Archive for the Dance Category

A Very Brief History of Ballet

Posted in Dance with tags , , , on January 29, 2012 by Nell

To give context for the Modern dancers and choreographers I’m surveying (see previous posts), I’m gathering some information about the history of ballet—which was perceived as the antithesis to Modern dance, until choreographers began synthesizing the two streams in the latter half of the 20th century. This division has broken down over the last few decades, and many major ballet companies perform works by “Modern” choreographers such as William Forsythe and Mark Morris.

  • Ballet was derived from the dance of Italian courts during the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries). It spread to the French court of Catherine de Medici.
  • Classical ballet as we know it was created in the court of King Louis XIV (who also patronized Lully, Couperin, Moliere, Racine, et al), who himself was a dancer. Dance was an important part of French opera (notably the operas of Lully), and it was an outgrowth of opera performances that ballet was formally established. (View a film recreating dance in the court of Louis XIV.) Louis XIV founded the Academie Royale de Danse (the Paris Opera Ballet) in 1661, which created and codified standards for ballet technique and pedagogy. In the 1680s it was headed by Pierre Beauchamp, who codified the five positions of the feet. The Paris Opera Ballet, a component of the Paris Opera, became the first professional ballet company during the 1670s and ’80s.
  • The Royal Danish Ballet and the Imperial Ballet of the Russian Empire were founded in the 1740s, and ballet in Denmark and Russia, as well as Italy, grew as ballet declined in popularity in France after the mid-1800s.
  • Romantic ballet in the 19th century saw the introduction of pointework (dancing en pointe, with pointed shoes) and the tutu. Russia became the leader in ballet during this time, giving rise to the famous ballets of Tchaikovsky in the 1870s-90s. (Example: Swan Lake, 1876.)
  • Around 1907, ballet was re-introduced to France and re-invigorated in Paris, notably by the Russian company Ballets Russes and its innovative producer Sergei Diaghilev who was responsible for the avante garde ballets of Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky (choreographer). (Example: The Rite of Spring, 1913.) The vibrancy of Russian ballet in Paris increased ballet’s influence in the USA and other non-European countries.
  • George Balanchine, a Russian-born composer who moved to the States in the 1920s, is known for creating neoclassical ballet: a genre that bridged traditional and contemporary style and influenced Modern choreographers. (Example: Apollo, 1928.) He founded the New York City Ballet in 1948.
  • Postmodern dance in the 1970s and ’80s saw the emergence of conscious synthesis between ballet and Modern styles. Collaborations between ballet dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov and Modern choreographer Twyla Tharp, such as Push Comes to Shove (1976), are particularly notable.

See this Wikipedia article for more on these topics.

Isadora Duncan: The Dancer of the Future [VIDEO]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Videos with tags , on January 25, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

In this video, I discuss Isadora Duncan’s philosophy, influences, and aesthetic. I intend to put together a second video covering her biography and her influence on the following generation of dancers.

This is the second in my series of videos charting the evolution of Modern dance in America. In the first video in this series, I surveyed the atmosphere that gave birth to pioneering dancer Loie Fuller.

I’m teaching as I learn, so it’s possible there may be errors of fact or overly broad generalizations in this video. Feel free to comment with corrections or additions (and please provide a citation if possible). My sources are:

Mazo, Joseph H. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. Princeton, 2000.
Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale UP, 2003.

Loie Fuller and the Beginnings of American Modern Dance [VIDEO]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Videos with tags , , on January 22, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

This is the first in my forthcoming series of videos charting the evolution of Modern dance in America. Here I briefly survey the atmosphere that gave birth to pioneering dancers Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and explore the performance style and impact of Loie Fuller (1862-1928). While her career took place primarily in Europe (and particularly Paris), her work was well known in America. Loie paved the way for—or was perhaps a precursor to—Modern dance.

I’m teaching as I learn, so it’s possible there may be errors of fact or overly broad generalizations in this video. Feel free to comment with corrections or additions (and please provide a citation if possible). My main sources were:

Mazo, Joseph H. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. Princeton, 2000. pp. 13-34.
Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale UP, 2003. pp. 1-10.

Supplemental Viewing

Given how early Fuller’s work was, there is very little photographic documentation. Here’s a short film clip from 1896 of Fuller’s Danse Serpentine posted on YouTube (I have read conflicting reports on whether this film depicts Fuller herself or a follower of her work). This is hand-colored, frame-by-frame, to create the illusion of colored lighting.

P.S. On the wish list for when I win the lottery: this crazy Art Nouveau bronze sculptural lamp of Loie Fuller:

Dance/Draw at the Institute for Contemporary Art [Review]

Posted in Art, Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , , , on January 16, 2012 by Nell

Last Saturday I visited the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) to catch their exhibit Dance/Draw: an exploration of the influence of dance on artists, art created by dancers, or artists’ capturing of dance. Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, writes in the exhibit introduction that the following works show “how artists and dancers have produced lines either as a gesture on a surface or as a movement in space.” The exhibit particularly focuses on work produced out of the influence of the Judson Dance Theater (1962-64) in downtown New York City, which stimulated the creation of anti-elitist, anti-establishment Postmodern dance emphasizing the incorporation of movements not traditionally considered “dance;” the absence of “emotional” expression; and the absence of conventional narrative.

Trisha Brown, "Untitled."

Trisha Brown, "Untitled," 2007. Charcoal, pastel on paper.

The exhibit first focuses on works that are impressions of gesture or bodies on paper, or that use the body as the drawing instrument itself–giving rise to the question asked by John Cage, “what is drawing?” Choreographer Trisha Brown creates large drawings by putting pieces of chalk or charcoal in between her toes, rubbing chalk on her feet and hands and smearing and pivoting across the surface of the paper (the curation calls these pieces “part self-portrait and part choreography”). The finished works imply rapid movement and circular, flowing gestures, but the live video of Brown shows that she is painstaking in her process.

In Butterfly Kisses (1996-99) and Loving Care (1992-96), Janine Antoni uses her body as a paintbrush–she coats paper with impressions of her mascara-coated eyelashes, and drags her ink-soaked hair along the floor of a gallery (taking Pollock’s “action painting” to the next level!). David Hammons created Body Print (1974) by making direct impressions of his face, clothing, and body on paper using grease.

Other artists in the exhibit focus on creating on an awareness of space that is somehow paralleled by or related to movement. Faith Wilding‘s Crocheted Environment, 1972/95, is a surreal, web-like space large enough for three people to stand in. The crocheted texture of the “walls” give the impression of a “drawing in air.” Drawing without Paper by Getrud Goldschmidt aka Gego (1984-7, enamel on wood and stainless steel wire) suggests the lines of an intricate drawing suspended in three dimensional space.

In addition to the themes of bodily gesture and space, a number of the artists in this exhibit engage with ideas of temporality: the temporariness of both dance and the artists’ creative process. I was particular intrigued by Daniel Ranalli’s Snail Drawings (1995-2011), in which Ranalli placed snails in spiral patterns on a beach and photographs the trails the snails produced in the sand as they crawled out of position. The photograph is all that’s left of this multi-process live event.

Bill T. Jones Body Painting with Keith Haring

Tseng Kwong Chi, "Bill T. Jones Body Painting with Keith Haring," 1983. Silver gelatin selenium-toned print.

The exhibit also includes works that capture or reflect dance and dancers (photography, videos, figurative portraits). Tseng Kweng Chi‘s photographs of dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, sporting neo-tribal body painting by street artist Keith Haring, is an especially striking record of a collaboration between three artists. I was also intrigued by choreographer William Forsythe’s Lectures from Improvisation Technologies, 2011, an instructional film and a record of Forsythe’s technique. The filmmaker animates Forsythe’s movements by drawing lines to clarify his gestures–once again, dance is interpreted as drawing in the air.

The exhibit was accompanied by a live in-gallery performance of Trisha Brown’s 20-minute The Floor of the Forest, 1970, a piece that challenges definitions of dance, or performance art. In the piece, two dancers moved across a metal structure hung with empty, oversized clothing on ropes. The dancers alternatively take on and take off the pieces, hanging suspended about two feet off the floor, in articles of clothing–often in uncomfortable, contorted positions.

An Introduction to Modern Dance

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2012 by Nell

After a prolonged period of delighting in the occasional film or performance of contemporary dance (especially the work of Mark Morris) while bemoaning my lack of knowledge of the broader context of dance in the 20th century, I’ve begun an intensive self-directed crash course in the history of Modern dance. I’ll be pursuing this study through the end of May, alongside the similarly dance-interested John Resig. Our explorations will be thoroughly documented on this blog.

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan

Step One in our curriculum: survey the territory. Last night we watched hour-long documentary film Dancing: The Individual and Tradition (1993, directed/produced by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer). The film is available streaming online to Boston Public Library card-holders through the Dance in Video online archive.

I’ve also begun reading No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick (Yale UP, 2003), which looks to be an elegant and succinct overview of important choreographers and evolutions in 20th century dance. I will continually reference this text in future posts.

Dancing: The Individual and Tradition is a compelling, fast-flying survey of major themes and developments in Modern dance from the turn of the century up to the ’90s, which alights occasionally to focus on some seminal choreographers. Choreographer Twyla Tharp is among the film’s guides through the history of dance (along with a number of scholars) and the film features extensive segments of rehearsal footage from Tharp’s studio.

The film begins with the idea that dance comes from a primal place that goes beyond culture or social context. Historically, dancers and choreographers were seen not as artists but as craftsmen–and only in the 20th century did the choreographer become prominent as an artist in their own right. Historical dance styles originated in church and court and they focused on tradition–confirming the “existing order.” Tharp tells us that in lieu of the external pressures and expectations of the patron or the church, the 20th century choreographer has to set their own boundaries and demands. The way of the modern choreographer is to create new boundaries, to push those boundaries, and to define and redefine rules. The film later states that for choreographers to create “a language of their own” was “the imperative of modern dance”: hence the highly individualized perspectives and distinct vocabularies of the artists to come.

The idea that dance could be a form of personal artistic expression was revolutionary in America at the turn of the 20th century. Dancers had an extremely low social status, as art dance hardly existed in America and dance was generally low-brow entertainment (dancers were exclusively female and perceived as practically equivalent to prostitutes [No Fixed Points, 2]).

According to The Individual and TraditionIsadora Duncan created the first modern dance language. (Notably, the film overlooks Loie Fuller, who was extremely groundbreaking but perhaps less influential on subsequent choreographers.) When Duncan took the stage, free movement and loose clothing were revolutionary political statements. Women were typically bound in highly structured, layered clothing and played limited, closely defined roles in society. Duncan’s dance style can be seen as an expression of the beginning of women’s liberation.

Choreographer Ruth St. Denis drew inspiration from the sensuousness and apparent exoticism of Eastern dance. Her work was highly popular and appeared in Hollywood films (e.g. D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance [1916]). By this time, the study of dance by young girls had rapidly become mainstream in America.

Martha Graham broke from the established dance style created by Duncan. Graham developed a “stringent” movement style that could be seen as equivalent to developments in cubism by Picasso. She came to prominence in the 1930s in New York City during a highly politicized, progressive time, and she saw herself as individualistic and alienated from the mainstream, as did many  avante garde visual artists at the time. Graham’s father, a psychiatrist influenced by Jung and Freud, told her that “movement never lies”: the source of her movements was her own subconscious. She found new, sculptural uses of the body, and the weight of the body against the floor was emphasized in her dancing and choreography rather than denied (as in ballet). Graham also responded to the tension between sensuality and the Puritan tradition. In general, her work spoke about “being a woman, a performer, and art as the most important thing in one’s life.”

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham

Modernism was all about “finding your own voice,” and Katherine Dunham looked to her African roots to create a dance identity. An anthropologist as well as dancer, she traveled to the Caribbean and used ideas from popular dance she witnessed there to create a “fusion dance form.” Her major contribution to Modern dance was the “articulated torso,” which was completely unlike the straight torso of ballet and European folk dance. She successfully brought what was considered primitive folk dance into classical Modern dance, where it could be called “art.”

George Balanchine brought Modern dance aesthetics into his ballets. Balanchine grew up in St. Petersberg at a time when Russia was the major center of ballet, and witnessed the innovations of Vaslav Nijinsky and Ballets Russes. He knew that “ballet was flexible, and could be expressive of different things,” and it was a vocabulary whose possibilities had not been exhausted. After moving to New York City, Balanchine responded to his modern, urban environment by using “syncopation and hard edges,” and he “let fall away some of the exaggerated gentility of Czarist ballet” while incorporating a modern wit. Balanchine’s dances were also a form of intensely personal expression.

In the 1960s, New York became the mecca of Modern dance in a time of “creative anarchy.” Merce Cunningham sought to “strip dance of meaning,” and pursued numerous collaborations with avante-garde collaborators artists such as composer John Cage, artist Robert Rauschenberg, et al. He used chance procedures and often choreographed pieces that lacked a direct connection to the music–rather than miming music, his dance “occupied the same space.” Many other Postmodern choreographers also abandoned music, and created works that were anti-elitist, anti-artifice, and created irrespective of an audience.

Dance had by then fully split into two camps: Modern (barefoot) and ballet (pointe shoes). Twyla Tharp, born out of the New York avante garde scene, saw the need to unify the dances to include all forms of movement. Late Postmodernism saw the merging of all languages and cultures, and artists such as Garth Fagan take an inclusive, synthesizing approach.

In my next post, I’ll review exhibit Dance/Draw at The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.