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Written by: Vanessa

Early Period – 1900

The first three decades embrace the careers of the American dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and the German dancer, Mary Wigman. This was preceded by a period of reaction against the empty spectacle of late 19th-century ballet.

There were two developments that helped inspire a freer kind of dance movement:

- The system of natural expressive gestures – developed by French Actor Francois Delsarte.
- Eurhythmics – a system for teaching musical rhythms through body movement – created by Swiss music educator, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze.

Early modern dancers looked beyond the dominant tradition of Western theatrical dance (ballet) in order to give their dance a more communicative power. They drew on archaic or exotic sources for inspiration. During the same period, some ballet choreographers also looked to similar sources.

Isadora Duncan used Greek sculpture as a movement source and danced in bare feet and a simple tunic. She created dances that alternated between resisting and yielding to gravity. Her response to the music of romantic composers such as Chopin and Liszt dictated the form of her choreography.

Ruth St. Denis turned to ethnic and Asian dance styles as a basis and in 1915 she formed the dance 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 her interest in ethnic styles.

Mary Wigman looked to Africa and the Orient for inspiration. She presented both solo and group works, often arranged in cycles. Along with other German modern dancers – Rudolf von Laban, Kurt Jooss and Herald Kreutzberg, she made extensive use of masks.

The rise of the Nazis ended the German Modern Dance movement.

The 1930s

The second wave of modern dancers emerged in New York. They included Americans Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, all of who had danced with Denishawn and the German-American dancer Hanva Holm, who came from Mary Wigman’s company. These dancers rejected external movement sources and turned to basic human movement experiences such as breathing and walking. They transformed these natural actions into dance movements.

Martha Graham evolved her technique of contraction and release from natural breathing and explored movement initiated in the torso. In the late 1930s she became interested in narrative structure and literary subject matter. Together with 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 whilst 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. This technique became a metaphor for the relationship of the individual to a greater force. After Humphrey stopped performing, she continued to choreograph for her protégé, Mexican-American dancer and choreographer, Jose Limon. The choreographic sources for her late works were words and gestures rather than her own movement experiences.

Hanya Holm worked in a more varied range and created humorous dances of social commentary. 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. Modern dance was established as a technique with its own internal coherence and ballets was defined by reaffirming the essential tenets of its tradition. Both ballet and modern choreographers focused on the purity of their traditions.

Post-war Developments

Twyla Tharp found their movement sources in the proliferation of 20th-century dance styles and their works combined and fused techniques drawn from social dance, ballet and modern dance. She 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 other created works at the extreme limit of what is considered dance.

Merce Cunningham fused Grahams technique with ballet, locating the source of movement in the spine. He organized the changes of movement through methods based on chance, and considered music and décor independent of the dance. His works revealed individual dancers experiencing their relation to present time and abstract space.

James Waring and Twyla Tharp have worked with both ballet companies and their own modern companies. Along with Paul Taylor and Alwin Nikolais, they display a choreographic sense of humour.

Modern (or post-modern) dance in the mid-1980s, no longer interested in traditional techniques, relies on theatrical elements and the use of literary and pictorial devices. Tanztheater Wuppertal, founded by the German dancer-choreographer Pina Bausch, performs eveng-length mixed media works such as ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’.

Other notable post-modern dancers are Americans Mark Morris, who worked with Twyla Tharp and the ballet dancer Eliot Feld and Karole Armitage – choreographer of the ‘Mollino Room’.

Stabbing, insect-like motions and savage confrontations characterize Armitage’s work. Among the pieces composed for her own group is ‘The Watteau Deuts’ – merging dancing on pointe with torso movements.

Much interest has also attached to Sankai Juku, a group of Japanese dancers trained in modern and classical dance. Their work is based on ‘butoh’, a form of dance theatre 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.

© Vanessa van Rensburg


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