Dance History: An Introduction

By Janet Adshead-Lansdale; June Layson | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

Expression and expressionism in American modern dance

Deborah Jowitt

The visual arts and, even more so, music have the ability to express only the nature of the medium: the interplay of colour, surface, and shape, or of tone, rhythm, texture, and harmony. They do not, of course, always do so. When a vogue for figurative painting supersedes abstraction, or when thickly laid-on whorls and splatters of paint bespeak muscular application and suggest emotional states, the art critics can allude confidently to ‘expression’, and everyone understands what they are talking about. When the New York Philharmonic presented its ‘Horizons ’83’ concerts, a catalogue and four symposia examined the issues implicit in the festival’s subtitle: ‘Since 1968, a New Romanticism?’ To perceive the swing away from the intellectuality of twelve-tone music towards what the Philharmonic’s then composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman called ‘acoustic sensuality’ (in the work of Luciano Berio, George Crumb and others) did not require highly trained ears.

As I hope this chapter will make clear, the human body, guided by its intellect and spirit, can never be a neutral artistic medium. It is never inexpressive. It is not, in fact, an ‘it’ but the physical manifestation of a gendered and unique person. When we speak of expression in dance, we are often speaking of fictions, of the dancer expressing emotions that she or he is not, at the moment, in the grip of; of the dancer assuming a character or role that is not her or his own in terms of the performance taking place; of a gesture being emphasized in such a way as to convey a specific meaning beyond its own expressive actuality: an arm raised, say, to point at a destination, rather than simply to lift (with all that that may communicate to the viewer).

In 1965, the Village Voice’s dance critic, Jill Johnston, chastised choreographer Kenneth King for ‘applying vanguard tactics to a moribund expressionism’ (Johnston 1965: 8). Johnston’s ‘expressionism’ in this case referred to mainstream modern dance, the work of reigning monarchs Martha Graham and José Limón and their followers, which emphasized dramatic scenarios and movement rooted in emotional gesture. Also, like writers today who loosely apply ‘expressionism’ and, more frequently, ‘expressionistic’, to dance, Johnston may have meant that the work in question trafficked in those fictions and emotional colorations mentioned above.

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