Modern dance, from head to toe
Modern dance" is a vague and nondescript term for one of the richest and most diverse of the performing arts. Little more than 100 years old, it ranges from the gaudily theatrical scarf dances of Loie Fuller at the dawn of the 20th century to the intensely stylized mythologies of modern-dance genius Martha Graham to the high-flying virtuosic acrobatics of Elizabeth Streb.Skip to next paragraph
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Unlike classical ballet, with its strict vocabulary of movements, modern dance is eclectic and marvelously diverse - accessible, appealing, and resonant to people in all walks of life. "Dance is another way of putting things...," Graham maintained. "If it could be said in words, it would be.... [I]nside the body is an interior landscape, which is revealed in movements. Each person reads into it what he brings to it."
That rich diversity is also what makes modern dance so difficult to define. It's probably easier to say what it is not. Modern dance is not codified, with a specific, universally accepted "vocabulary." It's not classical ballet, Broadway hoofing, jazz, tap, or hip-hop. It isn't folk dance or ethnic dance from different cultures around the world.
Modern dance, however, often draws freely from all these and more: popular dance, ballroom dance, sports, acrobatics, martial arts, theater, film, video, and computer graphics. It can be thought of as the exploration of what the body can do in a way that is not bound by the specific rules and restrictions of a traditional vocabulary of movements, yet still is artistically satisfying.
As the great choreographer Agnes De Mille put it, "Works of art are the symbols through which men communicate what lies beyond ordinary speech." Modern dance is that form of expressive movement that lies beyond all the other codified forms.
Leaping beyond the boundaries
Modern dance began as an attempt to break free from the strict rigors and boundaries of classical ballet. Arguably the most important and radical influence on the world of modern dance came around the turn of the 20th century with the visionary American Isadora Duncan.
Though Duncan was preceded and inspired by the free-form theatrical dancing of American actress Loie Fuller (best known for dancing in voluminous skirts and using extravagant lighting), Duncan is credited with laying the groundwork for a second major stream of dance (after ballet), which we generally refer to as modern dance.
In reaction to the extreme artifice and constriction of ballet, Duncan forged a style of intensely personal, musically responsive dance that she believed was the direct expression of the soul.
Instead of whalebone corsets, stiff tutus, and hard-toed shoes, Duncan danced in simple Greek tunics and bare feet, eschewing virtuosity and convention for a lush, lyricall eloquence that seemed driven by spontaneous impulse in reaction to music.
Unlike Fuller, who used the body mostly as a canvas for spectacular lights and costumes, Duncan presented her work in intimate recitals, often in homes, with little or nothing in the way of theatrical set-up.
Duncan met with mixed response in America, but was celebrated all over Europe. Her work had a major influence on the development of modern dance in Germany, where Mary Wigman became the most important dance figure following World War I.