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The Purpose of Modern Dance
Modern dance is one of the most difficult genres to define by technique. Contemporary is not necessarily fast or slow or made to specific music or other music. It may not highlight specific physical skills or tell a story. It’s not necessarily anything. And it can include anything. This is fine and dandy for many choreographers and dancers because it theoretically gives them endless possibilities to play with.
The problem is that modern dance is very difficult to talk about and understand for a general audience because of the “infinite possibilities”. (This is important because they pay the bills.)
This identity crisis is understandable for an art form whose sole purpose seems to be not to do what has been done before. Studios and even colleges often don’t have time to study modern dance theory. But only those who take the time to learn where modern dance comes from have what it takes to give it a serious future.
Define the purpose, define the genre
The heart of this problem has a lot to do with the fact that the original purpose of modern was very, very vague. Something like: “Push the boundaries set by ballet! Break the assumed rules and find a new way of moving!” It’s an inspiring place to start, but a definition like “contemporary is a movement that is different…” doesn’t give us much work.
As modern dance evolved, so did the purpose. Each era had its own twist on what modern dance should be about. And interestingly, each cause has surviving followers today.
The original purpose
The beginning of the modern is fortunately well documented. We can read the thoughts of the founders to understand what the purpose of modern dance was for them. As we know, conforming to ballet rules was a strong goal. Doris Humphrey talked about the very beginning of modern dance:
“This is not to say that the ballet form was bad, only that it was limited and suffered from stunted development – the constant sixteenth, Sleeping Beauty itself. The formula was so well established over hundreds of years that the 20th century dawned with its own flood of new ideas , a light love story and a fairy tale, there was and still is considerable resistance to changes.” (The Art of Making Dances by Doris Humphrey, pp. 15-16)
And as Hanya Holm said, “You shouldn’t dance academically. It has no departure, no breathing, no life. An academic moves in a group of rules. Two plus two is four. An artist learns the rules so he can break them. . Two plus two is five. Both have right from another point of view.” (Visions, p. 78)
Ok, so they originally wanted an alternative to the rules and structure of ballet, but what did that mean? A genre needs to have definitions of what it is, not just what it isn’t, right?
For Martha Graham, modern technique was the beginning of getting closer to the universal heart of dance. Martha herself said: “The function of dance is communication… Dance no longer fulfilled its function of communication. Communication does not mean telling a story or projecting an idea, but conveying an experience… This is the reason for the emergence of Modern Dance… The old forms could not give more voice for the awakened person.” (Vision, p. 50)
In The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of its Creators (edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin, and Charles H. Woodford), they describe her work as follows:
“Also, Martha Graham had begun to develop a new dance technique. . . . For the first time, American dancers created new movements for a new theme and reflected their own era rather than the previous one. Their movements evolved from the meaning of the dance, rather than previously learned steps developed by peoples of different cultures . In finding new techniques to express their art, these pioneers of modern dance broke the existing rules; this was indeed their purpose, for they were… anti-ballet, anti-past. (Vision, pp. 43-44)
The founders did not agree on everything, but they all agreed that the old dance rules were too restrictive and that modern dance is about exploring new possibilities of movement. 1900–1930 In the 1990s, modern dance was relevant and exciting because it reflected the change that everyone wanted. When that initial excitement faded, the purpose of modern dance began to shift.
3rd and 4th generation goal
Modern dance underwent a subtle but interesting change between the 40s and 60s. The genre had been around long enough by now that the excitement of a new way of expressing ideas had died down. Now, instead of continuing to invent new techniques, people were excited to practice the techniques that had been created. Dancers wanted to learn the “Graham Technique” or the “Limon Technique” and perfect this new dance genre. Dancers also forgot about the ballet boycott and started attending ballet classes to strengthen their modern technique.
“By the 1960s, technical mastery had become an end in itself rather than a means to an end for today’s dancers. Technique became prescriptive and rigorous, codified in the initiatory style, with an emphasis on ever-greater achievement. Only those teaching in the Laban-Wigman-Holm tradition included improvisation in their classes . Aspects of ballet were increasingly incorporated into modern dance classes, ballet drums were installed in modern dance studios, and many modern dancers took regular ballet lessons. Thus a great philosophical divide emerged. The two dance forms began to narrow.” (Vision, p. 137)
Modern dance’s new purpose was to take what they already had and make it better. This meant creating “modern technique” and guidelines, the very things that the first and second generation of modern dancers tried to avoid.
Anna Sokolow, a second-generation modern dancer, strongly feels that “…art should constantly change, it cannot have fixed rules.
“The trouble with modern dance now is that it’s trying to be respectable… We shouldn’t be trying to create a tradition. Ballet has done that, and it’s good—for ballet. But not for us. Our strength is our lack of tradition. Some say the great the change came in the late 1920s, and now is the time for modern dance to assimilate and solidify. It’s all wrong, because it’s like building on another tradition. Without change, there can be no growth, and there’s not enough change happening today.” (Vision, p. 108)
There were enough new dancers who wanted to learn a new modern technique for what it was, and not explore the possibilities now that they “won”. Shots were approved and rules were made.
We see that today some companies preserve the original techniques and ideas of their creators. Kind of like a living museum. Recently, the Martha Graham Dance Company specifically announced that their new goal is to preserve Graham’s work.
Thus, modern dance has gone through its own growing pains as it tries to decide whether the goal is to always stay true to the philosophy of exploration and change, or to preserve the new techniques gained. Some chose technique, some philosophy, and some tried to do both. This three-way division in purpose made it even more difficult to give a clear definition of modern dance.
In an effort to keep things straight, the dance world created a new sub-genre. Modern dance were now techniques and rules created to preserve and enhance the work of authors. Dancers who wanted to maintain the philosophy of modernity and continue to reinvent movement were now referred to as postmodernists.
Thus, the next generation has tried to preserve the philosophy of the original modern dancers, continuing to work against established techniques. Except now, the techniques created are often the modern techniques of the originators! So how do you reinvent a reinvention?
Currently, postmodernism is in a new shift. Perhaps they’ve reached a point where, as Don McDonagh said, “There seemed to be no more rules to break… By the end of the seventies, there was nowhere left to go to get rid of traditional practices.” (Vision, p. 199)
The postmodernist agenda is to keep breaking the rules, and since it’s been done for a century, we’re running out of things to try. (Perhaps it has something to do with the modern reputation of being hard to understand and sometimes just plain weird.)
“The generation of the eighties and nineties began to work with new, non-conventional forms of theatrical presentation… [They] continued to create works that did not require dance training but emphasized highly skilled gymnastic body control… Other choreographers shaped drumming and aerial acrobatics into ghostly spectacles… The human voice reading narrative or descriptive material sometimes became the accompanying sound. dances.” (p. 200)
Popular postmodern experiments have become tests not only of the definition of modern dance, but also of dance and even art in general. Speech has been added, music has been removed, and the technique has been reduced to “pedestrian movement” (that is, walking around the stage).
Mary Fulkerson, a self-proclaimed postmodernist, explains it this way. “Modern works try to show something, convey something, transcend real life. Postmodern works try to be, question the textures and complexities of real life.” (“A vision of modern dance”, p. 209)
Ironically, this statement sounds so similar to what today’s creators said almost a century ago.
Graham-trained Erick Hawkins said, “More than ever in history, society needs a rich selection of powerful artists who don’t ape science, but explore sensibility and don’t wipe out the senses.” (Erick Hawkins, p. 14)
Modern dance has come full circle: recognizing the norm, questioning and pushing boundaries, and then becoming the new norm when specific techniques are adopted.
The goals of breaking the rules of ballet, and then of dance and art in general, have been fulfilled by many brave and passionate contemporary dancers. Now, in modern times, it is time to enter a new phase. It has matured into its own genre and needs to embrace it. So what is the purpose of modern dance now that the rebellion has run its course?
Martha Graham still has the answer. “The reality of dance is its truth to our inner life. In it lies the power to move and convey experiences.” (Vision, p. 53)
This is the goal of modern dance that remains: to put self-expression first. Of course, it doesn’t always work out, but the commitment to communication is what sets contemporary dance apart from other genres.
Modern has done us a great favor as artists. By exploring everything that can be called dance, everyone has the opportunity to find a place that suits them. The doors of free movement are open. Now is the time to take what we have learned over the last hundred years and use it to express what is in the human soul.
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