel Duchamp, who argued that it was not the object itself but its setting and the attitude of the viewer that turned an object or event into art. Following the same logic, any movement could become dance and any person, with or without training, could become a dancer, given an appropriate context, environment, or attitude on the part of the audience.

The “happenings” staged at Judson Memorial Church in New York City in the early 1960s represent at its most extreme the postmodern rejection of traditional dance and music, substituting instead experimentation with dance as an experience of theater, visual art, and music expressed through spontaneous, unschooled movement. The results varied from artistic to anarchic. Founded by Robert Ellis Dunn, a musician, and the dancer Judith Dunn, the Judson Dance Theater drew upon the talents of choreographers and dancers Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton, composers Philip Corner and John Herbert McDowell, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. In its rejection of the proscenium stage in favor of a space created by the dance itself, the Judson Dance Theater movement signaled an end to the cool withdrawal expressed in the dance of the 1950s by attempting to reestablish theatrical dance as a communal experience.

The most significant development in postmodern dance, however, came through the partnership, first formed in the 1940s, of choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage. Trained in both modern dance and ballet, Cunningham performed as a soloist with Martha Graham’s company from 1939 to 1945, during which time he began his choreographic experiments. In 1953 he formed his own company, with Cage as music director and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as artistic directors. The dances that he created resemble classical dance in that they are built on a technique that requires intensive training and involves abstract movements more than emotional, symbolic, or literary representations. He and Cage proposed the radical notion that, although dance and music might be performed in the same time and space, they should be created independently of each other. They created further controversy by employing chance procedures in creating their works, abandoning not only musical forms but narrative and other conventional elements of dance composition. Their works include Suite for Five in Space and Time (1956), Field Dances (1963), How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965), and Un Jour ou Deux (1973).

Contemporary dance.

Over time, the energy and impetus of postmodern dance diminished and the movement largely disintegrated. Ever the individualist, Cunningham continued to work, creating a vast repertory of dances with music by contemporary composers. Among them are Summerspace (1958; music by Morton Feldman), Winterbranch (1964; music by La Monte Young), Walkaround Time (1968; music by David Behrman), Canfield (1969; music by Pauline Oliveros), Loops (1971; music by Gordon Mumma), Quartet (1982; music by David Tudor), Biped (1999; music by Gavin Byars), and Nearly Ninety (2009; music by John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth). He is generally acknowledged as the most creative choreographer of contemporary dance.

Another postmodern choreographer who evolved into a leader of contemporary dance is Trisha Brown. Following her work with Judson Dance Theater, she founded Grand Union, an experimental dance collective, in 1970, and formed the Trisha Brown Company. Her early works, such as Walking on the Wall (1971) and Roof Piece (1973), were designed to be performed at specific sites, but she later began to produce large-scale works for the stage, including several with sets and costumes by Rauschenberg: Glacial Decoy (1979; ambient music), Set and Reset (1983; music by Laurie Anderson), and Foray Forêt (1990; music by a local marching band). In these and other works, Brown continued to explore the nature of motion and to choreograph dances based on everyday movement, developing her style from carefully built-up, repetitive gestures to a fluid virtuosity.

The spontaneity of the mixed-media approach to dance shifted in the 1980s to a more deliberate, academic, and intellectual approach, termed by those involved in the movement “interdisciplinary” and “collaborative.” Einstein on the Beach (1976), with music by Philip Glass, production design by Robert Wilson, and choreography by Lucinda Childs and Andrew de Groat, is considered to be the first of the interdisciplinary events. Childs creates her dances from the patterns of mathematical ratios. Similarly, Laura Dean, who creates a dance experience through the constant repetition of geometrical patterns performed to her own music and that of Steve Reich and other minimalist composers, believes the energy of dance to be worked out in mathematical structures. Her notated choreographies are in themselves works of art.

The spontaneity and emphasis on natural movement associated with modern dance continues to be present in the work of such choreographers as Twyla Tharp, who combines the movements of social dance, nightclub dance, classical ballet, and athletics with humor and unconventional settings. Having studied with Graham and Cunningham, she danced with Paul Taylor’s company for several years before forming her own company in 1971. One of her early works, Deuce Coup (1973; music by the Beach Boys), created for the Joffrey Ballet, utilized both modern dance and ballet techniques and is considered the first ever “cross-over” ballet. Since then, Tharp has created numerous works for her own company, for various ballet companies, for television productions, and for the Broadway stage.

Like Tharp, Mark Morris has created a unique style of performance by blending classical ballet, modern dance, folk dance, and various ethnic traditions. He formed his own dance group in New York City in 1980 and began a period of intense creativity in spite of financial struggle. For the sake of stability, he accepted an invitation in 1988 to establish his troupe as the resident company of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. Notable among the works he created there are L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1989; music by Handel), Dido and Aeneas (1989; music by Purcell), and The Hard Nut (1991), a hilarious version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker reset in the American pop culture of the 1970s. Since his return to the United States, he has established his company in Brooklyn, New York, and has continued to produce an astonishing outpouring of works, many of which are set to the music of American composers.


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