A fantastic definition of Modern Dance by Calypso
(Moderator at www.dance.net)
So.... What the Heck is Modern Dance???
The question has been asked four million times. "So, what is Modern, anyway?" "Is it like lyrical jazz?" "How about Hip Hop?" "I know, I bet it's like ballet, only looser." "I heard it's that stuff that Britney Spears does, that's pretty modern, don't you think?" "It's just kind of free flowing movement where you show your emotions."
The truth is, Modern Dance has been widely misunderstood. In fact, even the name is now kind of obsolete! When Modern dance began to emerge, well, it was pretty modern. But that was around 1900, making Modern Dance's foundation over a hundred years old! Shouldn't we call it something else now? Well, we can certainly see how the name "Modern Dance" only adds to the confusion.
Around 1900, the dance scene had gotten fairly stale. Romantic Ballets were just about the only things being performed, but the peak of their popularity had been some 60 years earlier. At that time, a young woman named Isadora Duncan decided there must be another way to move; ballet was too artificial. So modern dance arrived as a rebellion to ballet.
Isadora took her ideas from Greek statues and art; also drawing much of her inspiration from the music. Instead of the romantic tutus, audiences of Isadora Duncan would have seen a woman clad in long, flowing tunics and bare feet, the sight of which shocked many theatergoers. Isadora danced on a carpet, which travelled with her – perhaps to make her footfalls silent or provide a softer landing. Her dances consisted of simple phrases of movement... skips, walks and leaps, all very eloquent, the use of gestures... she would frequently end a dance with one arm drifting skyward. In any case, for an audience used to romantic ballet, Isadora Duncan was highly unusual.
Nearly at the same time, another dancer was thinking many of the same thoughts about conventional ballet. Her name was Ruth St. Denis. Interested in performing "non-balletic" dance, St. Denis sought to find inspiration from the Orient and mystical things, and later she used Indian and Hindu images. Like Isadora Duncan, St. Denis had dance reformation on her mind. She and her husband, Ted Shawn, formed a dance school/company. It was called Denishawn (makes sense), and it was perhaps the most important thing to happen to modern dance ever, for two of the students at the school were named Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey.
By 1930, most people had heard of modern dance, even if they had never seen one. The Indian/Orient themes had been done over and over (not unlike the overwhelming number of romantic ballets that spurred modern dance in the first place!), and some of Denishawn's students sought different ways to express themselves. Forming companies of their own, Graham and Humphrey choreographed dances that were complex and dramatic, showing the audience that dance could convey deep meaning and themes. Both women left Denishawn with a rebellion in mind- - no more fluffy Oriental dances. So here we see, the first rebellion against the rebellion!
Graham's work was especially important to our brief history of modern. You see, she was the first modern pioneer to actually codify her movement- – that is, to have a vocabulary of steps and moves uniquely hers. She also created exercises in class that would reinforce those steps and moves. A Graham class begins on the floor with exercises called "breathings", and moves on to contractions. It is HIGHLY technical work. Anyone who says that modern dance is just "free flowing movement" has never seen Graham work, let alone taken a Graham class.
Incidentally, at the time, there was another form of dance that had a codified set of steps and moves, and exercises that reinforced them. Can you guess? It was ballet. So in fact, Martha Graham was doing something quite similar to the procedure used to train ballet dancers, but don't tell Martha that. The only difference was the vocabulary of steps that were taught. Both forms are equally demanding. Both forms require exactness of movement. Both forms can only really be done well by accomplished dancers.
Like her predecessors, Martha Graham's and Doris Humphrey's companies and schools consisted of dancers who would eventually choose to create their own styles/ syllabi/ companies. If you will, rebellion against the rebellion against the original rebellion. Among them: Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, and Paul Taylor.
At this point, our family tree becomes a bit too diverse to continue without writing an entire book on the subject. We can see how the roots of modern dance started with Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, continued with the Denishawn school/company, then to Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, and onward. Each person sought to create movement that was unique and rooted in something other than the existing dance forms. To this day, Modern dance seeks to re-create itself and reach out in an ever widening circle of creation and movement.