Modern dance is one of the most difficult genres to define with technique. Speech is not necessarily fast or slow or set to certain music or any music. It doesn’t necessarily highlight a particular physical skill or tell a story. Not necessarily anything. It can include everything. This is well and wonderful from the point of view of many choreographers and dancers because in theory it gives them endless possibilities to play with.
The problem is that “endless possibilities” make modern dance really hard to talk about and really hard for a general audience to understand. (This is important because they are the ones who pay the bills).
This identity crisis is understandable for an art form whose sole aim seems to be not to do what has been done before. Studios and even colleges often don’t have the time to delve into modern dance theory. However, only those who take the time to see where modern dance has come from have what it takes to give it a serious future.
Select the purpose, select the type
The crux of this problem has a lot to do with the fact that the original purpose of the hadith was very vague. Something like, “Go beyond the limits set by ballet! Break the supposed rules and find a new way to move!” This is an inspiring place to start, but a definition like “talk is a different movement…” doesn’t give us much to work with.
As modern dance evolved so did the purpose. Each era had its own take on the purpose of modern dance. Interestingly, each item has a follow-up lingering today.
Fortunately, the beginnings of the modern era are well documented. We can read the founders’ thoughts to understand what modern dance was for them. As we know, the strong point was to oppose the rules of ballet. Doris Humphrey talks about the beginnings of modern dance:
“This is not to say that the ballet form was bad, but only that it was limited and suffered from an arrest of development—permanent sixteen, Sleeping Beauty itself. So well-established was the formula over hundreds of years that the twentieth century blew up with a flood of new ideas, there was great resistance to any change from a story of light love and a story of cares, and there was still a making of choreography.”
As Hanya Holm puts it, “You shouldn’t dance academically. It has no leaving, no breath, no life. An academic moves within a set of rules. Two plus two makes four. An artist learns the rules so he can break them. Two plus two makes five. Both are true from a different point of view.” (Ru’a p. 78)
Well, they originally wanted an alternative to the rules and structure of ballet, but what does that mean? A genre should have definitions of what it is and not just what it isn’t, right?
For Martha Graham, modern technique was the beginning of approaching the heart of dance in general. Martha herself said, “The function of dance is to communicate… Dance no longer serves its function of communication. Communication is not meant to tell a story or present an idea, but rather to convey an experience… This is why modern dance arose… The ancient forms could not give voice to the most awakened man.” (Vision p. 50)
In “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 this way:
Martha Graham also began to develop a new dance style… For the first time American dancers were creating new movements for a new theme, reflecting an era of their own rather than an earlier one. Their movements developed from the meaning of the dance, rather than steps previously learned by peoples of a different culture. In the process of finding new techniques to express their art, these pioneers of modern dance broke the existing rules;
The founders did not agree on everything, but they all agreed that the ancient rules of dance were too restrictive and that the purpose of modern dance was to explore new possibilities in movement. In the 1930s, modern dance was present and exciting because it reflected the change that everyone wanted. With that initial excitement gone, the purpose of modern dance began to shift.
The purpose of the third and fourth generation
Modern dance underwent a subtle but interesting change between the 1940s and 1960s. The genre has been around long enough now that the excitement of a new way of expressing ideas has subsided. Now, instead of continuing to invent new technologies, people were eager to practice the technologies that were created. The dancers wanted to learn the “Graham style” or “Lemon technique” and master this new type of dance. The dancers also forgot to interrupt ballet and started taking ballet lessons to strengthen their modern technique.
“By the 1960s, technical proficiency had become an end in itself for contemporary dancers, rather than a means to an end. Technique had become specific and rigorous, codified in the style of the originator, with an emphasis on greater and greater achievement. Only those taught in the Laban Wigman-holm tradition included improvisation in their classes. Aspects of ballet were increasingly incorporated into modern dance classes, and so modern ballet galleries were regularly installed in many modern dance classes. Dance forms began to narrow.” (Vision p. 137).
The new goal of modern dance was to take what they already had and improve upon it. This meant creating “modern technique and guidelines,” the very things that first- and second-generation modern dancers were trying to avoid.
Anna Sokolow, a second-generation modern dancer, feels strongly that “…art must constantly change; it cannot have fixed rules.”
“The problem with modern dance now is that it tries to be respectable… We should not try to create an imitation. The ballet did it, and that’s fine—for the ballet. But not for us. Our strength lies in our lack of tradition. Some say the great change occurred in the late 1920s, and now is the time to assimilate and solidify modern dance. This is all not wrong, for there is still enough change to build. (Vision p. 108).
There were enough new dancers who wanted to learn the new modern technique for what it was, not explore the options now, that they “won”. Technologies are established and rules are established.
Today we see that some companies continue to preserve the original technology 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 keep Graham working.
So modern dance has gone through its own growing pains as it tries to decide whether the goal is to stay true to the philosophy of always exploring and changing or to keep the new technologies we’ve acquired. Some chose style, some chose philosophy, and some tried to do both. This threefold dichotomy in purpose has made it difficult to provide a clear definition of modern dance.
In an effort to keep things in perspective, the dance world has created a new subgenre. Modern dance They were now the technologies and rules that were created to maintain and improve the work of the creators. Dancers who wanted to preserve the philosophy of modernity and continue to reinvent movement are referred to as Postmodernists.
So the next generation tried to preserve the philosophy of the original contemporary dancers by continuing to work against established techniques. Except now, pinning techniques are often the builders’ modern techniques! So, how do you reinvent renovation?
Postmodernism is undergoing a new transformation. They may have reached a point where, as Don McDonagh puts it, “there seemed to be no rules left to break… By the end of the 1970s there was nowhere to go in stripping traditional practices”. (Vision p. 199)
The postmodern agenda is to keep breaking the rules, and because this has been done for a century, things to try are running out. (This probably has something to do with the reputation that hadith now has for being difficult to understand and sometimes just weird.)
“The generation of the eighties and nineties began to work in new, non-traditional forms of theatrical performance… [They] He continued to create works that did not require dance training, but emphasized highly skilled body control and physique… Other choreographers molded aerial and tumbling acrobatics into a spectral spectacle… A human voice reciting narrative or descriptive material sometimes became an accompaniment to the dances. (p. 200)
Popular postmodern experiments turned out to test not only the definition of modern dance, but dance and even art in general. Speech was added, music was withdrawn, and technique was reduced to “pedestrian movement” (aka walking around the stage).
Mary Fulkerson, the self-proclaimed postmodernist, explains it this way. “Modern works strive to show, to convey something, to transcend real life. Postmodern works strive to be, to question the fabric and complexities of real life.” (“Vision of Modern Dance,” p. 209)
Ironically, this statement sounds very similar to what modern innovators said nearly a century ago.
to move on
Graham’s coach, Eric Hawkins, said, “More than at any other time in history, society needs a rich variety of strong artists who are not like science but explore sensitivity and don’t erase the senses.” (Eric Hawkins, pg. 14)
Modern dance has come full circle: recognizing the norm, questioning and pushing boundaries, and then becoming the new norm where specific techniques are accepted.
The goals of breaking the rules of ballet, and then dance and art in general, have been achieved by many brave and passionate contemporary dancers. Now is the time for Hadith to enter a new phase. She has matured in her own type and needs to embrace that. So what is the purpose of modern dance now that the rebellion has run its course?
Martha Graham still has the answer. “The truth of dance is its truth in our inner life. Herein lies its power to move and convey experience.” (Vision p. 53).
This is the purpose of modern dance that will continue: to put self-expression first. Of course it is not always successful, but the dedication to communication is what will continue to differentiate modern dance genres from others.
Hadith has done us a great service as artists. Exploring everything that can be called dance, everyone has the opportunity to find a place to their liking. The gates of freedom of movement were opened. Now is the time to take what we have learned over the past 100 years, and use it to express what is in the human spirit.