The History of Modern Dance

The late 1800's and early 1900's saw the rise of a new form of dance: modern dance. Three women, Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, were at the front of this movement. More than any other dance form, modern dance is dominated by personalities. You will see that reflected in the structure of this class.

Loie Fuller was not primarily a dancer, but rather an actress. When she danced, she liked to incorporate other elements - "shifting play of lights and colours on the voluminous skirts or draperies she wore", or "coloured gels, slide projections and other aspects of stage technology." She was unable to gain an audience for her work in America, and so moved to Europe, where she was so loved by the French that they tagged her 'La Loie'.

Isadora Duncan was in many ways a foreshadowing of the coming womenís movement. She rejected the traditional roles laid out for her, lived with her significant other and had children with him without ever marrying (scandalous in those days), danced in bare feet and loose tunics (at a time when corsets were still being worn) and created dances that were about freedom and following natural urges. Like Fuller, Duncanís work was ignored in America but embraced in Europe. Duncanís early work was light and carefree, but after her two children accidentally drowned, her work took on a more somber tone and in many ways spoke for the downtrodden and oppressed of the world.

Ruth St. Denis was already a dancer when she became enamored by the east. She was inspired by an Egyptian cigarette ad and research Indian and Egyptian cultures, then developed a dance that held what she felt was the spirit of Indian dance (rather than Indian dance itself). Unlike Fuller and Duncan, St. Denis did find a small audience in America, but like them, she went to Europe to find wide acclaim. While there, she continued her studies of India and created several more dances.

When St. Denis returned to America, she met dancer Ted Shawn. They became partners, married, and then set up a dance studio and company together named Denishawn. It was here that St. Denis created her first Egyptian dances. Denishawn was also the starting place for several dancers who later left their mark on modern dance, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. When St. Denis and Shawn divorced, they both went on to promote the dance in their own ways. Shawn, most particularly, created a male dance troupe, Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers, and toured with the goal of showing that dancing is indeed a masculine art.

In Germany in the 1910's, 20's and 30's, Rudolf Laban and two of his students, Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, also made strides in modern dance. Labanís work, particularly his system of notation, has had a lasting effect on the dance world. Wigman focused on putting difficult emotions into dance, creating performances that were the opposite of ballet - heavy, dark, wrenching. Jooss is most famous for his show The Green Table, which was sharply critical of politicians and war. Jooss and Laban had to leave Germany because of the Nazis, and though Wigman stayed, she had to keep quiet about what was going on around her. Laban was dismayed to see that the the Nazi party saw fit to co-opt his 'movement choir' techniques.

Martha Graham was inspired by breathing to create a theory of contraction and release. She used this theory to convey emotion in her dances. For instance, a contraction of the stomach, the body folding in around it, can signify pain or perhaps grief. On the other hand, a release is a movement that opens the body, and so might suggest freedom or joy. Graham eventually met and married former ballet dancer Erick Hawkins, who performed with her.

Doris Humphrey "made a more objective analysis of the craft of choreography" which she described in her book The Art of Making Dances, still used in teaching modern dance choreography today. Humphreyís theory of fall and recovery colored her choreography the way Grahamís theory did hers. Fall and recovery focused not on the muscle tension (as a contraction or release would) but on the height and depth of the movement. In her later years, she worked closely with her student Josť Limon, and choreographed several dances for him when he opened his own company. Limon was a talented choreographer in his own right, and his company still exists today.

Charles Weidman was the third Denishawn student who went out on his own. He and Humphrey started a company together when they first left Denishawn. Unlike Humphrey, however, Weidmanís choreography was lighter, sometimes even comedic. His contribution to modern dance was his kinetic pantomime, a dance-like form of miming.

Katherine Dunham had two strikes against her: she was not only female, she was black. At a time when most women did not even go to college, Dunham went beyond that and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1936. She had already created her first dance school by that time, and used her degree to study dance anthrology in Brazil and the Caribbean. She was able to take what she learned and translate it into her choreography. Dunhamís work paved the way for other African American dancers such as Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell, who started the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

From these greats came even more choreographers and more innovation among their peers and students. Some of those were Merce Cunningham, who further deconstructed dance and its constituent parts, including music, Alwin Nikolais, who enjoyed multi-media much in the vein of Loie Fuller, and went so far with technology that he was accused of dehumanization in his dances, and Paul Taylor, who sought to "go back to basics" and had one entire dance where he stood on stage and remained still.

Other choreographers were Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk and Twyla Tharp, who were considered post-modernists. Susan Au says, "Out of the work of Rainer and her colleagues there evolved a new definition of theatrical dance, reduced to a minimum: a person (or persons) moving in a space designated as a performing area. The dancer did not, of course, have to be moving at all: as Cunningham and Taylor had shown, stillness was a valid choreographic choice."

Two new types of dance arose: Butoh, from Japan, and Tanztheater, from Germany. Kazuo Ohno created Butoh, which is imbued with bleak emotions and a stark style and is said to come from the legacy of Hiroshima. Tanztheater (literally "dance theater" in English) is typified by the works of Pina Bausch. These dances tend to be about miscommunication, particularly between the sexes, and to be powerful emotionally.

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