The Purpose of Modern Dance

The Problem

Modern dance is one of the hardest genres to define by technique. Modern isn’t necessarily fast or slow or done to specific music, or any music. It doesn’t necessarily highlight specific physical skill or tell a story. It isn’t necessarily anything. And it can include everything. This is fine and great from the view point of many choreographers and dancers because in theory it gives them endless possibilities to play with.

The problem is that “endless possibilities” makes modern dance really hard to talk about and really hard for general audiences to understand. (This is important as they are the ones paying the bills.)

This identity crisis is understandable for an art form whose only purpose seems to be not do what was done before. Studios and even colleges often don’t have time to get into the theory of Modern dance. However, only those who take the time to learn where modern dance came from with 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 modern’s original purpose was very, very vague. Something like, “Push the boundaries set by ballet! Break the assumed rules and find a new way to move!” That is an inspiring place to start from, but a definition like “modern is movement that is different…” doesn’t give us much to work with.

As modern dance developed so did the purpose. Each era had its own twist on what the purpose of modern dance should be. And interestingly, each purpose has a surviving following today.

The Original Purpose

The beginnings of modern, fortunately, 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, a strong purpose was opposition to the rules of ballet. Doris Humphrey talked about the very beginnings of modern dance:

“This is not to say that the ballet form was bad, but only that it was limited and suffered from arrested development- a permanent sixteen, the the Sleeping Beauty herself. So well established was the formula over so many hundreds of years that, as the twentieth century dawned with its flood of new ideas, there was considerable resistance to any change from the light love story and the fairy tale, and there still is.”(The Art of making Dances Doris Humphrey, p.15-16)

And as Hanya Holm put it, “You should not dance academically. It has no departure, no breath, no life. The academician moves within a group of rules. Two plus two are four. The artist learns rules so that he can break them. Two plus two are five. Both are right from a different 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 has to have definitions of what it is and not just what it isn’t, right?

To Martha Graham modern technique was the beginning of getting closer to the heart of dance in general. Martha herself said, “The function of the dance is communication… Dance was no longer performing its function of communication. By communication is not meant to tell a story or to project an idea, but to communicate experience… This is the reason for the appearance of the modern dance… The old forms could not give voice to the more fully awakened man.” (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 this way:

“Martha Graham had also begun to develop a new dance technique… For the first time American dancers were creating new movements for new subject matter, and reflecting their own era rather than a previous one. Their movements evolved from the meaning of the dance, rather than from previously learned steps developed by peoples of a different culture. In the process of finding new techniques to express their art, these modern dance pioneers broke the existing rules; indeed, that was their intent, for they were… anti-ballet, anti-the past.” (Vision, p. 43-44)

The founders didn’t agree on everything, but they all agreed that the old rules of dance were too restricting and that the purpose of modern dance would be to explore new possibilities in movement. In 1900’s-1930’s, modern dance was current and exciting because it reflected the change that everyone wanted. As this initial excitement wore off, the purpose of modern dance began to shift.

The Purpose of the 3rd and 4th Generations

Modern dance went through a subtle but interesting change between the 40’s and 60’s. The genre had been around long enough by now that the excitement of a new way to express ideas had calmed down. Now, instead of continuing to invent new techniques people were excited about practicing the techniques that had been created. Dancers wanted to learn the “Graham technique” or “Limon technique” and perfect this new dance genre. Dancers also forgot about the ballet boycott and started taking ballet class to strengthen their modern technique.

“By the 1960s, technical proficiency had become an end in itself for modern dancers, rather than the means to an end. Technique became set and strict, codified in the style of the originator, with emphasis on greater and greater achievement. Only those teaching in the Laban-Wigman-Holm tradition included improvisation in their classes. Aspects of ballet were incorporated increasingly into modern dance classes, ballet barres were installed in modern dance studios, and many modern dancers took ballet classes regularly. Thus the wide philosophical gap between the two dance forms began to narrow.” (Vision, p.137)

The new purpose of modern dance was to take what they already had and make it better. This meant creating “modern technique” and guidelines, the very things first and second generation modern dancers were trying to avoid.

Anna Sokolow, a second generation modern dancer, feels veer strongly that “…an art should be constantly changing; it cannot have fixed rules.

“The trouble with the modern dance now is that it is trying to be respectable… We should not try to create a tradition. The ballet has done that, and that’s fine- for the ballet. but not for us. Our strength lies in our lack of tradition. Some say that the big change came in late 1920s, and now is the time for the modern dance to assimilate and solidify. That’s all wrong, because it is like building on still another tradition. Without change there can be no growth, and not enough change is going on today.” (Vision, p.108)

There were enough new dancers that wanted to learn the new modern technique for what it was, and not explore now options, that they “won.” Techniques were solidified and rules were made.

We see that today some companies continue to preserve the original technique and ideas of its creators. Kind’of like a living museum. Recently, the Martha Graham Dance Company announced specifically that their new purpose is to preserve Graham’s work.

So, modern dance has gone through its own growing pains as it tries to decide whether the purpose is to keep true to the philosophy of always exploring and changing or to preserve the new techniques we gained. Some chose technique, some chose philosophy, and some tried to do both. This three way split in the 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 was now the techniques and rules created to preserve and improve upon the originators’ work. The dancers who wanted to keep the philosophy of modern and continue to reinvent the movement were now referred to as post-modernists.

The Post-Modern Agenda

So the next generation has tried to keep the philosophy of the original modern dancers by continuing to work against the established techniques. Except now, often the establish techniques are the modern techniques of the originators! So, how do you reinvent a reinvention?

Currently post-modernism is in a new shift. Maybe they’ve reached a point where, as Don McDonagh said, “There were seemingly no rules left to be broken… By the end of the seventies there was nowhere left to go in stripping away traditional practices.” (Vision, p. 199)

The Post-modern agenda is to continue to break the rules, and because this has been done for a century now, is running out of things to try. (Maybe this is has something to do with the reputation that modern has now of being hard to understand and sometimes just plain weird.)

McDonagh continues…

“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 bodily control… Other choreographers shaped tumbling and aerial acrobatics into specter spectacles… The human voice reciting narrative or descriptive material at times became an accompanying sound for dances.” (p. 200)

Popular post-modern experiments have turned to test, not only the definition of modern dance, but dance and even art in general. Speech has been added, music taken away, and technique reduced to “pedestrian movement” (aka walking around the stage.)

Mary Fulkerson, a self proclaimed post-modernist explains it this way. “Modern works seek to show, to communicate something, to transcend real life. Post-modern works seek to be, to question textures and complexities of real life.” (“Vision of Modern Dance”, p. 209)

Ironically this statement sounds so similar to what the creators of modern were saying nearly a century earlier.

Going Forward

Graham trained, Erick Hawkins had this to say, “More than ever in history, society needs the rich variety of powerful artists who don’t ape science but who explore sensitivity 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 as the specific techniques are accepted.

The goals of breaking the rules of ballet, and then of dance and art in general, have been accomplished by many brave and passionate modern dancers. Now it is time for modern to enter a new phase. It has matured into its own genre 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 reality of the dance is its truth to our inner life. Therein lies its power to move and communicate experience.” (Vision, p.53)

This is the purpose of modern dance that will endure: to put self expression first. It of course is not always successful, but a dedication to communication is what will continue to distinguish modern from other dance genres.

Modern has done us a great service as artists. By exploring everything that can be called dance, everyone has a chance to find a place that works for them. The doors of free movement have been opened. Now it is time to take what we’ve learned over the last hundred years, and use it to express what is in the human soul.

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