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modern dance

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.

German Contributions

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 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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