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Modern Dance Primer

BY Jessica Moore  March 23, 2001 at 11:36 AM EST

Ballet, the basis for all of Western theatrical dance, is a theatrical performance, using elements from a rich tapestry of traditional movements. Most ballets consist of dancing and music only, although some notable exceptions have included speeches from the characters.

All classical elements of ballet—defying gravity, seamless grace, adherence to form—are challenged in modern dance. Modern dance, then, is a response to ballet, most specifically to the conventionality that pioneer modern dancers, such as Isadora Duncan, found so confining.

The concept of modern dance germinated in Europe but matured in the United States—by 1930, the U.S. was considered home to the developing form. During this time, experimental dancers were choreographing pieces with few dancers and even fewer effects. This was a jarring development for audiences, who were accustomed to 19th century ballets involving large casts and intricate scenery.

On a philosophical level, modern dance grew out of the need to express ideas singular to the twentieth century that could not be expressed through the older language of ballet. One of these ideas, conversely, was the avant-garde concept of themelessness. Around the end of World War II, choreographers began developing minimal dances without theme or emotion, with no pretense of inspiring the audience.

Characteristics of modern dance

A defining characteristic of modern dance is the singular use of space. While the ballet dancer faces the audience, the modern dancer uses all orientations. In a sense, performing for the audience is not the driving purpose behind a modern dance piece. The dancer’s relationship to the music is also noticeably different than in ballet-the ballet dancer’s movements correspond to the music; the modern dancer’s movements may disregard it entirely. Music may be entirely absent, leaving the sound of the dancer’s movements as the only backdrop.

In modern dance, choreographers often dance in their own pieces. The same artist will often be involved in lighting, costume, and scenery design. This is a striking departure from ballet, where the dancer aspires to choreography and rarely continues dancing once that goal is achieved. The difference is practical: while ballet is built around a concrete “dance language” of steps, each piece of modern dance introduces a new language. Because of this, it is often easier for the dancers if the choreographer dances alongside them.

Some pioneers of modern dance

Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)
With a singular talent that constantly challenged accepted notions of dance, Duncan made a lasting mark on the cultural landscape of the twentieth century. Her dances included free movements heavily influenced by natural forces, and by ancient cultures, especially classic Greece. Her loose hair and bare feet were symbolic of her interest in expanding boundaries of acceptability and returning dance to the fundamental level of the body. All of Duncan’s movements focused on the solar plexus and the torso, and breathing was of utmost importance. She is considered the inventor of modern dance.

Ruth St. Denis (1877-1968) 
Ruth St. Denis co-founded the Denishawn dance center, the first major school for experimental dance instruction, with her husband, Ted Shawn. The school became the leading influence in American modern dance throughout the 1920s. The second wave of theatrical dance grew from St. Denis’ and Shawn’s influence. St. Denis believed that dance should transcend the physical realm and enter the spiritual. She believed that dance was capable of dealing with complex philosophical themes. Known for incorporating Asian dance forms into her works, she encouraged her students to experiment with forms of dance other than ballet.

Martha Graham (1894-1991)
Graham studied at the Denishawn school, and was heavily influenced by their teachings. She began to evolve into her own style during the 1930s, focusing on muscle control. Her dances appeared jarring and often lacked rhythm, which was upsetting to audiences accustomed to flowing movement. Graham was the first modern dance choreographer to reach across to other genres of modern art for collaboration. She worked with composer Aaron Copland and sculptor Isamu Noguchi to produce “Appalachian Spring,” considered a landmark in modern dance.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) 
Ailey formed the internationally acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958; the company is credited with giving exposure to many African-American and Asian dancers. Ailey’s pieces fuse modern with elements of jazz, ballet, and African dance, and draw heavily upon African-American themes. Ailey’s high-energy dance and choreography styles were shaped by his studies with Lester Horton, Martha Graham, and Charles Weidman.

Paul Taylor (b. 1930) 
Taylor was a soloist with Martha Graham’s company when he formed his own troupe, the Paul Taylor Dance Company.Taylor studied under Antony Tudor and danced for the legendary George Balanchine, as well as for Martha Graham. He collaborated on several pieces with his friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Taylor’s choreography is celebrated worldwide for its raw emotion.