Seventy years of modern dance.
Isadora Duncan died in 1927 (four months after Dance Magazine's debut issue). The obituary in the October American Dancer acknowledged her originality and inspiration, for the first matriarch of modern dance had reflected and anticipated attitudes about nature and the natural body, about women and artistry, and about politics and social change. Her dancing -- a personal vocabulary of movement developed to express her individuality -- initiated a century of intellectual and artistic discussion focused on the body and its capacity for much more than brilliant rhythmic and spatial design. Duncan centered the dancing artist firmly in the turnoil of his or her time, politically and intellectually. The best choreographers who followed her responded with aesthetic vitality and imagination to ideas that touched their very lives.
It was also around 1927 that Martha Graham opened the doors to her first school in New York City. The Great Depression followed closely. Graham's contemporaries built on Duncan's legacy and the training many had gained from years in the Denishawn company, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Duncan had challenged prevailing opinion when she chose to dance to revered nineteenth-century symphonic music. In the 1930s musical choices ranged from poetry, folk songs, and ballads to compositions by Scriabin, Bartok, and Copland. While Duncan, in some blatantly racist essays, had disdained the influence of African culture on American dance and music in the 1920s, and Shawn and St. Denis were accused of anti-Semitism in the latter years of Denishawn, the choreographers who followed them embraced ways of moving and sounds that reflected the multiplicity of cultures and experiences of their homelands. Their dances revealed the reality as well as the mythology of America. Hemsley Winfield, Edna Guy, and Helen Tamiris were among the many who found inspiration dancing to spirituals, while Graham's Frontier (1935) and Charles Weidman's American Saga (1936) explored other aspects of the American experience.
Some choreographers were more forceful than others in aligning modem dance with the political and social concerns that rocked the decade of the thirties. But all looked issues of labor, fascism, and racism squarely in the face and explored related themes heroically in works like Jane Dudley's Harmonica Breakdown (1940), Doris Humphrey's With My Red Fires (1936), and Lester Horton's The Mine (1935).
By the forties, Graham was exploring the psychological issues that entranced her generation by using themes from Greek mythology as paradigms of contemporary neuroses, as in Night Journey (1947). Having researched dances from Africa and the Caribbean, Katherine Dunham brought their extraordinary diversity to audiences through works like Rites de Passage (1941). Classes in Dunham's school familiarized students with these unique styles. Unlike the movies and ballet, which mirrored the segregation of American society, modern dance welcomed dancers and choreographers without regard to race. In the 1950s, Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle choreographed dances that reflected African American culture using their rich musical tradition: the former's Revelations (1960) revealed the community's deep spirituality, the latter's Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1959) the injustices suffered. The civil rights movement was at hand. In Rooms (1955), Anna Sokolow used a jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins to underline her unblinking scrutiny of urban alienation in the midst of postwar materialism.
But in the late fifties and sixties a generation of choreographers and dancers arose that was less concerned with relating dance to political, psychological, or sociological events. For Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, and Erick Hawkins, art was an end in itself. Dance for dance's sake! Influenced by contemporary interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, by cutting-edge discoveries in physics and biology, and by the works of their contemporary visual artists, they placed the dancer in a less ego-centered, less dramatically fraught environment.
In the multifaceted world of Nikolais's electronic sound scores and elaborate decors, as in Tent (1968), the dancer is but one participant. Hawkins strove for natural simplicity in dances such as 8 Clear Places (1960), which was inspired by haiku. Cunningham made his philosophy clear when he said that he presented dance -- he did not represent anything. Influenced by composer John Cage, Cunningham abandoned the traditional collaborative process among choreographer, composer, and designer. In dances such as Field Dances (1963), with music by Cage, and Rainforest I (1968), with music by David Tudor and decor by Andy Warhol, he allowed set, sound, and dance to come together in performance and to coexist rather than to influence each other. He liberated his dancers from hierarchical symmetrical patterns, allowing the audience the choice of where and at whom to look. The possibilities for choreographic invention appeared as limitless as outer space, which NASA began to explore with the moon landing in July 1969.
During this period modem dancers began to attend college before embarking on a professional career. A simultaneous study of their art along with other subjects provided a rich humanistic context for their subsequent work. The career of Paul Taylor is as exemplary as his work is unique. An art major at Syracuse University with an extracurricular interest in swimming, Taylor went on to the American Dance Festival, Juilliard, and the Martha Graham Company before beginning so do his own work in the midsixties. Since that time, his widely varied dances have drawn upon American feats and follies -- our high art as well as our popular and our technological culture -- with astounding originality, depth, and humor. Who else would have created Company B (1991), set to classic Andrews Sisters recordings, and seamlessly combined the darkness and the glow of wartime U.S.A.?
By the mid-sixties, the linear progression of modern dance had fragmented like a split atom. Emerging choreographers -- by challenging their mentors and their theories, their techniques, and their very venues -- reflected a society tom by assassinations and war, where the young and disenfranchised questioned the values of the powerful. The dances they constructed tumbled off the proscenium stage into plazas and parks. Judson Memorial Church on New York City's Washington Square Park stood as a hothouse for avant-garde dance that, when it referred to political events, looked nothing like its thirties predecessor. Dancers skipped and ran, crawled or stood still, with clothes on or off. In Trisha Brown's memorable piece Walking on the Wall (1971), they were literally doing just that.
Everybody could dance and everybody did. Contact improvisation enjoyed tremendous popularity among young dancers who, eager for a sense of community rather than competition in dance, found it in the social and physical spontaneity of this form. Also in the early seventies, Twyla Tharp tuned into the legacies of American jazz and popular music, absorbing and transmitting the loose-limbed ease of social dance forms and attitudes from the club floor to dances like Eight Jelly Rolls (1971) that were architecturally complex but deliciously enjoyable. Irreverance defined the generation, and it changed the nature of both American society and American modern dance.
Coincidentally, the government was noticing that American art was vital. It had a history and a future. Dance was at its core. The establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 meant that by the seventies new and not-so-old companies were touring the country, performing and teaching, exposing eager audiences to modern dance. The artistic bounty of the preceding decades, which had developed primarily on the two coasts, was to be shared throughout the country.
Enlivened cultural debates on feminism and racism informed the choreography of the late seventies and eighties with a new humanism, while the iconoclastic methods of the sixties were integrated into the working process. Meredith Monk's Quarry. (1976) united music, dance, and text in a startlingly inventive and poignant child's-eye view of the Holocaust. Unlike the agitprop choreographers of the 1930s. many in the eighties, such as Garth Fagan and Susan Marshall, created new forms for making dances with a message. At the same time, the passion for aerobics and fitness was echoed in the combative athleticism of technically superlative dancers that mirrored society's blatant approval of brash competitiveness. Marshall's Contenders (1990) posited athletic competition as a metaphor for life and love, while Paul Taylor's Last Look (1985) cast a jaundiced eye on a self-hating society whose whiplashing frenzy depicted it at the point of self-destruction.
Mark Morris, in dances which veered from the whimsical to the passionate, allowed that petit men could dance on pointe in The Hard Nut (1991) and that solid women, whose strength echoed that of those thirties dancers, could lift men. Morris also found inspiration, as Duncan had, in the enormous body of music from past centuries, and he drew on Purcell, Haydn, and Handel, as well as on contemporary concert and popular music. His irreverent, often black humor, which bared a variety of human foibles, built upon a tradition of kinetic wit begun by Charles Weidman, and continued in the work of Katherine Litz, Paul Taylor, and Jamie Cunningham.
Reality struck hard as the eighties progressed. The government retreated dramatically from its financial support of the arts. Money dried up. Worse than that, the plague -- AIDS -- destroyed choreographers, dancers, teachers, and composers; lighting, costume, and set designers; press reps and publicity agents; massage therapists and chiropractors; friends and lovers. The most valuable resource of the community, its artists, fell victim.
For Anna Halprin, who had trained with the choreographers of the thirties, dance was not about performance but about ritual. Creating activities that focused on interaction among people, she had since the sixties addressed issues of war, the environment, racism, and illness in her extended activities. In the nineties, she and other modern dance choreographers are responding to sickness, grief, loss, hope, and fear in dances such as Neil Greenberg's Not-about-AIDS-Dance (1994) and Bill T. Jones's Still/Here (1995).
As modern dance progressed through the decades, the wonder has been that with each new generation, the previous influences and processes have not been lost but have metamorphosed through the artistry of a younger generation. Refreshed by its awareness of its political and social context, modern dance constantly renews itself. What would Duncan say if she could see modem dance seventy years after her death?
Rose Anne Thom is a New York City critic for Dance Magazine and a member of the dance faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.
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|Title Annotation:||70th Anniversary Issue|
|Author:||Thom, Rose Anne|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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