modern dance, serious theatrical dance forms that are distinct from both ballet and the show dancing of the musical comedy or variety stage.
The Beginnings of Modern Dance
Developed in the 20th cent., primarily in the United States and Germany, modern dance resembles modern art and music in being experimental and iconoclastic. Modern dance began at the turn of the century; its pioneers were Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis in the United States, Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman in Germany. Each rebelled against the rigid formalism, artifice, and superficiality of classical academic ballet and against the banality of show dancing. Each sought to inspire audiences to a new awareness of inner or outer realities, a goal shared by all subsequent modern dancers.
Early Dancers in the United States
Isadora Duncan shocked or delighted audiences by baring her body and soul in what she called "free dance." Wearing only a simple tunic like the Greek vase figures that inspired many of her dances, she weaved and whirled in flowing natural movements that emanated, she said, from the solar plexus. She aimed to idealize abstractly the emotions induced by the music that was her motivating force, daringly chosen from the works of serious composers including Beethoven, Wagner, and Gluck. Although Duncan established schools and had many imitators, her improvisational technique was too personalized to be carried on by direct successors.
The work of the two other American pioneers was far less abstract although no less free. Loie Fuller used dance to imitate and illustrate natural phenomena: the flame, the flower, the butterfly. Experimenting with stage lighting and costume, she created illusionistic effects that remained unique in the history of dance theater until the works of Alwin Nikolais in the 1960s.
The pictorial effects achieved by Ruth St. Denis had a different source: the ritualistic dance of Asian religion. She relied on elaborate costumes and sinuous improvised movements to suggest the dances of India and Egypt and to evoke mystical feelings. With Ted Shawn, who became her partner and husband in 1914 and who advocated and embodied the vigor of the virile male on the dance stage, St. Denis enlarged her repertoire to include dances of Native Americans and other ethnic groups. In 1915 St. Denis and Shawn formed the Denishawn company, which increased the popularity of modern dance throughout the United States and abroad and nurtured the leaders of the second generation of modern dance: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.
Although often considered an American phenomenon, the evolution of modern dance can also be traced to central Europe and Germany, where the most influential was probably Rudolf von Laban. Although there is almost no documentation to describe his choreography, he founded (1910) a school in Munich at which Mary Wigman was one of his students. Exiled in the 1930s, he immigrated to England, where he established (1946) the Art of Movement Studio in Manchester and worked until his death on his system of notation. After studying with Laban, Wigman performed in Germany and opened her own school in Dresden (1920). She became the most influential German exponent of expressive movement and toured extensively. Although her school was closed by the Nazis, she reopened it in Berlin in 1948. Other important and more recent German dancer-choreographers include Kurt Joos and his student Pina Bausch.
The Second Generation in America
At the end of the 1920s those who rebelled against the art nouveau exoticism and commercialism of Denishawn devised their own choreography and launched their own companies. Their dances were based on new techniques developed as vehicles for the expression of human passions and universal social themes. Martha Graham found the breath pulse the primary source of dance; exaggerating the contractions and expansions of the torso and flexing of the spine caused by breathing, she devised a basis for movement that for her represented the human being's inner conflicts.
To Doris Humphrey, gravity was the source of the dynamic instability of movement; the arc between balance and imbalance of the moving human body, fall and recovery, represented one's conflicts with the surrounding world. Forsaking lyrical and imitative movement and all but the most austere costumes and simplest stage effects, Graham and Humphrey composed dances so stark, intellectual, and harshly dramatic as to shock and anger audiences accustomed to being pleased by graceful dancers.
Graham explored themes from Americana, Greek mythology, and the Old Testament; she viewed music merely as a frame for the dance. Humphrey experimented more with sound; in a 1924 work she discarded music altogether and performed in silence, and later she used nonmusical sound effects, including spoken texts and bursts of hysterical laughter. Her themes were social and often heroic in scale, e.g., the trilogy New Dance (1935), which treats human relationships. Charles Weidman's gestural mime of movements abstracted from everyday situations provided a different kind of social commentary—comic satire. Winning ardent devotees, the Graham and Humphrey-Weidman companies dominated modern dance for 20 years; the former continues as a major company today.
By the end of World War II, young choreographers had begun breaking the rules of the modern dance establishment—creating dances that had no theme, expressed no emotion, dispensed with the dance vocabulary of fall and recovery, contraction and release. Sybil Shearer's random fantasies, Katherine Litz's surrealistic vignettes, and Erick Hawkins's impressionistic soft rhythms changed the emphasis of choreography. They had no desire to uplift or inform.
Foremost of this third generation of modern dancers is Merce Cunningham, whose company bred avant-garde choreographers for more than 25 years. Cunningham freed dance from spatial restraints, eliminating strong central focus from choreographic patterns and devising dances that can be viewed from any angle. He also released dance from traditional musical constraints by using electronic music and other compositions of his musical director, John Cage. In addition, he liberated his own choreography from structural limitations by using techniques of chance, such as throws of the dice, to determine the order in which sections of a work should occur.
In 1957 Paul Taylor, a Cunningham and Graham veteran, presented an evening of minimal dance, which consisted of Taylor standing on the stage alone in street clothes and making only tiny changes in posture to the accompaniment of the recorded voice of a telephone operator announcing the time at 10-second intervals; outraged dance critics deliberately ignored the performance. His company ultimately became one of the most important of the post–World War II troupes. Another of the third generation, choreographer Alvin Ailey, who was influenced primarily by Lester Horton, combined elements of modern, jazz, and African dance in his work. The company he established 1958 has been internationally acclaimed and has brought recognition to many African-American and Asian dancers.
The social and artistic ferment of the 1960s provided fertile ground for even more radical departures into what later became known as postmodern dance. Twyla Tharp did away with any sound accompaniment that might distract the viewer's attention from the dance itself. She also took dance outside the theater, staging it in such spaces as the staircase of the Metropolitan Museum of New York City and New York's Central Park. Yvonne Rainer pioneered in the use of improvisations based on ordinary, nondance movements ranging from acrobatics, to military marching, to sports and games. Steve Paxton incorporated even more mundane actions into his dances (e.g., dressing and undressing) and went so far as to perform a duet with a chicken. Paxton, like other dancers and pop artists of the 1960s and 70s, was largely concerned with breaking down the barriers between dancers and audience, between art and life.
The Combining of Forms
By the late 20th cent., distinctions among modern dance, ballet, and show dancing were not as rigid as they once had been. Ballet technique and choreography have remained more formal than those of modern dance, but their themes and stage effects are often similar. Important modern dancers have been invited to perform with and create dances for ballet companies, and in 1990, Mikhail Baryshnikov joined with dancer-choreographer Mark Morris to form a new eclectic dance company. In addition, Paul Taylor performed with the New York City Ballet in a work created for him by George Balanchine, Taylor himself created dances for Rudolf Nureyev, and Tharp's dancers joined the Joffrey Ballet to perform her Deuce Coupe and As Time Goes By.
Since Agnes de Mille first introduced a dance sequence as an integral part of the plot development of Oklahoma! in 1942, dance has become more than just light entertainment during interludes in the action of Broadway musicals. Anna Sokolow, of the Graham company, brought her modern dance technique to the Broadway stage, as did Hanya Holm, choreographer of Kiss Me, Kate (1948) and My Fair Lady (1956). The dance style that has evolved in musicals usually combines elements of modern dance, modern ballet, and the jazz dance that is based on Afro-Caribbean dances.
See autobiographies by I. Duncan (1927, repr. 1972) and R. St. Denis (1939); biographies of individual dancers; J. Martin, The Book of the Dance (1963); S. J. Cohen, ed., The Modern Dance (1965); D. McDonagh, The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance (1970); M. Lloyd, The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance (1970); S. A. Kriegsman, Modern Dance in America (1981); S. Au, Ballet and Modern Dance (1988); N. Reynolds and M. McCormick, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (2003).