Modern Dance

I. Introduction

Modern Dance, tradition of theatrical dance unique to the 20th century. Modern dance flourished in areas that lacked strong ballet traditions, such as in the United States where ballet companies were imported from Europe. Although modern dance originated in Europe, by 1930 the United States had become the center for dance experimentation. Many early modern dances were miniatures—solos of highly compressed effect. They were unlike anything known, for dance at that time was dominated by late 19th-century ballets, which were characterized by large casts, a great variety of dance numbers, and spectacular scenic effects. But ballet itself was not always so monumental in scale, and just as ballet has evolved over the centuries as a changing tradition, so also has modern dance during its shorter period of existence.

II. Observable Characteristics

Modern dance, having begun as a reaction against ballet, is perhaps more easily defined by what it is not than by what it is, and it is often defined in contrast to ballet. Certain broad traits, however, can be observed in much of the enormously varied modern dance that has been created in the 20th century.

A. The Choreographer-Performer

In modern dance, the tendency is for one artist to act as both choreographer (see  Choreography) and performer—and frequently also as scenic, costume, and lighting designer. During the last 300 years of ballet, in contrast, choreographers have seldom continued to dance when they were at the height of their choreographic achievements. Unlike ballet choreographers, who rely on a language of codified steps, modern dancers create their own conventions, or dance language; thus, they usually find it a practical necessity to both choreograph and perform.

B. Creation of a Dance Language

Because a dance language involves elements such as posture, use of the body's weight, and the character of movements (sinuous, angular, and so forth)—as well as specific movements of the head, torso, hands, arms, legs, and feet—most creators of modern dance have considered it essential to examine their

In keeping with the conventional language of ballet, the ballet dancer's movements are developed from a basic orientation of facing the audience from the front of the stage. At the same time, the ballet dancer maintains an erect posture and a turned-out position—that is, legs rotated outward from the hips. Modern dancers, in contrast, usually assume a multidimensional orientation in the theater space. Their actions make use of all dimensions of space—the dancers often stand sideways to or turn their backs on the audience, and they do not always remain upright and deliberate falling motions are common. Despite the variety of modern dance styles, they generally tend to take into account the weight of the body, whereas ballet requires the dancer to create the illusion of freedom from gravity, of effortlessly jumping and soaring through the air.

D. Relation to Music

Another aspect of much modern dance concerns the relation of movement to music. In traditional ballet the momentum and impulses of the dance movement typically parallel the rhythms of the music. Such a parallel may be present in modern dance, but it is not assumed that this must be the case. The dance may be composed first and the music written afterwards, underscoring the impulses of the dance movement, or the momentum of the dance may run counter to the rhythms of the music. Music may even be absent, the sounds of the dancers' movements being heard against a backdrop of silence. (This independent relation of modern dance and music has, in fact, influenced some contemporary ballet.)

III. History

The history of modern dance may be divided into three periods—one beginning about 1900, one about 1930, and one after World War II ended in 1945.

A. Early Period

The first three decades of modern dance—embracing the careers of the American dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and the German dancer Mary Wigmanwere preceded by a period of reaction against what many dancers saw as the empty spectacle of late 19th-century ballet. Contemporary with this reaction were two developments that helped inspire a freer kind of dance movement. One was the system of natural expressive gestures developed by the 19th-century French philosopher of movement, François Delsarte, as an alternative to the artificial mannerisms then customary in the theater. The other was eurhythmics, a system for teaching musical rhythms through body movement, created by the Swiss music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and later used as a training method by many dancers.

Seeking to give their dance more communicative power, the early modern dancers looked beyond the dominant tradition of Western theatrical dance—ballet as they knew it in the late 19th century—and drew on earlier or non-Western sources for inspiration. During the same period, some ballet choreographers, such as the Russian-born Michel Fokine, also looked to similar sources, reacting against late 19th-century ballet as vehemently as the modern dancers did.

Isadora Duncan used Greek sculpture as a movement source. She danced in bare feet rather than in ballet slippers and appeared in a simple tunic rather than in the corseted ballet costume of the late 19th century. Locating the source of movement in the solar plexus, she created dances that alternated between resisting and yielding to gravity. Her response to the music of romantic composers such as Frédéric Chopín and the Hungarian Franz Liszt dictated the form of her choreography.

Ruth St. Denis turned to the dance styles of India, Egypt, and Asia, as the basis for her compositions. Like Duncan, St. Denis began as a solo dancer, but in 1915 she formed a company, Denishawn, with her husband, Ted Shawn. She trained dancers to dance as she did, in a diverse range of styles. Later American choreographers such as Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus continued St. Denis's interest in ethnic styles.

Mary Wigman looked to Africa and Eastern Asia for choreographic inspiration. Like St. Denis, she presented both solo and group works, often arranged in cycles. Along with other German modern dancers— Rudolf von Laban, Kurt Jooss, and Harald Kreutzberg—she made extensive use of masks. The rise of the Nazi political party in Germany in the 1920s ended the German modern dance movement.

B. The 1930s

About 1930, in New York City, the second wave of modern dancers emerged. They included the Americans Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, all of whom had danced with Denishawn, and the German-born American dancer Hanya Holm, who came from Mary Wigman's company. These dancers rejected external movement sources in favor of internal ones. They turned to basic human movement experiences, such as the actions of breathing and walking, and then transformed these natural actions into dance movement.

Martha Graham evolved her technique of contraction and release from the natural exhalation and inhalation of breathing. In her early abstract works she explored movement initiated in the torso. In the late 1930s Graham became interested in narrative structure and literary subject matter. With the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi she created narrative locales that were both mythic and psychic. She danced the roles of female protagonists confronting moments of crisis; other dancers represented various aspects of the protagonist's self in crisis.

Doris Humphrey evolved her technique of fall and recovery from the natural dynamic of the human footfall, the giving into and the rebound from gravity. This technique became a metaphor for the relationship of the individual to a greater force, whether a social group or spiritual presence. After Humphrey stopped performing and disbanded the company she had formed with Charles Weidman, she continued to choreograph for her protégé, the Mexican-American dancer and choreographer José Limón. The choreographic sources for Humphrey's later works were words and gestures rather than her own movement experiences.

Hanya Holm worked in a more varied range than either Graham or Humphrey did. She created humorous dances and dances of social commentary, as did Weidman. Beginning in the late 1940s, she also choreographed for musicals, being one of the first to bring the style of modern dance to the Broadway stage.

During the 1930s choreographers defined modern dance and ballet in opposition to one another. Whereas modern dance was established as a technique with its own internal coherence, ballet was defined by reaffirming the essential tenets of its tradition. Ballet and modern choreographers focused on the purity of their traditions.

C. Postwar Developments

The third period of modern dance began after World War II ended in 1945 and continues today. Such American dancers as Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham, James Waring, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and Twyla Tharp found their movement sources in the proliferation of 20th-century dance styles. Their works combined and fused techniques drawn from social dance, ballet, and modern dance. (In the years following World War II, ballet choreographers also borrowed just as freely from modern dance.)

Merce Cunningham revolutionized conventional dance by fusing Graham's technique with traditional ballet, locating the source of movement in the spine. He organized the changes of movement through methods based on chance, and he considered music and decor independent of the dance. His works revealed individual dancers experiencing their relation to present time and abstract space, rather than to history and locale.

James Waring and, more recently, Twyla Tharp have worked both with ballet companies and with their own modern companies. Along with Paul Taylor and Alwin Nikolais, they employed sense of humor in their choreographies. Odd juxtapositions of movement created these humorous effects, as did parodies of their own and others' dance styles.

Tharp began her career as part of the 1960s avant-garde. During this time of social upheaval the American dancers Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, and others created works at the extreme limit of what is considered dance. They became interested in everyday activities, manipulations of objects, and mixed-media presentations. In the 1970s the dance mainstream came to accept these choreographers' works, but few so completely as Tharp's.

Modern (or postmodern) dance in the mid-1980s, no longer interested in traditional techniques, relied on theatrical elements and the use of literary and pictorial devices. Tanztheater Wuppertal, founded by the German dancer-choreographer Pina Bausch, has performed evening-length mixed media works—such as The Seven Deadly Sinsthat stem from the tradition of the expressive dance of Kurt Jooss. Other notable postmodern dancers are the Americans Mark Morris, who worked with Twyla Tharp and the ballet dancer Eliot Feld; and Karole Armitage, a dancer and the choreographer of the Mollino Room, performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and the American Ballet Theatre in 1986. Armitage's work is characterized by stabbing, insectlike motions and savage confrontations; among the pieces composed for her own group is The Watteau Duets, which merges dancing on pointe with torso movements in the style of Merce Cunningham. Much interest has also attached to Sankai Juku, a group of Japanese dancers trained in modern and classical dance. Their work is based on buto, a form of dance theater that avoids structured choreography and strives to express primitive emotions by making minimal use of costuming and actual movement. In their "hanging event," dancers suspended upside down on ropes are slowly lowered, uncoiling their bodies as they descend.

HOW TO CITE THIS ARTICLE

"Modern Dance," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

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