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Looking at Contemporary Dance
A Guide for the Internet Age
By Marc Raymond Strauss, Myron Howard Nadel
Princeton Book Company Copyright © 2012 Marc Raymond Strauss
All rights reserved.
Moving into the 20th Century: 1811-1900
François Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Rudolf Laban, Loïe Fuller, Serge Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Michel Fokine, Mary Wigman, Vaslav Nijinsky, Asadata Dafora, Michio Ito, Hanya Holm, Martha Graham and Louis Horst, Doris Humphrey, Léonide Massine
As with folk dances and religious miracles, the inspirational origins of contemporary choreography cannot be easily identified. Still, while adding in the occasional sparkling idea or innovation, humanity has always built upon that which came before. For much 20 century modern dance, its theoretical substructures emanated from the teachings of 19century European cognitive and movement theorists such as François Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, and Rudolf Laban.
François Delsarte (November 11, 1811, Solesmes, France — July 20, 1871, Paris) was a music teacher and movement analyst who delved into the meaning of gesture. He may be considered a pioneer movement analyst who believed that the physical, emotional, and spiritual planes of the body coexist in time, co-penetrate space, and cooperate in motion. His concerns for concepts of tension-relaxation, form, force, design, and concentric (toward center) and eccentric (from center) movements provided a unique and still serviceable focus for creating and studying movement outside of the ballet vocabulary. Ted Shawn and other early modern dancers came to embrace these tenets.
Delsarte's ideas combining the physical and metaphysical worlds were also an inspiration to women, who felt that his holistic approach was the key to gracefulness and the finest forms of expression for the newly liberated female. During the early part of the 20 century, women were freeing themselves from binding corsets, their primary allegiance to motherhood, limited numbers of available careers, poor pay, and a ubiquitous sense of disenfranchisement. Delsarte and dance exhilaratingly offered the promise of a break, theoretical and then literal, from the Victorian handicaps of being a woman. These ideas manifested in part via women's clubs that featured dance tableaux, healthful dance exercises, and even a form of pseudo-Oriental dance called "Nautsch." In addition, although Ted Shawn was an ardent supporter of Delsartian ideas, his all-male dance company from 1933 to 1940 helped counteract America's perception that modern dance was only for women.
Called "Eurhythmics," the work of Swiss composer, musician, and music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (July 6, 1865, Vienna, Austria — July 1, 1950, Geneva, Switzerland) was a system of physical movements designed for the development of a synthesis of musical and rhythmic logic for musicians. Dalcroze teaching academies thrive all over the world to this day, such as the original Jaques-Dalcroze Institute, founded in 1915 in Geneva (http://www.dalcroze.ch/), and the Dalcroze Society of America (http://www.dalcrozeusa.org/).
The system was also found to have great application for training dancers and choreographers to form deeply felt relationships among the eye, ear, memory, and one's kinesthetic awareness. Dalcroze's philosophy was especially influential on Ruth St. Denis (1879 — 1968), who explored music visualization wherein melodic lines, harmonies, and forms of a piece of music were visually translated into corresponding dance movements. British ballet pioneer Marie Rambert (1888 — 1982) studied with Dalcroze and used his methods to come to the musical aid of Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 — 1950) as he puzzled over the irregular rhythms of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913; discussed in Chapter 3) while attempting the choreography of that work. "Through such pupils of Jaques-Dalcroze as Marie Rambert, Hanya Holm, and the mime Étienne Decroux, Eurythmics has also affected contemporary ballet and the dance of the theatre."
The choreographic potential inherent in the great musical forms influenced the entire generation of American modern dancers after Isadora Duncan, St. Denis, and Shawn. Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham in particular were often able to use their intimate understanding of and training with music as inspiration for their quite sophisticated choreographic work. Dalcroze's influence was also felt through the application of his tenets in the modern ballets of the Russians Michel Fokine (1880 — 1942) and Nijinsky. "Symphonic" ballets (to standalone symphonic music) were one part of the legacy of 20 century Russian choreographers such as Léonide Massine (1895-1979), Fyodor Lopukhov (1886-1973), and, later, George Balanchine (1904 — 1983). Complex and precise kinetic-rhythmic-musical correlations are frequent performance expectations to this day, and remain prudent choreographic devices for many dance compositions.
Rudolf Laban (December 15, 1879, Bratislava, Austria-Hungary — July 1, 1958, Surrey, England) was a dancer-theoretician inspired in part by Delsarte's attempts to codify expressive gesture. His special genius lay in the conceptual analysis of movement in space and time with their characteristic energies. He first analyzed movement according to the speed, direction, and level of the body, and its parts within an imaginary twenty-sided combination sphere-cube called an "icosahedron." His scientific approach provided a clear language for movement in space that gave the work of modern dancers, especially the Germans Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, an analytical basis from which to acquire greater sensitivity towards motion in relation to that surrounding space. These conceptual foundations still form an integral part of the characteristics of much modern dance (www.youtube.com, search "Rudolf Laban").
Several organizations carry on Laban's vision today. They include, in London, his own Laban Guild for Movement and Dance (f. 1946, http://www.labanguild.org.uk/) and, in New York City, two organizations: the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (f. 1978, http://www.limsonline.org/) and the Dance Notation Bureau (f. 1940, http://dancenotation.org/), the latter of which archives on paper, via Labanotation, hundreds of dances available throughout the world (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance; http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/).
A naturalized German, Laban was initially cooperative with the pre-World War II socialist German government. However, his choreography for the 1936 Olympics opening ceremony was censored by Nazi authorities and he subsequently left Germany for England before the war. Laban's legacy is now attached to the United Kingdom.
Loïe Fuller (January 15, 1862, Hinsdale, Illinois — January 1, 1928, Paris) was primarily an actress and singer who had studied a bit of ballet, and then began to perform solo movement pieces in the voluminous skirts she had worn in plays. Skirt dancing among women entertainers of the era was a popular pastime, but Fuller made its use an even hotter item in the performing world. When already a professional, she received a large piece of lovely cloth as a gift from a friend, and devised a theatrical movement piece that came to be known as The Serpentine Dance (1891). Add the developing art of stage lighting at the end of the 19 century to Fuller's skirt dances, place her on a glass plate lighted from below, and the scene was set for experiments based on the movement of body, fabric, shape, color, and light — without allegiance to the emotional motivation that was to influence many modern dancers to come in the 20 century. An 1896 49-second silent film excerpt of The Serpentine Dance, hand-painted frame-by-frame in color, is most likely of Fuller herself, and can be viewed at www.youtube.com, search "Serpentine Dance Loïe Fuller."
Serge Diaghilev (March 31, 1872 Novgorod, Russia — August 19, 1929, Venice) was never a dancer or a choreographer, but remains arguably one of the greatest impresarios the world has ever known in the visual and performing arts. Few people in the entertainment and arts fields — except, perhaps, Florenz Ziegfeld (1867 — 1932) in the United States, with his Ziegfeld Follies — were able to bring so many artists together for such single-minded purposes.
Diaghilev holds an essential place in the history and development of modern ballet, especially through his company, Les Ballets Russes, which began in 1909 and died with him twenty years later. Among the extraordinary variety of artists, musicians, designers, dancers and choreographers that spent some time with him include many living in Europe during the early part of the 20 century: Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Nicholas Roerich, Léon Bakst, Georges Braque, Maurice Utrillo, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Adolph Bolm, Anton Dolin, and five of the world's greatest choreographers: Michel Fokine (discussed below), Vaslav Nijinsky (discussed below and with The Rite of Spring in Chapter 3), Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine (discussed below) and George Balanchine (discussed in Chapter 2). In fact, the list seems literally endless. The company
was regarded as one of the most inspired and experimental troupes in the world. Its success was primarily due to Diaghilev's genius for spotting new talent and setting up collaborations between artists. He believed that ballet should be a complete theatrical art and that music, design, and choreography should equally break new ground. His ballets reflected, and were sometimes even catalysts for, new artistic trends.
Dances created by the five choreographers mentioned above remain to this day — in memory, revival, and reconstruction — perfect examples of the move from a more purely classical ballet, as epitomized by Marius Petipa (1818 — 1910) and others in the 19 and early 20 centuries, to a radical reappraisal of what ballet — actually all dance — could do (www.youtube.com, search "Serge Diaghilev-A Portrait").
But first ... Isadora beat them to it with her own style.
Isadora Duncan (Angela Isadora Duncan; May 26, 1877 San Francisco — September 14, 1927, Nice, France), the most famous revolutionary outside of the male-dominated world of ballet, and those who followed in her footsteps, valued expression more than technique and form (which were valued by the pure romanticist or classicist in music and art). (www.youtube.com, search "Glimpses of Isadora Duncan"). Ironically, Duncan's was a classic art to the degree that she was inspired by forms of antiquity (primarily ancient Greece) and that she danced to musical masters like classical German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 — 1827) and the romanticists, Polish-French Frédéric Chopin (1810 — 1869) and Austrian Franz Schubert (1797 — 1828). Duncan also insisted that her art was fundamentally American and influenced by nature, which led her to rediscover the glory of natural movements, made all the more expressive when untainted by balletic vocabulary and danced in bare feet and a tunic.
She performed in relatively unadorned dance recitals set in salons or humble theaters, accompanied only by a pianist playing, for example, Chopin's Revolutionary Étude. The very essence of the music provided Duncan with her sense of strength and flow. The recital form was both chic and avant-garde. Salons, mostly hosted and populated by the women intelligentsia, had a history dating all the way back to the French courts of the famous Louis XIII (1601 — 1643) and Louis XIV (1638 — 1715), so introducing novel ideas such as Isadora's was actually in keeping with the salon tradition. The 21century still hails Duncan's groundbreaking work through literally dozens of companies across the world — France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States — recreating works or honoring the artist with their own choreography "in the style of." Lori Belilove and The Isadora Duncan Dance Company (www.isadoraduncan.org) and the Isadora Duncan International Institute (www.isadoraduncan.net) are just two companies still dedicated to that dance visionary.
Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn
Modern forerunner Ruth St. Denis (Ruth Dennis; January 20, 1877 Newark, New Jersey — July 21, 1968, Los Angeles, California) promoted her art within established commercial theatrical (and cinematic) contexts in the early 20 century, such as plays, vaudeville, and revues. But in these venues, the search for new dance foundations depended ultimately on their audience appeal as seen by their employers. Producers in the world of commercial theater understood little of the spiritual fervor of dance's revolutionary energy, but both producers and audiences enjoyed new subjects, new movement arrangements, new personalities, and almost anything with exotic and especially pseudo-erotic, appeal [www.youtube.com, search "Ruth St Denis in the 'East Indian Nautch Dance' (1932)" and www.youtube.com, search "inciense Ruth St. Denis.wmv"].
Dancers, such as St. Denis, wary that their artistic attempts needed to satisfy large audiences, increased their need to self-produce concerts where their freedom to experiment could remain a primary concern. In addition, the freedom for women to express their own lives in artistic ways and then promote these expressions as salon or theatrical ventures — or even as a means for educational systems to nurture individuality, free of rote learning — derived power from the progeny of the transcendentalists, suffragettes such as Julia Ward Howe (1819 — 1910) and educator-thinkers such as Louisa May Alcott (1832 — 1888), Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804 — 1894), and John Dewey (1859 — 1952).
Excerpts from the long-standing repertoire of European ballet companies also fit well within the vaudeville milieu of family audiences, while shorter early works, such as St. Denis' Radha (1906; www.youtube.com, search "RSD Project Pt. 1 of 5") were often enjoyed in their entirety. Vaudeville performance meant being one of seven or more independent touring acts such as a dog and acrobatic number, tap dancer, singer, comedian, ventriloquist, contortionist and even opera and ballet performers, all on the same program. While many choreographers wanted to disregard the entertainment value of the dance, many of the pioneers of modern dance, such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, learned valuable lessons about salesmanship and the rules of commercial theater from St. Denis's company, called Denishawn (see below), and performed at times on these same vaudeville circuits.
Of course, audience appeal was a primary consideration for producers long before the early 20 century. The commercial theaters that sprang up in late 18-century Paris and the music halls of 19 century England were under the same pressure to sell tickets, if not even earlier in the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616) or Molière (1622-1673).
Being a commercial draw was also a matter of survival, but the diverse personalities of modern dance cared more about expression, honesty, and creativity, as well as societal and even political issues. Its leaders wanted to be artists for a people's art — at times, even a socialist one (see New Dance Group, Chapter 5) — and express some very personal and valuable insights about themselves and the world through their work. To this day, and continuing into the future, similar thematic subjects remain integral driving forces for contemporary dancer and choreographer sensibilities. When Ted Shawn (Edwin Myers Shawn; October 21, 1891 Kansas City, Missouri — January 9, 1972, Orlando, Florida) joined the company of Ruth St. Denis and married her in 1914, he helped create dances within the given confines of commercial theater. Together, they also developed the school and independent company Denishawn (1915 — 1931), a confluence of their last names. Their concert tours gave them more leeway for artistic experimentation than works created solely for the vaudeville circuit [www.youtube.com, search "Ted Shawn Choer Dance (1926).m4v"].
Ted Shawn began studying dance as a young man to compensate for ill health. His father was a Methodist minister who was influenced by some of the same spiritual movements of the 19 century mentioned above, and he encouraged his son's combined interests in spirituality and physical movement. Miss Ruth tended to be more a seeker of spiritual truth. Her quest began well before the partnership, leading her into the field of ethnic dance, where she composed pieces of dual Oriental and spiritual origin. (The politically debatable term "Oriental," often associated with Western imperialism, was the conventional word for "Asian" at that time.)
St. Denis attempted to emulate the spiritual impetus and movements of East Indian dance through a sort of self-withdrawn trance state, assuming a committed (if imitative) "Oriental authenticity." Although Miss Ruth had an artist's mind, commercial audiences were not always capable of seeing and appreciating the artistic value embedded in her famous dances, such as the Hindu-inflected Radha, mentioned above, the Japanese-inspired OMika (1913), or the Babylonian ensemble choreography in American director D. W. Griffith's (1875 — 1948) epic silent film, "Intolerance" (1916; www.youtube.com, search "BOISTER: Music for Erotic Dance by Ruth St. Denis, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance"). Family audiences came to vaudeville to be entertained, and if images of "the Orient" worked, then that could help pay the bills for the producers and the salaries of the performers.
Excerpted from Looking at Contemporary Dance by Marc Raymond Strauss, Myron Howard Nadel. Copyright © 2012 Marc Raymond Strauss. Excerpted by permission of Princeton Book Company.
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