Modern dance, from head to toe

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Wigman was influenced by the teachings of Emile Jacques Dalcroze, whose system of eurythmics helped musicians and dancers physically internalize rhythm; and by Rudolf von Laban, who experimented with the psychology of movement and the exploration of space. (He also developed the most widely used system of dance notation, labanotion.)

Like Duncan, Wigman's work was highly expressive, but it was also dramatic - she was not afraid to create movement that was ugly. She also freed dance from the confines of musical form and began to create her own choreographic forms, often without music or with only the most basic of melodies and rhythmic support.

Wigman experimented with the forces of gravity and equilibrium, speed, muscle tension, and fall and recovery. This approach to dance, based largely on the physics of the body, opened the door for nonrepresentational dance, dance that could be compelling as pure movement.

In America, the team of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn began to give form and coherence to dance's newfound freedom, creating a language, dramatic context, and structure for modern dance. Unlike Duncan, St. Denis favored an intense theatricality, and she drew from exotic ritual dance from India and the Orient.

When St. Denis married her dancing partner, Ted Shawn, the two founded the Denishawn school and company, forging a technique and style of movement that drew not only from Oriental influences but Spanish and native-American dance, as well as ballet.

Shawn, with his virile, masculine company of men, helped destigmatize the male dancer, long stereotyped as effeminate. He also established a "university of dance" at Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass., which evolved into one of the most highly acclaimed dance festivals in the world.

St. Denis took Duncan's ideas to the extreme by having dancers match different parts of an orchestral score, note for note. One of her young dancers, Doris Humphrey, modified the process into a more expressive, less rigid method that is still common practice today.

Humphrey, who left Denishawn in 1928 to found a school and company with another former Denishawn dancer, Charles Weidman, helped explore the principals of balance and unbalance, fall and recovery, and she began to create highly dramatic works with a compelling vocabulary of gestures.

The genius of Martha Graham

As other dancers brought their own ideas, modern dance began to really blossom. Martha Graham emerged as a titan, an undisputed genius who created a characteristic movement technique (based upon contraction and release) and a stunningly dramatic theatrical style that revolutionized the modern-dance field.

The Graham technique was the first internationally recognized, codified modern-dance technique, based on a distinctive training system and a specific vocabulary.

Graham's technique was founded on a rigorous and dynamic use of muscle tension, which resulted in movement of great power, angularity, and depth. She combined this vocabulary with an innovative eye, using unorthodox costuming and design by some of the masters of the day to create works of great theatricality.

A consummate storyteller, Graham produced a stunning body of works, ranging from Greek tragedies to the masterpiece "Appalachian Spring."

Out of a mix of those traditions came a host of talented, committed dancer-choreographers who not only liberated the human body, but extended its expressive potential to an unprecedented degree: the Mexican-born Jose Limon, who took the Humphrey-Weidman tradition to its next level of expressivity; the hugely popular and seemingly inexhaustible Paul Taylor, who was a dancer for Martha Graham before creating his own eclectic and accessible style; and the abstractionist Alwin Nikolais, who was fond of saying dance is "motion, not emotion" and who turned his dancers into cogs in his phantasmagorical theatrical "contraptions."

Experimental master Merce Cunningham revolutionized the way we look at dance by transforming the concept of what it can be. He believed everyday movement to be as valid onstage as stylized movement. He often relies on chance procedures to create works that are unpredictable and sometimes unsettling.

While his dances' lack of traditional structure and development are troubling for many audiences, others find the element of surprise combined with a rigorous movement aesthetic not only provocative but captivating.

Cunningham opened the door for all kinds of experimentation in which movement - and not necessarily "dancey" movement - was one facet of a larger mix.

With this kind of experimentation, such as in performance art and the dance "happenings" of the 1960s (epitomized by the dancers affiliated with Manhat-tan's Judson Church), the concept was often more important than the content and the process more critical than a polished product. Dancers began drawing heavily from other media and combining their choreography with other art forms, sometimes creating site-specific or even multisite pieces. Though the iconoclastic Twyla Tharp emerged out of all this turmoil, she gradually developed her distinctive, highly rhythmic, and brilliantly virtuosic style of movement, using more traditional structuring, for which she is famous today.

African-Americans blur distinctions

Another important stream of modern dance descended from the 1930s, when African-Americans began to make their mark, not only in established white companies but in companies created to mine the African heritage and the African-American experience. Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus were the first acknowledged masters, but it is Alvin Ailey whose works have been the most enduring. More than 35 years ago, Ailey became one of the first and arguably the most significant choreographer to blur the distinction between modern dance and ballet, gradually pulling in jazz and popular styles as well to give artistic voice to the richness of African-American life and culture.

All these stylistic streams have helped modern dance grow and change, as trends were developed, modified, expanded upon, or rejected in favor of something new.

Over the past half-century, there has been a push-pull between the liberation of the body vs. the control of the body, experimentation vs. codification, the contextual vs. the abstract. Current leaders in modern dance, such as Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, and Maguy Marin, to name just a few, continue to be eclectic as they grow and experiment, despite maintaining distinctive stylistic tendencies. And a host of even-younger choreographers continue to refresh and replenish the art form, crossing boundaries and stretching limits as they reflect the richness and diversity of contemporary life through modern dance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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