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The Purpose of Modern Dance
Modern dance is one of the most difficult genres to define by technique. Modern is not necessarily fast or slow, or made for specific music or any music at all. It doesn’t necessarily highlight specific physical abilities or tell a story. It’s not necessarily nothing. And it can contain everything. This is fine and dandy from the point of view of many choreographers and dancers, because it theoretically gives them endless possibilities to play with.
The problem is that the “endless possibilities” make modern dance very difficult to talk about and very difficult to understand for the audience. (This is important because they pay the bills.)
This identity crisis is understandable for an art form whose sole purpose is to stop doing what it used to do. Studios and even colleges often don’t have time to go into the theory of modern dance. However, only those who take the time to learn where modern dance comes from have the opportunity to give it a serious future.
Define the goal, define the genre
The crux of the problem has a lot to do with the fact that the purpose of the modern original was very, very vague. Something like, “Embrace the boundaries set by ballet! Break the assumed rules and find a new way to move!” It’s an inspiring starting point, but a definition like “modern is movement that is different…” doesn’t do much.
With the development of modern dance, the goal also increased. Each era had its own twist on what the purpose of modern dance should be. And interestingly, every goal has a surviving follower today.
The original goal
Fortunately, its modern beginnings are well documented. We can read the thoughts of the founders to understand what the purpose of modern dance was for them. As we know, the strong goal was to oppose the rules of ballet. Doris Humphrey talked about the beginnings of modern dance:
“This does not mean that the ballet form was bad, but only that its development was limited and stalled – a constant sixteenth, the Sleeping Beauty itself. It was such a well-established formula for hundreds of years that the twentieth century dawned with a flood of new ideas, there was, and still is, considerable resistance to any change from the light love story and fairy tale.” (The Art of Dance Making by Doris Humphrey, pp. 15-16)
And as Hanya Holm put it: “You shouldn’t dance academically. It has no departure, no breath, no life. The academic moves within a set of rules. Two plus two is four. The artist learns the rules so he can break them. . Two plus two is five. Both are right from different points of view.” (Visions, p. 78)
Okay, so originally they wanted an alternative to the rules and structure of ballet, but what did that mean? A genre should define what it is, not just what it isn’t, right?
For Martha Graham, modern technique was the beginning of getting closer to the heart of dance in general. Martha herself said: “The function of dance is communication… Dance no longer fulfills its function of communication. The purpose of communication is not to tell a story or project an idea, but to communicate experience… This is modern dance. the cause of its appearance… The old forms could not give voice to the fully awakened man.” (Vision, p. 50)
The book “The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of its Creators” (edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin and Charles H. Woodford) describes his work as follows:
“Martha Graham also began to develop a new dance technique… American dancers were the first to create new movements for new themes, reflecting not an earlier era but their own era. Their movements evolved from the meaning of dance. The pioneers of modern dance broke the existing rules, while they found new techniques to express their art, in fact, this was their intention, because… -ballet, against the past.” (Vision, pp. 43-44)
The founders didn’t agree on everything, but they all agreed that the old rules of dance were too restrictive, and that the purpose of modern dance would be to explore new possibilities of movement. In the 1900s and 1930s, modern dance was relevant and exciting because it reflected the change that everyone wanted. As this initial excitement wore off, the purpose of modern dance changed.
The goal of the 3rd and 4th generation
Modern dance underwent a subtle but interesting change between the 1940s and 1960s. The genre had been around long enough that his excitement for a new way of expressing ideas had died down. Now, instead of continuing to invent new techniques, people were excited to practice the techniques they had already created. Dancers wanted to learn the “Graham Technique” or the “Limon Technique” and perfect this new dance genre. The dancers also forgot about the ballet boycott and started attending ballet classes to strengthen their modern technique.
“By the 1960s, for modern dancers, technical proficiency became an end in itself, rather than a means of achieving the goal. The technique is defined and strict, codified in the style of the mastermind, with the emphasis on ever greater performance. Only those who teach the Laban-Wigman- In the Holm tradition, improvisation was also incorporated into their classes. Ballet aspects were increasingly incorporated into modern dance classes, ballet drums were installed in modern dance studios, and many modern dancers regularly attended ballet classes. Two dance forms began to narrow.” (Vision, p. 137)
The new goal of modern dance was to take what they already had and make it better. This meant that “modern technique” and direction had to be created, exactly what the first and second generation modern dancers tried to avoid.
Anna Sokolow, a second-generation modern dancer, strongly feels that “…an art must constantly change, it cannot have fixed rules.
“The trouble with modern dance now is that it wants to be respectable… Let’s not try to create a tradition. Ballet has done that, and that’s fine – for ballet. but not for us. Our strength Some say that the big change it happened in the late 1920s, and now is the time for modern dance to assimilate and consolidate. It’s bad because it’s like building on another tradition. Without change, there can be no growth, and not enough change is happening today.” (Vision, p. 108)
There were quite a few new dancers who wanted to learn the new, modern technique and did not want to “win” the current opportunities. Techniques were consolidated and rules were created.
We see that some companies still preserve the original techniques and ideas of the creators. It’s like a living museum. Recently, the Martha Graham Dance Company specifically announced that their new goal is to preserve Graham’s work.
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 preserve the new techniques we’ve acquired. Some chose technology, some philosophy, and some tried both. This three-way division of goals made it even more difficult to clearly define modern dance.
In order to keep things straight, the dance world has created a new sub-genre. Modern dance now the techniques and rules were created to preserve and improve the work of the originators. Dancers who wanted to maintain his modern philosophy and continue to reinvent movement were now referred to as. postmodernists.
The postmodern agenda
So the next generation tried to keep the philosophy of the original modern dancers while still working against established techniques. Except now, the foundational techniques are often the modern techniques of the masterminds! So, how do you reinvent a reinvention?
Currently, postmodernism is in a new shift. Perhaps they had reached the point where, as Don McDonagh said, “There seemed to be no rules left to break. . . . By the late 1970s, there was nowhere to go in deducting traditional practices.” (Vision, p. 199)
The postmodern agenda is to keep breaking the rules, and since they’ve done it for a century, they’re running out of things to try. (Perhaps this has something to do with the reputation that modern now has for being difficult to understand and sometimes just plain weird.)
“The generation of the eighties and nineties started working with new, unconventional forms of theatrical performance… [They] they continued to create works that did not require dance training, but emphasized highly trained, gymnastic body control… Other choreographers shaped tumbling and aerial acrobatics into spooky spectacles… The human voice reading narrative or descriptive material sometimes became an accompanying voice dancing.” (p. 200) .)
Popular postmodern experiments have tested not only the definition of modern dance, but dance and even art in general. They added the speech, took away the music, and reduced the technique to “pedestrian movement” (aka walking around the stage).
Mary Fulkerson, a self-proclaimed postmodernist, explains it this way. “Modern works try to show, to communicate something, to go beyond real life. To be postmodern works is to question the textures and complexities of real life.” (“The Vision of Modern Dance”, p. 209)
Ironically, this statement is very similar to what its modern creators said nearly a century earlier.
To go forward
Graham scholar Erick Hawkins said, “Society needs more than ever in history a rich variety of powerful artists who don’t ape science but explore sensitivity and don’t erase the senses.” (Erick Hawkins, p. 14)
Modern dance has come full circle: recognizing the norm, questioning and pushing the boundaries, then becoming the new norm by adopting specific techniques.
The goals of breaking the rules of ballet, and then of dance and art in general, have been realized by many brave and passionate modern dancers. Now it’s time to enter the modern new phase. It has matured into its own genre and that should be embraced. So what is the purpose of modern dance now that the rebellion has run its course?
Martha Graham still knows the answer. “The reality of dance is the truth of our inner life. In this lies the power of movement and the transmission of experiences.” (Vision, p. 53)
This is the goal of modern dance that remains: to prioritize self-expression. Of course, it doesn’t always succeed, but the commitment to communication is what continues to distinguish modern dance from other dance genres.
Modern has done us a great service as artists. By exploring everything that can be called dance, everyone can find a place that suits them. The gates of free movement have been opened. Now is the time to take what we have learned in the last hundred years and use it to express what is in the human soul.
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