Archive for Modern dance

Alvin Ailey, “Revelations” (1960) performed April 28, 2012 [Review]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , on April 29, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

"I Been 'Buked" from Revelations

DANCE IN PROFILE: Alvin Ailey, Revelations (1960)

A complete performance of Revelations from 1986 is viewable on YouTube here (28 minutes into the video).

With Revelations, dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) revolutionized the role of African-Americans in Modern dance and created an enormously successful fusion of widely accessible style and themes and artistic quality. Revelations draws on black vernacular culture (derived from what Ailey called the “blood memories” of his childhood in Texas); spirituals, gospel, and blues music; and the precision and virtuosity of “heroic” Modern dance.

Revelations is the most widely-seen piece in the Modern dance repertoire (seen by over 23 million people, according to this page). The dance has been performed at multiple presidential inauguration galas and cited by Oprah Winfrey as something “every American” owes it to themselves to see. Mattel even produced a Revelations “Barbie” doll based on former Ailey Artistic Director Judith Jameson’s design! There is a wealth of information about this piece at the official Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater website.

“Rocka My Soul,” an exuberant group dance

I was fortunate enough to see Revelations performed live in Boston on April 28, 2012 by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company, founded by Ailey in 1958, continues to perform seminal works from Ailey’s repertory as well as the work of contemporary choreographers who continue in his spirit. Robert Battle was appointed Artistic Director of the company in 2011.

It is interesting to note that the original version of Revelations premiered in 1960 utilized six dancers and lasted over an hour, while the current version is performed with more than twice as many dancers and lasts about 40 minutes. Costumes and scenic lighting have also changed over time. The piece currently in performance certainly doesn’t seem dated, as the enormous enthusiasm of the Boston audience attested (which, incidentally, had a strong representation from every age group).

Revelations consists of three sections, each of which contain three or four numbers: first, “Pilgrim of Sorrow” alludes to the atmosphere of oppression in the south and a search for deliverance through spirituality; second, “Take Me to the Water” evokes baptism and a sense of hope and renewal; and third, “Move, Members, Move” consists of exuberant, high-energy numbers conveying church and community.

In addition to the personal love that the composer and his dancers clearly have for the material, the appeal of Revelations can be attributed in part to the combination of the excitement of the gospel music and beautifully composed group dances in numbers such as “Wade in the Water,” [view clip] “Sinner Man,” [view clip] and “You May Run On” [view clip]; the nuanced, controlled, and virtuosic expressions of yearning and aspiration seen in the duet “Fix Me, Jesus” [view clip] and solo “I Wanna Be Ready” [view clip]; and the structural clarity of the sequences of movements and the elegant, simple body shapes–both relaxed and clear–showcased in the opening number, “I Been ‘Buked” [view clip].

There were a number of stand-out moments in the April 28th performance. The delicate male solo “I Wanna Be Ready” [view a video from a 1986 performance] was performed with outstanding control and strength by Michael Francis McBride. The dancer uses the floor of the stage in surprising and captivating ways, alternately defying and giving in to gravity. The dancers propels himself off the floor while never leaving it: laying on the ground he suspends his hips off of the floor, then reaches his torso and legs outwards in a tight V-shape; he stands up, falls back to the floor, then glances back up at heaven. There is a clearly communicated sense of struggle combined with a representation of divinity and strength in the human form, which beautifully articulates the somewhat mournful solo vocal.

In “Wade in the Water,” [view clip] rhythmically propulsive music is paired with steady, determined movements in which the dancers flex and bend their torsos, leaning back and rolling their shoulders, creating a sense of barely contained energy simmering beneath the surface. Large blue cloths rippling along the floor suggest the river in which a baptism is taking place: a not-so-subtle yet effective device, which provides a clear sense a scene. The soaring leaps, spins, and plunges in the male trio “Sinner Man” [view clip] were thrilling, bringing to mind the athleticism of classical ballet.

Throughout, Ailey has the dancers clearly articulate the phrases, gestures, and forms of the music. The dancers are dancing to the musical score, not alongside or against it, and this mimicking of music brought to my mind the choreographed spirituals of Helen Tamiris. However, Ailey was able to achieve a far more substantial and cohesive expression of that music. The dancing in Revelations is both inevitable-seeming yet spontaneous; intuitive yet refined; stemming from personal impressions and experiences yet broadly accessible.

Related Posts:

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009): dancer, choreographer, and interdisciplinary collaborator

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , on April 1, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

While many dancer-choreographers of the second generation (such as Jose Limón) continued to develop the traditions and techniques pioneered by the “Big Four” (Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm), there were some who chose to break away from these ideals and establish new and unorthodox approaches to dance. Several of these young avante-garde choreographers—including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Alwin Nikolais—apprenticed and established their careers in the pioneering dance companies, but eventually struck out on their own to create works that challenged the audience’s expectations and asked the question: “What is art?”

Among the most influential of these radical second generation choreographers was Merce Cunningham. He is said to have single-handedly invented aesthetics and philosophies that set the scene for the postmodern choreographers who would follow him (especially the Judson Church group), as well as new forms of performance art and avante-garde art.

Merce Cunningham in 1973

Merce Cunningham in 1973

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

  • Renowned as one of the greatest and most influential choreographers of the 20th century, Cunningham was also an accomplished dancer. He appeared onstage into his 60s.
  • He choreographed a total of over 150 dances and 800 “Events”—performances well suited to unconventional spaces (gyms, armories, etc), which combined elements of dance, scenery, and lighting in unpredictable ways.
  • Cunningham is notable for having impacted artists outside of dance with his progressive approach and through his extensive interdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists (including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) and musicians (including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman). His collaborations produced an influential body of work in music and visual art as well as dance.
  • Cunningham was forward-thinking. Late in his career, he experimented with using a computer programs and motion-capture technology to create elements of his dances. Before he died in 2006 he created a “Legacy Plan” outlining how he would like his company to be run and left a thorough archive of digitized information, plans, and films preserving his work.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

  • Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, Cunningham began dancing professionally at 20 years old with the Martha Graham Dance Company after having studied with her at Mills College. He admired and learned from Graham, but wasn’t convinced by certain aspects of her work—particularly the idea that every movement in a dance had to have a “meaning.” He was interested in exploring the mechanics of movement and the possibilities of the art form detached from specific emotional and psychological connotations.
  • His first solo show came in 1944, and he formed the Merce Cunningham Company in 1953. He left the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1945 after having originated several important solo roles with her company (including the preacher in Appalachian Spring).
  • Cunningham based himself in New York amidst a hotbed of avante-garde art and thought, and made a living by performing solo dances and music with his partner composer John Cage around the country. At first, his work was not readily recognized by audiences and critics. From the late ‘50s, some of his works began to picked up by noted companies, including the New York City Ballet, and his company appeared in international venues.
  • By the late ‘60s, his work was no longer considered the cutting edge: the Judson Church group had begun pushing radical experimentation and the question of “what is art?” even further.
Cage and Cunningham

John Cage and Merce Cunningham

Cage and Cunningham

  • Cunningham’s most important ongoing collaboration was with his life partner, John Cage (whom he first met in his late teens, when Cage was playing accompaniment for dance classes in Seattle.) They began working together in 1942.
  • Together, Cage and Cunningham explored a radical new approach to the relationship between dance and music: dance and music co-existed within their pieces, but were not directly coordinated or matched in time and were created independently of each other. (In this interview with Cunningham and Cage from 1981, the two discuss their collaborative methods.)
  • They both used chance procedures in constructing their works—that is, they used unpredictable factors (rolling a dice, tossing coins, etc) to make decisions about certain events within a piece (e.g. sequences of movements).
  • Cunningham’s dances abandoned conventional elements of dance such as narrative, climax, or associations with things other than the movement itself. Similarly, Cage broadened the conception of music to include a wide range of non-instrumental sounds (and even silence itself) and did away with traditional concepts of harmony, melody, form, and instrumentation.
  • Zen Buddhism was one of Cage and Cunningham’s major influences (before there was popular interest in Zen amongst young people in America). They admired Zen’s discipline, ideas about silence and void, and escape from patterns of thought.
  • Their philosophy and approach to the creative process were also influenced by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text, and the German philosopher Nietzsche.
  • Both Cage and Cunningham wanted to create works in with the audience could become a part of experience—to leave elements of the dance or music open to the personal interpretation of the listener-viewer. Any number of different reactions to his dance were valid, as far as Cunningham was concerned.

Much of the above information is drawn from:

  • Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale UP, 2003: pp. 354-370. Print.
  • The official Merce Cunningham Dance Company website.

Recommended Viewing

  • Excerpted performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from the 2011 Legacy Tour on YouTube: Second Hand (197o) with music by John Cage and costumes by Jasper Johns. Roaratorio (1983) with music by Cage and decor by Mark Lancaster.
  • Changing Steps (1975) video version directed by Cunningham and Elliot Caplan: part 1 –  part 2
  • Mondays with Merce – a documentary TV show exploring Merce Cunningham’s work and guest choreographers.

ODC/Dance Downtown, March 22, 2012 [Review]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , on March 28, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

ODC Dance Company

ODC Dance Company

The second program on ODC’s Dance Downtown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco featured three works choreographed by the three Artistic Directors of the ODC. The San Francisco-based ODC Dance Company was founded in 1971 by Brenda Way, and is now among the leading professional Modern dance companies and training programs on the West Coast. The audience was perhaps the largest and most vocally enthusiastic I’ve seen at a Modern dance performance, testifying to ODC’s popularity within the community.

The program opened with a world premiere: “Cut-Out Guy” by KT Nelson, with an ambient electronic music score by Ben Frost that shifted between thick, driving textures and quiet canvases of sound. This piece featured only the male dancers of the company, clothed simply in shorts and white shirts with sparse backdrops of dark colors (lighting by Dave Robertson), and was inspired by the choreographer’s experiences watching male wrestling teams in her son’s middle and high school (according to her program note). The dance explored tensions between strength and vulnerability, determination and awkwardness, expression and frustration.

The piece featured each of the dancers in turn in a series of duets and solos, and seemed carefully custom-made for the individual styles of movement and body types in the group: at one point a small, agile dancer tucked himself into the frame of a taller dancer and climbed over the larger dancer’s body. A dancer with a balletic quality takes on broad, graceful movements.

A number of unusual kinds of movement were featured extensively in this piece. The predominant leitmotif of the dance: the dancers took courageous, determined leaps then crashed to the floor in a carefully cultivated recklessness (taking the “recovery” out of Doris Humphrey’s famous concept of “fall and recovery”!). Dancers also slid across the floor on slippered feet and sometimes on their knees, scrambling and shifting nervously. They embraced or fought with each other in ambiguous, impersonal moments of intimacy. Overall, the dancers did a wonderful job of living the choreography with strength, grace, and commitment.

“Cut-Out Guy” was the most overall compelling work of the evening, for me, though I felt a lack of  development over the course of the piece. Most of this relatively long dance offered elaborations rather than new discoveries, and based on a first viewing I came out of the piece with roughly the same impression as I had in the first several minutes.

Kimi Okado’s I Look Vacantly Over the Pacific… Though Regret (2011) explored one theme in three movements: lost in translation. The title comes from a Japanese pencil box, and the piece goes on to explore awkward misunderstandings between two cultures. The first movement explored language: the dancers performed word-for-word gestural interpretations of cliche English phrases (“beat around the bush,” “hung out to dry,” etc) from an ESL learning tape. The second movement was a manic interpretation of customary gestures of of greeting and insult. The third explored imported pop culture, with a Japanese interpretation of 1960s surf and psychedelic music as the high-energy score.

The subject was inherently compelling and the choreographer took many risks in making this humorous and bizarre piece. However, the piece fell flat for me: it was self-conscious and overwrought in its attempt to exude quirky satire, and the musical score—a combination of commissioned new music, found music, and speech recordings—felt more hokey than kitschy.

Part of a Longer Story (2006) by ODC’s founder Brenda Way, a dance to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in D, took a far more lyrical, neo-classical approach than either of the two preceding pieces. It reminded me in many ways of the works of Mark Morris (e.g. Mozart Dances or L’allegro) in that it took historical music as a starting point for creating delicate, charming dances that draw on diverse stylistic influences and are integrated with witty humor.

The relationship between the music and the movement on a micro level was clear in many parts of this dance: the dancers would often visually mimic the contour and gesture of the clarinet soloist’s line. But this didn’t come through on a macro level: the overall clarity of Mozart’s musical form and repetitions of musical phrases were generally not mirrored or responded to in the dance, so the structural clarity of both dance and music were obscured. Brenda Way made an entirely reasonable commitment not to be entirely tied down to the music’s phrase structure, but dancers’ shifts between mirroring and disregarding the music felt almost random.

The center of Part of a Longer Story is a gorgeous, emotionally intense love duet between two dancers—the middle slow movement. The dancers drag, carry, lift, attract, and repel against each other, evoking a myriad of emotional complexities, and the two dancers exuded clarity and intensity. I would have rather watched this without music altogether.

The use of humor in this piece generally lacked the organically infused wit that Mark Morris has often been able to pull off. When a dancer interrupts a sequence of lyrical solos to “shake their booty,” for instance, it lacks spontaneity or necessity. Humor in dance seems incredibly difficult to achieve gracefully, and I feel it has to come from a place that is genuine.

The evening featured masterful dancing by the company and distinctive and mature choreographic visions, but I left the venue craving some of the rigorous structural clarity of Martha Graham’s choreography in which every movement is carefully considered, every turn of the head or lift of the leg is expressive, and every dance is a closed world in which there is exactly as much or as little going on as there needs to be.

Jose Limón, “The Moor’s Pavane” (1949)

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , on March 27, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

DANCE IN PROFILE: Jose Limón, The Moor’s Pavane (1949)

Watch the full video of this piece, with the original dancers performing. [YouTube]

With The Moor’s Pavane, Jose Limón compressed Shakespeare’s Othello into a 21-minute, single-movement work featuring Limón himself as Othello along with his close collaborators Betty Jones (Desdemona), Lucas Hoving (Iago), and Pauline Koner (Emilia), with music by Baroque composer Henry Purcell as the score. The title and the style of dance allude to Renaissance court dance (Pavane).

Limón danced with Doris Humphrey‘s group for years before founding the Jose Limón Dance Company in 1946, with Humphrey as co-director, although he continued to be known as a dancer perhaps more than a choreographer because of his commanding onstage presence.

Limón’s dance method continued many of Humphrey’s principles of movement, including “fall and recovery” (see my post on Doris Humphrey) and a balance between weight and weightlessness. The characteristic movements of his dances, as seen in The Moor’s Pavane, follow the gravity of the limbs’ to their natural conclusion, with a combination of upwards movements emphasizing height (e.g. broad leg gestures) while the dancers maintain a grounded stability and a fairly static, upright torso. There is also often parallelism in the dancer’s limbs (arms moving in coordination with legs in opposing directions, for example in turns and circular movements) creating a graceful, broad, and clear effect lacking unresolved tensions.

In the introduction to the film of The Moor’s Pavane, Limón states that he seeks to tell the story of Othello through gesture. Accordingly, the structure of this dance is driven first and foremost by the narrative rather than by an abstract emotional concept or idea about movement itself. The gestures generally appear to focus on the relationships between the four characters, illuminated by their physical relationships and interactions with each other (aggression, tenderness, intimacy, suspicion). The dancers typically face each other, often making eye contact, rather than dancing outwards towards the audience. This format reminds me somewhat of classical ballets (e.g. Tchaikovsky classics), but here the story’s development is at a decidedly faster pace.

Clearly narrative gestures are fluidly interspersed with duets and quartets that bring Renaissance court dance to mind in their tight group coordination and graceful, statue-like poses. The broad skirts of the period costumes obscure much of the two female dancer’s lower-body movements, but by covering the dancer’s bodies in an unnatural way the costumes help to create character, drama, and historical stylistic allusion.

Limón’s dancing—as exemplified by The Moor’s Pavane—emphasized the depiction of emotions, literary inspirations, narrative, character, and is coordinated with music in a clear (but not irritatingly direct) way. It is interesting to contrast Limón’s direction with the path of Merce Cunningham, for example (only about 10 years Limón’s junior), who left the Martha Graham camp to establish a form of dance that broke away traditional concepts of narrative, emotional expression, and the relationship of dance to music in the way that his partner John Cage challenged traditional concepts of music.

Related Posts:

Related Links

Dance After the Heroic Age: The Second Generation

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags on March 27, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm, know as the “big four” choreographers of the ‘30s and ‘40s—as well as composer/critic Louis Horst—established training programs for dancers (often the dancers in their own companies, who would perform their work) in or before the mid-‘30s. They distilled and passed on a distinctive set of aesthetic frameworks and pedagogies connected to their personal styles.

Many of the young dancer-choreographers of the next generation were very much under the influence of these masters, and went on to continue or react against this inheritance in a variety of ways.

Some dancer-choreographers of the second generation, by contrast, chose to break away from many aspects of established dance conventions. Merce Cunningham was perhaps the most influential.

Dancers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds also began to come to the forefront, and choreographers such as Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham began to search for authentic African-American dance styles.

Here are just a few of the many notable choreographers of the second generation:

Lester Horton in his 1929 work "Pueblo Eagle Dance."

Lester Horton in his 1929 work "Pueblo Eagle Dance."

Choreographer: Anna Sokolow (1910-2000)
Background: Studied first with Horst at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in 1928, and joined Graham’s company in 1930. She quickly formed her own group, the Dance Unit.
Characteristics: She often explored social and economic issues in Modern America as seen from a Marxist standpoint. Satirical tone, tinged with bitterness. Feelings of aggression, despair, isolation. Took great inspiration from jazz and classical music.
Representative work(s): Rooms (1955). Archival rehearsal footage of a solo excerpt from this dance. [YouTube]

Choreographer: Jose Limón (1908-1972)
Background: Danced with Doris Humphrey’s group, who went on to direct the Jose Limón Company after she was unable to perform due to arthritis.
Characteristic themes and movement: Literary subjects, as well explorations of Latin heritage (Limón was Mexican-born), as well as social issues. Lyrical movement, commanding presence, power and charisma as a performer. Created a masculine dance vocabulary depicting noble “man of action” as a fresh alternative to stereotypes of male dancers in ballet.
Representative work(s): The Moor’s Pavane (1949). Full video with the original dancers performing, including Limon. [YouTube]

Choreographer: Lester Horton (1906-1953)
Background: Established his company in Los Angeles, rather than New York. Alvin Ailey and Joyce Trisler were among his pupils.
Characteristic themes and movement: Influences from “exotic” cultures: American Indians, Aztecs, Haitains, and Africans. Created highly theatrical dances he called “choreodrama,” ranging in quality. Company was notable for interracial members at a time when dance groups were still predominantly segregated.
Representative work(s): Salome (1934). No video available.

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham

Choreographer: Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)
Background: Mixture of training in ballet and interpretive dance. First became active in Chicago. Researched dance in the West Indies (1936-7) as an anthropology student at University of Chicago.
Characteristic themes and movement: Lush, colorful dance numbers inspired by the styles she observed in Haiti and Martinique, as well as styles from Cuba, Mexico, and early African-American dance. Her works were acessible and popular on Broadway and in film.
Representative work(s): Clip from film Stormy Weather (1943), with Lena Horn. [YouTube]

A few dancers of note I haven’t delved into here:

  • Jane Dudley
  • Mary O’Donnell
  • Jean Erdman
  • Pearl Lang
  • Eleanor King
  • Sybil Shearer
  • Esther Junger
  • Valerie Bettis
  • Daniel Nagrin (Helen Tamiris’ partner and husband)
  • Pearl Primus

Most of the above information is drawn from:

Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale UP, 2003.

Related Posts:

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, February 17, 2012 [Review]

Posted in Dance, Modern, Reviews with tags , , on February 21, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

I had the pleasure of seeing Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the national ballet company of Monaco, perform a program of two long works, Altro Canto and Opus 40, at the Joyce Theater in New York City. Both works were created by the company’s director since the early 1990s, Jean-Christophe Maillot.

Maillot’s vocabulary is far from traditional ballet (although slippers and pointe shoes were worn by the dancers), and the dancers moved in ways that are highly unconventional: they dragged each other around the stage by the wrists, they stepped on each others backs, their limbs were sometimes extremely fluid or limp (creating an impression of passivity), and they often made extreme concave or convex shapes with their torsos (bringing to mind the contraction and release technique of Martha Graham). The movements were also often acrobatic in nature: in Altro Canto, the lead female dancer was off of the ground for several minutes, being lifted by and diving into groups forward and backward like a highly controlled crowd-surfer (one of my favorite sequences). All of this was pursued in a highly graceful manner, however, and was far from raw or violent (unlike the movement of choreographer Pina Bausch, whose work I watched just two days after this performance).

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performing "Opus 40"

While I found this to be a compelling evening of dance that explored a range of movements and feelings in a way that felt original and sometimes unexpected, the pieces seemed to lack a cohesive structural flow. Strings of movements at times felt arbitrarily varied, and I found it difficult to detect a clear direction or an internal formal logic from moment-to-moment. At the end of a piece, I felt that I hadn’t been taken on a journey but rather spent time wandering between different facets of one place. There was a clear structural device in Opus 40: at the end of every music/dance segment, the dancers of the next segment—typically costumed in a different color scheme—would wander onto the stage, interrupting the ending of the current segment before the transition of focus occurred.

Altro Canto utilized a score of excerpted segments of Baroque music (recorded—no live music here), especially sacred music by Monteverdi, and sought to respond to the atmosphere of the music in a number of ways. Echoes often occur in the music—a solo violin line is repeated by an offstage violinist—and this was at times referred to onstage, with a duo of lead dancers downstage and and an echoing set of dancers upstage. Two singers would also sometimes be represented by two dancers, for example.

"Altro Canto"

In "Altro Canto," the minimal golden lighting was intended to evoke candlelight (Maillot explained in the program that he associated candlelight with sacred music performed in cathedrals).

Generally, I felt that the dance was not always connected to or subordinated by the spirit of the music but it utilized the music when it pleased. The mood and vocabulary of the dancing did not change drastically in Opus 40, a selection of music by the avante-garde composer/vocalist Meredith Monk—stylistically extremely different from Baroque sacred music—so the dance’s connection to the music seemed to have more to do with pacing and phrasing than style.

The costuming played a large part on the visual impact of the pieces: in Altro Canto, half of both the men and women wore corsets and pants, and the other half wore tank tops and extremely poofy skirts—all gold-colored. The gender ambiguity of the costuming was intended to evoke the duality of masculine/feminine identity.

In Opus 40, the dancers were clothed in bright colors. Maillot’s program note refers to the piece as a return to childhood. While this aspect of the piece didn’t resonate with me, as the piece felt very adult and introspective, the color scheme was an effective allusion to playfulness and purity in simplicity.

The Heroic Age of Modern Dance

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , on February 13, 2012 by Nell
Martha Graham demonstrates for her students at the Bennington Festival in the 1930s

Martha Graham demonstrates for her students at the Bennington Festival in the 1930s

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

The period from about 1926-1942 is considered to be the golden era of dance in America. It was at this time the foundations of Modern dance were formulated and established and a vibrant canon of dance styles evolved.

Influenced by the new approaches to dance popularized by Denishawn, and ideas filtering in from the German Ausdruckstanz (“Expressionist dance”) movement, a few individuals—dancer/choreographers, as well as people who advocated and popularized their work—forged a repertory and methodology of dance that would be recognized as artistically legitimate by an enlightened public.

These “heroes” developed approaches to dance that would influence (and be reacted against by) the following generations to this day.

Some Notable Individuals:

  • Dance critic John Martin wrote for the New York Times from 1927 to 1962, and was instrumental in cultivating public appreciation of dance and developing a vocabulary for analyzing dance. He was especially crucial to the career of Martha Graham. His books include The Modern Dance.
  • Martha Graham is perhaps the most famous of all dancer-choreographers. For more, see my post on her 1935 dance Frontier.
  • Charles Weidman was Humphrey’s creative partner and one the first notable male dancers after Shawn. His choreography and dancing style was highly theatrical and at times comedic, containing elements of pantomime—a complementary contrast to Humphrey’s serious, abstract style. Some of his works dealt with social and political themes in metaphorical, generalized ways. In the 1950s, after the dissolution of the Humphrey-Weidman company, he choreographer for opera and broadway and remained active until 1975. Most of his works have not survived. [Watch a clip of a dance by Weidman on youTube.]
  • Helen Tamiris photographed by Man Ray

    Helen Tamiris photographed by Man Ray

    Helen Tamiris, trained in ballet, created dances that explored social issues and was among the first dancers to integrate influences from jazz and African-American culture, creating a suite of dances to Negro spirituals. She also choreographed for Broadway musical theatre. An energetic advocate of dance, founded the Dance Repertory Theatre and was key in establishing the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Dance Project, a government-funded effort to stimulate the creation of dance during the Great Depression. Tamiris believed in creating dance that would be relevant and politically motivating for the working class of America. [Watch a short clip of Tamiris dancing on DanceMedia.]

  • Mary Wigman was a German dancer of the Ausdrucktanz school whose ideas influenced American dancers, especially Martha Graham (generally indirectly, through writings). [Watch a clip on YouTube about Mary Wigman, with a clip of her iconic “Witch Dance”.] She established a dance school in New York, and selected Hanya Holm as the director. Holm was dancer/choreographer and a particularly influential teacher who cultivated technical mastery and individuality in her students. Her works represented a blend of her native German dance style, which she described as focused on personal emotional experience, and the American aesthetic, which she described as concerned with objective experiences and society. [Watch a short clip of a dance by Hanya Holm on YouTube.]

Some Important Places and Institutions:

  • Denishawn (founded 1915) was a precursor to the heroic age of dance. It was a dance company and training ground for young dancers founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. It became enormously commercially successful and was one of the most popular dance companies to have existed in America to date. Denis and Shawn created works somewhere in between commercial vaudeville-derived dance and concert dance (what we now think of as “Modern” dance). Denishawn created dances inspired by “exotic” cultures [Watch an “Indian” dance by St. Denis on YouTube], Americana dances, and “musical visualizations.”
  • Bennington Festival (1934-42) at Bennington College in Vermont. Graham, Humphrey, Weidman, and Holm taught dance students, and developed and performed new works. Followed by a similar program at Connecticut College, which has become the American Dance Festival at Duke University in North Carolina.
  • Dance Repertory Theatre was a New York City cooperative created by Helen Tamiris for dance companies present their works collaboratively. Graham and Humphrey-Weidman participated in the 1930s.

My main sources for this post are:

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.

Related Posts:

Doris Humphrey (1895-1958): dancer, choreographer, and dance theorist

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , on February 13, 2012 by Nell
Doris Humphrey

Doris Humphrey

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

  • Doris Humphrey was notable for her carefully conceived and wholly original method and theory of dance, and her works were founded on both artistic philosophies and practical principles. The Art of Making Dances, a book Humphrey penned in the last years of her life, elucidates her theories of choreography.
  • Humphrey was primarily interested in rigorously exploring the expressive power that movement alone is capable of, rather than utilizing dance as a theatrical medium (although she did create narrative works). She was among the first choreographers to create dances without musical accompaniment. She also created works incorporating non-musical sounds and speech.
  • Her method of movement was rooted in the concept of fall and recovery: the use of gravity, and the articulation of accents and rhythms within organic movements. This was complementary to—but distinct from—Martha Graham‘s movement style based on contraction and release and the use of breath.
  • Like Martha Graham and Charles Weidman, Humphrey got her start dancing with Denishawn. Due to philosophical differences with Denishawn, she left in 1926 along with Weidman and dancer/pianist/costume designer/manager Pauline Lawrence. They then formed the Humphrey-Weidman dance company in New York City.
  • Humphrey stopped dancing in 1944, due to arthritis in her hip. She taught and choreographed works for the Jose Limon Dance Company for years after. Jose Limon had been a member of Humphrey’s company and he became recognized as a dancer-choreographer in his own right.

Some characteristic works:

  • Water Study (1928), a dance for a group—without a musical score—featured undulating, organic movements developed from the pulse of the dancers’ breathing. [Watch a reconstruction of this piece on YouTube]
  • The Shakers (1931) is perhaps Humphrey’s most enduring work.
  • New Dance trilogy (1936) completed at the Bennington Festival (three dances: Theatre PieceWith My Red Fires, and New Dance). This was of the first long Modern dances—about 3 hours in total—and considered by leading critics to be the greatest dance of its time.
  • Passacaglia (1938), a “music visualization” for 25 dancers (in the tradition of Denishawn’s music visualization works) to the music of Bach.

Related Posts:

I consulted these sources in researching Humphrey’s work:

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.

Modern Dance in America [GUIDE]

Posted in Dance, Guides, Modern with tags on February 12, 2012 by Nell

 Modern Dance in America is an evolving overview of some of the most important and influential choreographers/dancers, works, and movements in the history of Modern dance in America from the turn of the 20th century up to the present.


Pioneers: Americans in Europe

The Heroic Age of Modern Dance

The Second Generation

Performance Reviews

Related Topics

Martha Graham, “Frontier” (1935)

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , on February 7, 2012 by Nell
Graham performing in "Frontier"

Graham performing in "Frontier"

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

DANCE IN PROFILE: Martha Graham, Frontier (1935)

Watch the video on YouTube with an introduction by Martha Graham. (Performance filmed 1976. Danced by Janet Eilber.)

Choreography and costume design by Martha Graham.
Music by Louis Horst.
Set design by Isamu Noguchi.

Frontier is a relatively early work by Martha Graham, created less than a decade after she began dancing on her own after leaving the Denishawn School, where she danced under the instruction of Ted Shawn. During this early period (roughly 1926-1938) she focused on creating solo dances for herself to perform, before developing the theatrical group dances of the 1940s that would define her later career and secure her popularity (such as Night Journey, which depicts a scene from Oedipus Rex, and Appalachian Spring, which depicts an original story of a pioneering husband and bride.)

This beautiful dance embodies some of the major themes and creative methods developed in her early works that would continue to factor into work for years to come, including:

  • Close collaborations with designers and composers to develop a cohesive atmosphere. Graham worked with sculptor Isamu Noguchi and composer Louis Horst on Frontier. They were both important ongoing collaborators for her (particularly Horst, who was her teacher, advocate, lover, and collaborator for many years). It has been said that in her collaborations, Graham was always the director. In this context, she believed the other art forms should ultimately serve the vision of the dance.
  • Exploration of national identity through the eyes of archetypal characters from history. In this dance, a pioneer woman surveys a vast Western landscape (suggested by the sparseness and broadness of Noguchi’s minimalist set). The dancer is a representation of Western expansion: Americans’ progress into the unknown and their hunger for space. As always, Graham imbues this generic woman with a remarkably intimate emotional expression and individual identity. This piece foreshadows the Pennsylvanian pioneers of Appalachian Spring (1944).
  • The use of costume to evoke a setting, to imply a character, and to complement the dance vocabulary. In Frontier, the dancer wears the long-skirted dress closely identified with Graham’s costume designs (she always designed the costumes for her own works). In this case, the dress also refers to the style of dress of 19th century pioneer women. The light pink hue—colors were carefully considered by Graham—suggests optimism and freshness.

In Graham’s method, the contraction and release of the torso (a motion organically derived from the act of breathing) is the center from which all of her sweeping, expressive movements extend. The dress accentuates the movements of the dancer, particularly by elongating the motion of her limbs.

  • The use of the floor as a plane for expressive movement. Graham was intentionally anti-ballet and anti-establishment, and one of the many ways in which she radically broke from ballet aesthetics was the use—rather than the denial—of gravity. (In this, she was apparently influenced by some avante garde German dance.) She often danced while sitting, or fell gracefully onto the ground.

Check out this quotation from Graham’s autobiography Blood Memory:

The designs that Isamu brought to Frontier came from our discussion of the hold the frontier had always had on me as an American, as a symbol of a journey into the unknown. Traveling to California by train, the endless tracks were to me a reiteration of that frontier.
When at last I asked Isamu for an image of them in my dance, he brought to me the tracks, as endless ropes into the future.
I had the idea of Frontier in my mind as a frontier of exploration. a frontier of discovery, and not one of limitation.(…) It makes me triumphant to think that nothing lasts but the spirit of man and the union of man. People cross the border from East to West to shake the hands of those they have not seen before. In a way, they have become each others’ frontier.

Here are images of Graham performing this piece in 1935:

I consulted these sources in researching Graham’s work:

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.