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modern dance

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.

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

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