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BRIEF HISTORY OF MODERN DANCE By Wendy Oliver. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co. Early Modern Dance. Modern dance in the US started about the turn of the 20 th c. as a revolt against ballet and “show” dance, or vaudeville.

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By Wendy Oliver

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co..

early modern dance
Early Modern Dance
  • Modern dance in the US started about the turn of the 20th c. as a revolt against ballet and “show” dance, or vaudeville.
  • It is uniquely American, although a similar, parallel movement evolved in Germany.
  • Modern dance is based on the idea of free artistic expression for the individual

Isadora Duncan

differences between ballet and modern dance movement
Ballet conceived on grand scale, with opera house in mind

Strives to defy gravity

Looks to European aristocracy for its traditions

All ballet movement starts and ends with the 5 positions

Focus on arms and legs

Modern dance usually designed for smaller spaces

May give into gravity or defy it

Looks within the individual

Modern dance may use ballet positions but has as many additional positions as needed by choreographer

Focus on torso

Differences Between Ballet and Modern Dance: Movement
more differences
Subject matter of ballet typically draws on European fairy tales

Ballet tends to be about “make believe” situations

Ballet companies structured as hierarchy: corps de ballet, coryphees, soloists, principals

Ballet companies tend to perform choreography by many different people, and are named after their location (ie. Boston Ballet)

Modern dance draws on non-European themes, sometimes American or Greek

Modern dance may deal with social concerns of time

Modern dance companies usually smaller; usually all dancers serve as soloists

Modern companies often perform mainly work of the director, after whom the company is named (i.e.Trisha Brown Co.)

More Differences
forerunners of modern dance
Forerunners of Modern Dance
  • In the early 1900’s, modern dance was spearheaded by Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Maude Allan, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn.
  • These artists all began performing in the popular theatres of the day, but were drawn to making more serious work.
  • They emphasized creative use of lights, costumes, and décor.
isadora duncan
Isadora Duncan
  • The most famous of these was Isadora Duncan, who had a huge impact on dance and society
  • Was an early feminist; believed marriage was too restrictive
  • Thought dance should be inspired by nature, and also looked to ancient Greece
  • Thought dance was an expression of the spirit
  • Danced barefoot in simple tunics without a corset, with bare legs
  • Felt ballet was artificial
  • Had a dramatic personal life

Loie Fuller was known for her lighting effects; she

used colored lights on voluminous silk costumes. She

invented new lighting equipment and traveled with

many technicians. Her style, with its natural forms,

wavy lines, and curlicues, influenced Art Nouveau,

Ruth St. Denis was inspired by the

Orient. She managed to be both

spiritual and financially successful, touring the US and the world.

Ted Shawn was St. Denis’ dance

partner and husband. Together, they

created a famous school in Los Angeles called

Denishawn, where hundreds of young dancers

were trained.

the founders
Just as the Forerunners revolted against ballet & vaudeville, the Founders rebelled against the Forerunners in 1920s & 30s.

Some of them studied at Denishawn, and found the dance too commercial.

They wanted to establish the freedom and independence of modern dance.

They called it “modern dance” to distinguish it from expressionist dance and ballet.

The dance was severe rather than pretty, and emphasized integrity over commercial success.

The Founders

Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring

martha graham
Martha Graham
  • Martha Graham studied at Denishawn 1916-1923
  • Founded her own school in NY in 1927
  • Created a technique based on contraction and release
  • Style stressed angularity & extreme muscle tension to show passion
  • Known for creating works with psychological themes, exploring inner emotions
  • Many of her works based on Greek themes, such as Clytemnestra, and Errand into the Maze
doris humphrey
Doris Humphrey
  • Went to Denishawn in 1915; left in 1928 to create her own company
  • Like Graham, felt Denishawn technique was artificial; wanted a more serious dance form
  • Created a technique based on fall and recovery
  • Wrote the classic text on choreography, The Art of Making Dances, in 1959.
the post war generation
The Post-War Generation

After WWII, in the late 1940s, modern dance came into its own. Dancers were less concerned with rebelling and more interested in building on current trends. Modern dance became established in higher education, and became more accepting of ballet. Black artists began to be recognized.

Alvin Ailey Co.

alvin ailey
Alvin Ailey
  • Ailey created an all-Black dance company in the late 1950s; it became integrated in 1962.
  • He wanted to create opportunities for African-Am. to perform concert dance.
  • His style blends elements of modern, ballet, jazz, and African, and stresses Black themes.
  • Despite his death in 1989, his company and school are still going strong and his work is known around the world.
  • His signature work, Revelations, is based on spirituals and the African American experience


merce cunningham
  • Unlike others of the postwar era, Cunningham was a rebel.
  • Although he performed with Graham in his youth, he formed his own company in the 1950s, where he invented a new choreographic style.
  • He believes that dance does not need a story; the subject of dance should be the dance itself.
  • Contrary to Graham’s approach, he does not use characters or emotion; dance, music, and décor operate independently
  • Uses chance operations to determine order of movements.
judson dance theatre
Judson Dance Theatre
  • A group of artists who followed Cunningham’s path to create a “dance revolution” in the 1960s
  • The Judson Church in NYC supported political causes & the arts, and was the main performing venue for this group
  • The performance could happen anywhere in the church—sanctuary, choir loft, gymnasium, meeting room; performances were free
  • Spirit of freedom and creativity: what is art?
  • Non-traditional audiences
  • Dancers were sometimes untrained;
  • performed pedestrian movements
  • Blended theatre, film, and dance
yvonne rainer
Yvonne Rainer
  • Rainer believed that any movement could be dance, and that anyone could be a dancer
  • Her famous Trio A is a series of quirky movements performed without emotional overtones. No dramatic accents are used; all movements flowed from one to the next without pause.
  • Trio A has been performed as a solo, trio, or large group piece, by people of various shapes and sizes, in varying physical conditions.
  • This was the beginning of post-modern dance
trisha brown
Trisha Brown
  • A post-modern choreographer concerned with form
  • Very systematic and design-oriented
  • She invented the accumulation technique
  • One of her dances from the 1970s, Group Primary Accumulation, had 4 dancers lying on their backs, each on a separate raft on a lake. Each dancer accumulates 30 movements in 8 minutes, rotating 45 degrees each on last 2 movements, until the dancer has rotated 360 degrees.
  • Her newer work
  • uses more traditional
  • theatre settings, but
  • still “formalist”
modern dance since the 1980s
Modern Dance since the 1980s
  • Modern dance today offers a broad range of approaches, some narrative, some structural, some mainly athletic
  • Technical skills of varied types are back in demand
  • New kinds of dance include aerial dance, integrated dance (wheelchairs), and various hybrids of modern & ballet, modern and hip hop, and other combinations
  • Still emphasizes individual expression
elizabeth streb ringside
Elizabeth Streb/Ringside
  • Choreographer Streb has a ferocious desire to conquer gravity
  • Uses flying harnesses, trampolines, aerial platforms, walls, etc.
  • A bit like the circus or gymnastics, yet created with a different purpose in mind
  • “Why spend all your time on the bottom of your feet? There are many parts of the body.”
bill t jones arnie zane
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane
  • Often uses narrative or theme to relay a message
  • Creates full-length works such as Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, which examines race in the US.
  • Works with dancers of varied races, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds
  • Kept his partner Zane’s name in the company name after Zane died of AIDS
integrated dance
Integrated Dance

"Who says you can dance only if you have two feet," she asks. "Dancing is an expression and an emotion, and you can show it in many different ways."

Ms. Verdi-Fletcher founded, and is co-artistic director of the Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, a dance company that combines dancers in wheelchairs with dancers on foot. Since joining with the Cleveland Ballet in 1990, the eight-member company has given more than 1,000 performances. They have danced before 125,000 people a year in venues from Belgium to New York.

Ms. Verdi-Fletcher was born 41 years ago with spina bifida, which left her paralyzed from below the waist. Her parents feared she would not survive. She underwent 10 surgeries and tried to get around on crutches or with her legs in braces. But by age 12, she had to use a wheelchair. All the while, Ms. Verdi-Fletcher dreamed of dancing.

Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels

cleveland dancing wheels
Cleveland Dancing Wheels

As she grew up, Ms. Verdi-Fletcher found teachers and dance partners who showed her how to perform in her wheelchair. She learned to spin gracefully and perform elegant moves.

In 1978, Ms. Verdi-Fletcher and partner David Brewster decided to enter a dance competition in Cleveland, but they did not tell the organizers she was in a wheelchair. She remembers the hushed audience that watched, spellbound, as they began to dance. "They didn\'t know what to make of somebody in a wheelchair, and I remember one of the judges had his mouth open," she said. "At the end of the dance, my partner did an acrobatic stunt on my chair while I was sitting on it, and the audience went wild. We had a standing ovation." Buoyed by that reaction, Ms. Verdi-Fletcher formed Dancing Wheels in 1980, with Mr. Brewster as her partner

integrated dance1
Integrated Dance

The National Integrated Dance Company of South Africa

There are currently many integrated dance companies around the world. Dancers using crutches &

wheelchairs team up with able-bodied dancers to perform many different kinds of modern dance. The term “integrated” refers to dancers of differing physical abilities working together.


Rennie Harris

Rennie Harris fuses modern dance

with hip-hop; he brought his show

Rome and Jewels, loosely based on

Romeo and Juliet, to RI College in

2004, and also performed at Veteran’s

Memorial Auditorium in 2005.

Founded in 1992 by North Philadelphia native Rennie Harris , Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM) was conceived with the vision for sharing an appreciation for diversity and is dedicated to preserving and disseminating hip-hop culture through workshops, classes, lecture-demonstrations, dance residencies, mentoring programs and public performances. RHPM\'s work encompasses rich and diverse African-American traditions of the past while simultaneously presenting the voice of a new generation.

liz lerman
Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman works with dancers of mixed ages,

including people in their 70’s. In 1975 Liz Lerman created “Woman of the Clear Vision,”,a dance about her mother\'s death featuring professional dancers and adults from a Washington, DC senior center. Combining the creative and community aspects of this project with the dance classes she was teaching throughout DC, Lerman established the Dance Exchange, incorporated in 1976, which has explored issues such as violence, education, aging, healthcare, and community history.

In 2002, Lerman was awarded a MacArthur

“genius grant.”

Modern Dance continues to evolve…

modern dance images references
Modern Dance Images: References
  • T Jones_dancersandorion.jpg
  • http://www.cultural
  • (Dancing Wheels)


  • (Nat. Integrated Dance Co. of S. Africa)