What is this Modern Dance thing? I like to think of Modern Dance like modern paintings. Sometimes you’ll see a pretty landscape or portrait of a man regally sitting in a chair. Those paintings tend to make sense to people and are generally likable. Abstract paintings with a lines and squiggles often are criticized as though a child could have created them. However, this is also a valid piece of art with meaning and texture beyond the superficial glance. Modern dance can be like the abstract paintings you have encountered in that it may not make sense to you. This is okay! In fact, sometimes the choreographer wants to purely elicit an emotion from you. Sometimes, the dance is just about movement without a story-like theme. Think about this as you watch dance throughout your high school career.
Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) is one of the founders of modern dance. Duncan’s search for natural movement sent her to nature. She believed movement should be as natural as the swaying of trees and the rolling waves of the sea and should be in harmony with the movements of the earth. Duncan has 3 major contributions to modern dance.
She expanded the kinds of movement that could be used in dance. Before Duncan danced, ballet was usually the dance performed in theaters. In ballet, the feet and legs were emphasized and a specific vocabulary was used. Duncan used her entire body freely.
She changed the dance costume. She discarded corsets, ballet shoes, and stiff costumes and replaced them with flowing Grecian tunics, bare feet, and unbound hair.
Her third contribution was in the use of music. In her performances, she used works of great masters like Beethoven and Wagner, which was not the usual custom. Other dancers had used this music, but Duncan made it popular with large audiences that admired her dancing.
Click here for a clip of Duncan movement.
Ruth St. Denis
Ruth St. Denis (1877-1968 ) is another founder of modern dance. St. Denis was inspired by eastern movement. She was interested in communicating an idea within dance. She founded the Denishawn Company with her husband Ted Shawn. Ted Shawn ( was another founder of modern dance). Shawn taught athletes dances with strong masculine themes and helped raise the status of the male dancer by promoting these themes. The Denishawn Company influenced the next generation of modern dancers.
Lastly, Mary Wigman (1886-1973) was also a founder of modern dance. She came from the German School of modern dance. She was concerned with self-expression. Wigmans’ contributions included psychological and emotional approaches to creativity. She felt that dance should be movement alone, so she composed dances without music. She fully explored the use of space. Her dances were described as dark and somber.
Please watch the below video of Mary Wigman
The Limón technique is based upon the movement style and philosophy of theater developed by modern dance pioneers, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In the early 1930s, both Weidman and Humphrey developed a dance vocabulary that worked in opposition to the strict rules of classical ballet. Their intention was twofold: to demonstrate human emotions in a less stylized manner than ballet; and to incorporate in their work the natural movement patterns of the body and its relation to gravity. Limón further developed their ideas for his own work and technique. The Limón technique is divided among various physical extremes: fall and recovery, rebound, weight, suspension, succession and isolation. These ideas can be illustrated in the way a dancer uses the floor as a place from which to rise, return to and then rise from again. The way a dancer explores the range of movement between the one extreme of freedom from gravity and the other of falling into it; for example, the moment of suspension just as the body is at the top of a leap, and the moment the body had fallen completely back to the earth. There are many words and ideas that are immediately associated with the Limón technique, i.e. its humanism, its use of breath, musicality, lyricism and its dramatic qualities; however, the overwhelming consensus is that through the movement is always demonstrated some physical expression of the human spirit.http://limon.org/training/limon-technique/
Probably the most exacting technique and the greatest number of choreographic works have come from MarthaGraham (1894-1991) Her technique is built on the breathing cycle of the body and its principle of “contraction and release.” In brief, Graham’s dance is built on the process of inhaling and exhaling. She believed that in inhaling, the body has an aerial quality of release, and in exhaling, the body “drive has gone down and out” in contraction. Many of today’s dancers, choreographers, and modern dance classes have been influenced by her technique. Another major contribution by Graham has been in the area of choreography and performance. She is considered to have been one of the finest dance concert performers. She utilized the wide spectrum of life in the themes of her outstanding works. She often used Greek drama to symbolize and probe human’s inner qualities. Martha Graham was a member of the Denishawn Company and a protégé of Ted Shawn. She left the company to develop her own successful company. Guess who danced for a protégé of Martha Graham? (Me! Elisa Monte was a soloist in the Martha Graham Company, and I danced with Elisa Monte. )
Many modern dancers have contributed to the development of modern dance as an art in America. AlvinAiley’s (1931-1989) great gift was his ability to present exciting theatrical pieces that reflect the black experience. His first company was composed of all black dancers, but now his company comprises dancers of all races who perform works by many choreographers. The present Alvin Ailey repertory company performs works that combine art and a unique vision of dance. The company is very popular and tours regularly. His most famous work is the piece Revelations . Click on the link below to watch a section of this famous work.
Alvin Ailey Dancers
Questions: Cut and paste these questions in a word document and print. Write in complete sentences with at least 3 to 4 sentences for each question.
1. What were 19th century artists relationship with ballet?
2. Why do you think that Isadora Duncan discarded ballet shoes to dance in bare feet?
3. What are the differences between Isadora Duncan's inspiration and Mary Wigman's inspiration for movement.
4. What kind of movement did you see in the Mary Wigman clip? How did this make you feel?
5. What props were used in the "Revelations" clip by Alvin Ailey? What do you think this work is about?
Modern dance originated as a way to deviate from ballet technique and explore new ways of moving. It was somewhat anit-ballet. Eventually modern dance circles back and borrows some ballet technique or ballet inspiration. Currently, ballet technique also borrows some ideas from modern technique.
Modern Dance in the 1960’s and 1970’s
In the 1960’s, modern dance reflected the social and political unrest that pervaded the decade. (example: The Vietnam War) Many changes occurred. The only consistent characteristic was a discarding of theatrically in favor of everyday pedestrian movement. (Pedestrian movement usually is movement that any person can do with out specific training. Many choreographers utilize this kind of movement. )
Many times, traditional leotards, tights, and theatrical costumes were discarded and replaced by utilitarian garments such as overalls and hard hats, gym shorts and tennis shoes, jeans, and even nudity!
The 1960’s and 1970’s produced new names for modern dance like antidance, nondance, minimal dance, verbal dance…. Dance was sometimes performed in non-traditional spaces like museums, malls, parking lots, streets, and parks.
Philosophy: Ordinary movement by ordinary people in ordinary places is considered valid as art.
Two camps of dance developed by the end of the 70’s. One camp was concerned with technique and dancers studied for extensive periods of time to master the choreographer’ technique. The dances were more difficult to perform. The other camp was more antidance. Time, space, and energy were altered to make new form, meaning, and non- meaning in dance. The dancers here discarded the preceding generations ideas of dance.
Watch the following link by choreographer Anna Halprin. This piece was from 2006, but she originates from the antidance camp.
Modern Dance in the 1980’s
Dance technique became more difficult and specific. Some movements that might typically be associated with sports or nondance activities were also incorporated into choreographed pieces and used as dance movement. Pilobolus combines athleticism, traditional modern dance, and the support of another dancer’s weight in unusual ways to produce often humorous dances.
Different types of materials were used on stage included water, peat moss, rocks, or leaves on the stage floor.
Another trend that be significant in the 1980’s involves choreographers who consult with other artists in related fields to collaborate and produce works. Related fields included set and lightening designers, music composers, video artists, and costume designers.
Modern in the 1990’s
Modern dance during this time was marked by decreased funding from governmental agencies for the arts in the United States. There was less appeal to dance audiences and patrons as well as an influx of major and innovative foreign dance companies. There was also a devastating effect of AIDs on the dance field.
The 1990’s included the use of throwing and catching of the body with gymnastic and wrestling techniques. Some productions included elements from tap dancing, rhythmical percussion, and folk forms to appeal to new audiences.
Modern dance today continues to push the boundaries of its predecessors. Technology is playing a stronger and stronger role in dance to enhance live performances. Dance Film is also growing in popularity as technology is accessible and available to the masses.
Questions: Please cut and paste questions into a new document and respond accordingly in complete sentences. (at least 3/4 sentences unless otherwise stated.)
1. Would you describe Anna Halprin's piece as containing pedestrian movement? Why? What do you think the people in black represented? (minimum 100 words)
2. Many changes occurred in the 1960's. What was the only consistent characteristic?
3. What is similar about the 1980's and 1990's in terms of movement?
4. What is the difference between the two camps of movement in 1960's/1970's?
5. True/False Props like leave, water, moss were used emerged during the 1960's/1970's
6. True/False Pilobolus was a classic example of modern dance philosophy during the 1980's.
7. True/False In the 1990's audiences were less interested in modern dance.
8. True/False Dance started to be performed in other spaces besides the stage like outside or in a museum.
Source Pages taken directly from : Penrod, James. The Dancer Prepares. Boston, Mcgraw Hill, 2005.