Modern dance is a theatrical dance that began to
develop sometime in the late 19th century towards the early 20th
century. It evolved as a rebellion or as a reaction against the traditional
ballet as well as a way to express contemporary social concerns. Even though
modern dance originated in Europe it flourished in the United States of
American, away from the strong European ballet traditions. At the beginning many
early modern dances were performed by only one person and they had a highly
compressed effect on stage in contrast with the large casts and impressive
stage effects of ballet. The history of modern dance can be separated in three
main periods. The first period was the early phase that started around 1900,
the second period began sometime around the 1930s and the third around 1945,
right after the end of World War II and continues until this day.
First period (1900)
start of the 19th century and for the following thirty years –
highlighting the careers of American modern dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St.
Denis along site with the German dancer Mary Wigman – was the time when
reactions against the traditional ballet start to emerge. Alongside these
reactions there were two major developments that pushed the free dance movement
forward. One of them was eurhythmics which was a system created by the Swiss
music editor Emile Jaques-Dalcroze that teaches how to express musical rhythms
through the movement of the body. This technique later became very popular
among many dancers. The other one was a system of natural expressive gestures
that was developed as an alternative to the artificial mannerism by a French
philosopher that goes by the name of Francois Delsarte.
In order to give more communication power to their new
way of dancing, the first modern dancers looked for different sources of
inspiration that were different from the traditional ballet and other western
theater dances. Even some ballet dancers such as Michel Fokine, a Russian born
choreographer, looked for new sources of to get inspired.
Ancient Greek sculpture is what inspired Isadora
Duncan to use as a new source of movement. She danced bare foot and wearing
simple shirts instead of using ballet dancing shoes and the traditional corset.
She focused her movements to ‘defy’ gravity while music composers like Frederic
Choping and Franz Liszt controlled the form of her choreography. Duncan left
France and in 1921 she establishes dance schools in the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately Isadora Duncan dies in 1927 at age 49.
art is just an effort to express the truth of my being in gesture and movement”
St. Denis began as a solo dancer and was inspired by dance styles from
different places around the world such as India, Asia and Egypt.In 1915 she
founded the Denishawn School of dance along with her partner Ted Shawn who she
marries later that year. The Denishawn School of dance opens in Los Angeles and
it was named after its founder’s names. In order to attract the American audience the
couple toured the vaudeville circuit and part with the Hollywood movie industry
by providing them male and female dancers from the Denishawn School. Ruth St.
Denis and Ted Shawn tour many countries with their dance school between 1925
and 1926 including Japan, India and China among other countries.
like St. Denis, Mary Wigman with other German modern dancers offered solo and
group works and her inspiration for her choreography came from Asia and Africa.
Because of that she was known to use masks in many of her appearances.
Unfortunately the modern dance movement in Germany ended when the Nazis rose to
power in the 1920s.
dancer that helps spark the fire that is modern dance was Loie Fuller. Just
like Duncan and St. Denis, she wanted to express herself as a dancer in her own
very persona way. Fuller was born in Illinois in 1862 and she was performing in
stages and theaters as an actress from a very early age. She perfected her
dance by touring the United States where she was looked at as good
entertainment by the American audience. But Fuller wanted something more
substantial for her career and so she travel to Europe and more specific she
moved to Paris. There she was not consider just as good entertainment but she
found herself celebrated as an artist and eventually became a fixture at the
Folies Bergere and later received huge recognition and success at the Paris
one was visiting the Paris Exposition in the 1900 and wanted to watch Loie
Fuller perform they would have to pass from the vine-carved entrance of the Le
Theatre de la Loie Fuller. There Fuller using her own electric dynamo would
transform into butterflies, fire and flowers leaving the audience speechless with
her magical performance. Both Isadura Duncan and Ruth St. Denis were part of
that audience and they were mesmerized by Fuller. After watching Loie perform
Duncan said, “Before our very eyes she turned to many colored, shining
orchids, to a wavering, flowing sea flower, and at length to a spiral-like
lily, all the magic of Merlin, the sorcery of light, color, flowing form. What
an extraordinary genius.”
died in 1928 and so did her art due to the fact that it was too personalized
and so it couldn’t survive without her.
Second Period (1930)
1929 a second wave of American dancers such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey
and Charles Weidman along site the German born dancer Hanya Holm turned to the
basic natural human movements like walking, running and even breathing and
transformed them into dance moves and techniques that are still taught today
around the world. They also developed
movement styles, vocabularies and important training systems.
Martha Graham who was a dancer in the Denishawn School
focused her technique of contraction and release on exhaling and inhaling. In
her first steps she practiced movements that started in the torso area. In the
1930s she collaborated with the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi and produced
narrative locales that were mythic and physic. Her choreography involved female
dancers acting in moments of crisis.
Humphrey inspiration came from the connection between an individual, in this
case a dancer, and a greater force such as gravity. Her technique was called
fall and recovery which comes from the nature of human footfall. Even though
Humphrey discontinued her performing career she didn’t give up on modern dance
and so she continued her work through her student Jose Limon. Humphrey’s
sources later developed from movements to gestures and words.
Graham and Humphery that work with more specific techniques, Hanya Holm was
involved in a variety of shows ranging from musicals and social commentary to
humorous and entertaining dances. She was one of the first dancers that took
modern dance to the Broadway stage in New York.
the nineteen-thirties choreographers defined modern dance and ballet in
competition to one another. Modern dance was known as a technique with its very
own inner coherence whereas ballet was known for keeping the essential systems
of belief of its subculture. Both modern and ballet performers and
choreographers stayed loyal to their traditions.
Third period (1945)
Second World War ended in 1945 and with that a new period started for modern
dance that continues until this day. Many American dancers found inspiration
for their techniques and moves from modern dance in combination with ballet and
social dance. Some of those dancers include Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and
James Waring. Likewise ballet dancers and choreographers used techniques and
movements developed by modern dancers.
traditional ballet with Graham’s technique, Merce Cunningham was able to
transform conventional dance making the spine the centre of movement. Unlike
other dancers that were inspired by history, Cunninghams inspiration came from
present times and that was shown through his works and choreographies. Music
and stage decoration were not considered to depend on the dance style according
with their modern dance companies as well as some ballet companies James Waring
and Twyla Tharp included some sense of humor in their choreographies. They were
able to achieve this by including strange moves and parodies in their
choreographies and with the help of talented American modern dancers Alwin
Nikolais and Paul Taylor.
the 1960s, when Twyla Tharp started her dance career, modern dance was going
through a very experimental phase and it was testing the limits of what people
consider to be dance by including everyday activities, movements and the use of
ordinary objects. These dances were accepted by the dance community in the
early 1970s. Twyla Tharp took advantage of the social and artistic excitement
that people were feeling in the 1960s and tried different approaches to modern
dance. For example, Tharp believed that music was distracting the audience and
so she performed without using music as part of her choreography. She also took
her performances outside the traditional theater and danced in odd places such
as the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum and the central park in New York.
Tharp is by many credited for the fusion of ballet, modern dance jazz and tap
into one entity. Furthermore she did work for Mikhail Baryshinikov and the
Joffrey Ballet Company during the 1970s.
“How do you make a dance? My answer is simple. Put
yourself in motion.”
the mid-1980s to early 1990 modern dance lost all interest in the traditional
movements and techniques, instead the use of theatrical elements was getting
popular among new modern dancers. Sankai Juke was a Japanese dance group who
specialize in modern and classical dance. The group used ropes that were
attached on the ceiling to suspend themselves upside down on the stage and
without using a lot of movement or costumes they would decent to the stage
floor. Their goal was to use the minimum of structural choreography but at the
same time express emotions.
modern dance is a huge part of the dance industry and it is offered in almost
every dance studio. This is mostly because most dancers like the idea of
learning ballet but at the same time they don’t want to spend the time and
effort to learn the difficult techniques or they just don’t have the discipline
and the focus that it’s needed. The past two decades there has been a rise in
dance competitions worldwide where judges are looking for dancers that have the
ability to perform modern dance. Therefore dancers that have the ability to
express motions and feeling throughout their performance are the ones that
usually succeed in these competitions. Watching these performances, judges as
well as companies that are interested in modern dance dancers, are looking for
dancers that not only have the best technique but also have their own unique
way to transfer that emotion to the crowd.
the sphere of modern dance has expanded and developed and other types of dances
have become more established, modern dance as a term has become almost
outdated. This is mostly because it is now expressed and presented through many
dance genres such as jazz, contemporary and classical. From the beginning back
in the 1900 until now, modern dance has been redefined countless times. Even
though it is evidently not ballet by any means, it still uses some balletic
movements. Moreover sometimes it examines multiple dance elements and sometimes
it refers to a specific dance element or movement. As new generations of modern
dancers appear the concepts, the movements, the practices and the techniques
will always change and so will the meaning of the term modern dance.