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Modern dance

Modern dance is not a specific style of dance or a single technical method of movement; it is rather a point of view toward dance as an art. While there are of course many forms of social dancing that have evolved in the modern era (from line dancing, disco, and for that matter moshing) the term is usually used to discuss dance performed for a non-participatory audience.

Though it often uses the body alignment and movement of ballet, modern dance encompasses a much broader world than ballet. It is movement with freedom and meaning, usually for a serious artistic purpose. Modern dance stresses expressive individuality over conformity of movement. The process of exploring movement to arrive at a dance is thought to be at least as important as the resulting dance.

The artistic tradition that came to be known as modern, or contemporary, dance, began with a small group of dancers around 1900. By mid-century, amid much controversy, it became accepted as a very exciting form of performance.

In around 1900, a number of dancers grew dissatisfied with what they viewed as the mechanical sterility of a ballet aesthetic then in decline and with the decorative triviality of conventional theatre dance. Independently they explored innovations, setting the foundation for the revolution to come. Loie Fuller discovered illusionistic effects created by colored light and swirling draperies, illustrating the vivid theatrical impact possible in movement. Isadora Duncan devised a free style of dance that conveyed great intensity of feeling. Ruth St. Denis portrayed Oriental goddesses with an uplifting air of spirituality and mysticism. When St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn, founded the Denishawn school and company in 1915 in Los Angeles, they laid the basis from which the founders of modern dance emerged.

Three members of the Denishawn company found its pseudoexoticism inappropriate. They left Denishawn in the 1920s to follow their artistic consciences and invent a dance suited to the times. The three--Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman--became the founders of modern dance, although others, including Lester Horton, who worked in relative isolation in California, also influenced succeeding generations of dancers.

The creative surge did not take place just in America. In Central Europe, a parallel trend was taking place, influenced by the scientific studies of movement undertaken by Rudolf von Laban and his mentor Francois Delsarte, and by the Dalcroze system of rhythmic movement. These and other Europrean ideas came to the United States. The German dancers Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg toured the U.S., and Hanya Holm established a Wigman school in New York City in 1931. European modern dance activity ceased with World War II, and not until American choreographers began working overseas in the 1960s did modern dance again become international.

The early moderns were fiercely independent, even rivals, but they saw themselves as a movement in rebellion against conventional types of dance. They believed that dance had to express a contemporary spirit and could not be authentic if set in a borrowed style. Dance had to embody the sense of the mechanized age, the personality of the particular artist, and the moral concerns of the time. Oriental sinuosity was thought wrong in the West. The rigid torso, turned-out feet, effortless flights, and elegant line of ballet technique derived from 300-year-old European court dancing were equally out of place.

The early moderns danced in bare feet, stayed close to the ground, emphasized body weight, eliminated elaborate costumes and sets, worked with simple musical arrangements. They moved with deliberate force, angularity, asymmetry, and distortion. Each dancer had to develop a technique of movement suited to his or her own body and to the sensations being expressed.

Modern dance developed a tradition of independence, individualism, and personal style, in which innovation--unorthodox movement and new form--was preferred to adherence to an established technical system. Choreographers of one generation formed companies that were training grounds for the next generation.

It was not only through the efforts of the dancers alone that modern dance gradually won its quest for respectability. The musician Louis Horst, a great support of early modern dance, acted as advisor, composer, and accompanist to many choreographers, particularly to Martha Graham. In 1927 newspapers regularly began assigning dance critics, such as John Martin, Margaret Lloyd, Walter Terry, and Edwin Denby, who approached performances from the viewpoint of a movement specialist rather than as a reviewer of music or drama. Educators accepted modern dance into college and university curricula, first as a part of physical education, then as performing art. Many college teachers were trained at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance, which was established at Bennington College in 1934 and then continued by Connecticut College.

Of the generation of dancers that succeeded the founders, some innovated less than they adapted existing styles. Once modern dance was established, the hostility among different technical and modern dance styles began to soften and blend. Among the most successful of those who perpetuated existing trends was Jose Limon, who made dances about larger-than-life heroes and grand social schemes. Anna Sokolow concentrated on mood rather than plot in dances, focusing on the tension and alienation of the 1950s. Alvin Ailey combined ballet and modern dance, concentrating on African-American themes; other black choreographers adopted a bouncier, looser style influenced by the African and Caribbean native dances presented by Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. In the hands of Jack Cole and other choreographers, the modern-dance impetus reached Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.

Some dancers of the second generation, however, continued in the rebellious spirit of their predecessors. Paul Taylor and Erick Hawkins made innovations in the technique and substance of their dances. Alwin Nikolais evolved a multimedia spectacle of sound, shape, movement, and light. Merce Cunningham abandoned plot, characterization, logical sequence, and preconceived emotional coloration, letting his dance movement speak for itself simply as movement occupying time and space.

Cunningham greatly influenced the dancers of the 1960s, many of whom followed his exploration of movement as movement and questioned even further what qualified as dance movement. Choreographers working with the Judson Dance Theater, including Yvonne Rainier, used everyday, unemotional movement that could be performed with minimal training. Choreographic minimalists like Rudy Perez experimented with how little could be done. Many choreographers set their dances to be performed in streets, museums, and other non-theatrical, public places.

The generation of dancers that appeared after the 1960s has shown a strong interest in training, technique, theatricality, and integrated movement. Meredith Monk has created an imaginative theater form using poetic combinations of dance images, props, and music. Twyla Tharp has developed a casual-looking but rigorous and intricate technique that often serves as a commentary on social issues and on other dance styles. Having choreographed for the conventional ballet, for films, and for the commercial theater, she is one of the most pervasive dance influences at work today. The German dancer Pina Bausch, with her Wuppertal Dance Theater, choreographs strongly narrative dances that combine movement with words, song, chant, and mime. Her work is considered expressionist and has been influenced by her teacher, the early dance modernist Kurt Joss. Avant-garde choreographer Trisha Brown designs dances where movement, not story, is primary, and where multimedia effects create a king of performance art. Much interest has risen recently from intelligence grounded in the body, supporting individual, intuitive, and fundamental movement patterns. Modern dance today draws on theater tradition, dance ethnology, somatics, exercise physiology, and physical therapy for integrated, expressive movement.

Further reading:

Susan Au, Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History (1988)
Mary Clark and David Vaughan, editors, The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet (1977)
Peggy Hackney, Making Connections (1998)
Moira Hodgson Quintet: Five American Dance Companies (1977)
Deborah Jowitt, Dance Beat (1977)
S.A. Kriegsman, Modern Dance in America: the Bennington Years (1981)
Richard Long, The Black Tradition in Modern Dance (1989)
Don McDonagh, The Complete Guide to Modern Dance (1976); The Rise and Fall of Modern Dance (1990)
John Martin, The Dance in Theory (1989)
Joseph H. Mazo, Prime Movers: the Makers of Modern Dance (1984)
Sandra Minton, Modern Dance (1984)
Marcia Siegel, At the vanishing Point (1972), The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance (1979); Watching the Dance Go By (1977)

The Modern Dance is the title of a 1978 album by the new wave rock group Pere Ubu