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The American origins of modern dance. [1960-1990] Postmodern dance and Black dance: artistic movements of their time

Maison de la danse 2024 - Director : Plasson, Fabien

Choreographer(s) : Ailey, Alvin (United States) Halprin, Anna (United States) Paxton, Steve (United States) Brown, Trisha (United States) Rainer, Yvonne (United States) Childs, Lucinda (United States) Jones, Bill T. (United States)

en fr


Ailey, Alvin (France)

Maison de la danse 2007 - Director : Picq, Charles

Choreographer(s) : Ailey, Alvin (United States)

Integral video available at Maison de la danse de Lyon

Take a look at this work in the video library

Parades & changes, replays

Halprin, Anna (United States)

Biennale de la danse 2008

Choreographer(s) : Halprin, Anna (United States) Collod, Anne (France)

Video producer : ...& alters

Integral video available at Maison de la danse de Lyon

Take a look at this work in the video library

Steve Paxton, Physical Things

Paxton, Steve (United States)


Roof and Fire Piece

Brown, Trisha (United States)


Yvonne Rainer's Judson Flag Show

Rainer, Yvonne (United States)



Childs, Lucinda (France)



Jones, Bill T. (Still/Here)

Biennale de la danse 1994

Choreographer(s) : Jones, Bill T. (United States)

Video producer : Maison de la Danse;Biennale de la Danse

Integral video available at Maison de la danse de Lyon

Take a look at this work in the video library

The American origins of modern dance. [1960-1990] Postmodern dance and Black dance: artistic movements of their time

Maison de la danse 2024 - Director : Plasson, Fabien

Choreographer(s) : Ailey, Alvin (United States) Halprin, Anna (United States) Paxton, Steve (United States) Brown, Trisha (United States) Rainer, Yvonne (United States) Childs, Lucinda (United States) Jones, Bill T. (United States)

Author : Céline Roux

en fr


The 1960s and 70s were times of great change worldwide. Perhaps the most iconic moment of this period came around its mid-point, in 1968, when the contemporary social, cultural and ideological undercurrents coalesced into a student uprising that spread to all continents. The pace of life accelerated and the world became smaller. New means of communication and transport helped facilitate the spread of goods, ideas and knowledge. American modern dance extended its reach across the globe: companies went on tour, dancers, particularly from the East and Europe came to train in the US, and American choreographers helped to establish modern dance in other countries. During these decades, Martha Graham was influential in the emergence of modern dance in Israel and Taiwan. Dance was part of American soft power at a time when the Cold War was polarising the western world.


Dance in a changing America 

The Vietnam war, Watergate, the first man on the moon… Political affairs, international strategy, the quest for global domination… In the United States, the 1960s and 70s were characterised by technological advancements, the rise of consumerist society and ideological polarisation. The world was changing and Americans were divided on how the future should look. Hippy counterculture was born, with its dream of a world founded on peace, love and exploring states of consciousness. These ideas infiltrated the art world and artists began to rethink traditional paradigms, particularly concerning the role of the body and the spectator. This shift can be seen in the title of a work by Allan Kaprow, one of the founders of the “happening”: Essays on the blurring of art and life.   

These two decades also saw the rise of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 for racial desegregation was a powerful political symbol, as was Martin Luther King’s seminal speech in Washington the previous year. Yet violence continued, with the assassinations of Malcom X in 1965 and Martin Luther King in 1968. The creation of the Black Panther Party in 1966 reflected a growing demand for political and ideological organisation: a demand which was also present in the world of dance. The first Black ballet company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, was founded in 1969 under the joint direction of Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook. Its early development was supported by a well known Russian choreographer who had emigrated to the United States some decades earlier: Georges Balanchine. Modern Afro-American dance was about to emerge.    

Revelation (1960) by Alvin Ailey, icon of Black dance 

From the 1960s Afro-American modern dance choreographers developed and promoted what would come to be known as Black Dance. Following in the footsteps of Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, these choreographers were also familiar with white modern dance, through figures such as Lester Horton, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Anna Sokolow. One of these choreographers was Alvin Ailey, whose career illustrates the challenges of being a Black American dancer during this time. A multidisciplinary artist, he was interested in all forms of art and had a comprehensive vision of performance. His dance practice was also informed by a range of styles, including classical ballet, modern dance, jazz and indigenous American dances.   

He founded his company in 1958, in New York. His work focused on performances for the concert stage. Originally exclusively made up of Afro-American dancers, in a few years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater became multiracial. Ailey’s choreography is often structured as a series of tableaus, as it is in Revelations; a work inspired by his “blood memories”  Texas and by spirituals and gospel. He brought to the stage his own idea of the dancing body: expressive, modern upper body movements, with the lower body postures of classical dance. To this he added undulations and a low centre of gravity inspired by African dance. In the 1960s, Ailey’s influence was strong and directly connected with the fight for civil rights. It is difficult not to see a link between this piece and the integrationist ideal promoted by Martin Luther King three years later.   

San Francisco and New York,  centres of postmodern (r)evolution and experimentation  

In 1952 John Cage’s Untitled Event was performed at Black Mountain College. It was a precursor of the happening and marked the beginnings of a new kind of experimentation with movement and performance, particularly in the visual arts. Around the same time, on the West Coast, Anna Halprin began to explore connections between movement, environment and community. In an atmosphere influenced by hippy culture, she taught dance based on improvisation, drawing on the experience of simple everyday movements and tasks. Both her endeavours and collaborators were multidisciplinary. She not only worked with dancers, but also with designers, musicians, architects, landscape architects, visual artists, writers, environmental activists, teachers and psychologists. Her goal was to develop a heightened awareness of the environment and open up possibilities for integrated, inter-professional creativity. In 1955, she founded the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, which would go on to become one of the first multiethnic companies. For her, the collective was the heart of creativity. The choreographer brought the group together, working with what each dancer brought to the table. There were no more models to imitate or masters to follow, a spirit of community became the touchstone of a new generation: that of postmodern dance.  Several dancers involved in Halprin’s workshops left the West coast for New York, joining Robert Dunn’s experimental choreographic workshops at Studio Cunningham.  

Shaped by these two experiences, a generation of dancers came to reject the established conventions of modern dance for a more experimental path. These dancers, including Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown and David Gordon would work within multidisciplinary collectives like the Judson Dance Theater, founded in 1962, and the Grand Union (1970), opening choreography up to new possibilities.   

Parades and changes (1965) by Anna Halprin :  Art as perpetual recreation 

Anna Halprin’s highly functional approach to art, developed with her husband, architect Laurence Halprin, can be seen in her work for the stage. Novel in its time, Parades and changes was designed, as the title indicates, to change with each performance. Its initial structure is determined by series of “scores” containing written instructions for specific actions to be carried out by the dancers, such as “dress and undress”, “paper dance”,  “embrace”  and so on.   

Another of her innovations was to use only what was found in the theatre. The order in which the scores were activated would change according to the context. The sound design would also differ: the musician choosing either pre-recorded pop songs, local radio or live singing. The same applied to the lighting. Each person involved in the performance had their own series of possibilities. While the scores describe precise actions, they can be staged in a variety of different ways. The props, music, lighting and costumes are all connected to the physical actions on stage. Anna Halprin saw art as a whole, aiming to create a sensory, intellectual and emotional experience.     

Physical things (1966) - Steve Paxton:  An immersive, participative experience  

9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering took place in New York in October 1966. This event brought together innovative dancers, musicians and artists and engineers from Bell Laboratories for a series of creations blending art and new technology. Along with Dick Wolff, Steve Paxton designed an air inflated polythene structure: an immersive experience made up of long tunnels, through which visitors could wander, which opened up onto larger spaces with projected images. The “Forest room” for example, was a kind of cube, carpeted with artificial grass, where slides of trees and other vegetation were projected onto a screen. Each space had its own soundscape, designed by Robert Ashley. Visitors could pick up the sounds using a small pocket radio powered by innovative technology. Moving through the installation, visitor-viewers would shift from one information zone to another and along the way, encounter a number of human actions. They would thus become performers, or activators of the space themselves. The experience itself became the artistic goal, in line with the ideology of Judson Dance Theater and the school of thought expressed by philosopher and psychologist John Dewy in his work Art as Experience (1934). The limits between art and life were blurred. The visual, auditory and bodily experiences at play in the work, took on meanings that were both collective and individual.   

Breaking away from performance conventions  and taking a stand on politics, society and culture 

Postmodern dancers wanted to break free of the conventions of both classical dance and the modern dance of the 1930s onwards. They saw both aesthetics as elitist, cut off from real life, undemocratic and devoid of political engagement. Taking dance out of traditional theatres and into other spaces was an attempt to bring art closer to life, shift focus to experience rather than results, and foster egalitarian relationships. In 1965, Yvonne Rainer summarised her critique of the status quo in her No Manifesto: “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectator. No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.”  Through refusals and negation, this short text in fact opened up new kinds of possibilities: choreographic works took on new forms, with different durations and levels of audience participation.  Some of these new forms experimented with alternative ways of thinking about the artistic practice itself, others were socially and politically engaged: particularly against puritanism and the Vietnam war, and in favour of the rights of ethnic minorities. All demonstrated a clear desire for new ways of seeing, understanding and engaging with the world.   

Roof and fire piece (1971) by Trisha Brown:  New York rooftops as the stage for a new kind of choreography 

At the start of her career, Trisha Brown took dance into new spaces: natural settings, parks, streets, building facades, rooftops, lofts, art galleries and more. Her Early Works explored the neighbourhood of Soho in New York. Walking was heavily emphasised. Her Equipment Pieces, for example, looked at the sensations produced by movement over non-horizontal surfaces. Later she worked on the accumulation of simple gestures, opening up new choreographic possibilities. Roof and fire piece was a large scale work for urban landscapes, performed on rooftops. Created in 1971, it was filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1973. The piece explores the dancers’ capacity to transmit gestures over great distances. Every fifteen minutes, the direction of transmission would change, from North-South to South-North. The dance covered a total distance of seven blocks from North to South and three blocks from East to West. Performed in this information-saturated architectural landscape, the gestures would gradually get lost or transform as they moved along the chain of dancers. These changes were only partially visible the audience, some of whom watched from the rooftops, but none of whom could observe the piece in its entirety.   

Trio A with flags (1970) Yvonne Rainer:  dancing for freedom of speech 

Trio A, one of the seminal pieces in the work of Yvonne Rainer, is an expression of her manifesto, The Mind is a Muscle. Julia Bryan-Wilson described the piece in the following way: “in Trio A the performers - often a mix of dancers and non-dancers - generally wear normal street clothes, usually dance without musical accompaniment, and perform the same movements together, but not in unison. The sequence of unpredictable actions, ones that disregard dance conventions of phrasing and climax, runs about four and a half to five minutes long, but since there is no musical beat or rigid metronome to keep people in sync, inevitably each performer ends up dancing for different lengths of time.”  Trio A is a minimalist dance that takes the same principles used by Judson Church Theater visual artist, Robert Morris, to move from traditional sculpture to minimalist sculpture, and applies them to modern dance . Trio A has been danced and taught by Yvonne Rainer multiple times since its creation. The neutral nature of the work allows it to be in dialogue with its environment.  Trio A was performed during the exhibition People’s Flag Show, held at Judson Church in November 1970, by Faith Ringgold, Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks. The aim of the exhibition was clearly described in its programme: “The American people are the only people who can interpret the American flag, a flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit, should be burned and forgotten. Artists, workers, Students, women, third world peoples - you are oppressed - What does the flag mean to you? Join the peoples answer to the repressive U.S. govt & state laws restricting our use & display of the flag.” . While the exhibition was not overtly anti-war, it did contain numerous works referencing the Vietnam war and the conviction of gallery owner Stephen Radich for having exhibited works criticising US involvement in it. Yvonne Rainer mounted a version of Trio A, performed by herself and five members of the Grand Union collective: Barbara Lloyd, David Gordon, Nancy Green, Steve Paxton and Lincoln Scott. They performed the dance twice over, completely naked save for American flags tied around their necks like giant bibs. By adding nudity and the American flag to the performance of Trio A, Rainer aimed to protest both repression and censorship.    

The 1970s: neutral bodies, democratic bodies Dance centred on the senses and perceptions 

Improvisation drives creativity and can take on a range of compositional forms. Communal, democratic creativity, taking into account individual specificities, is rich in possibilities. Operating between 1970 and 1976, the Grand Union collective focused on improvisational work, in dialogue with socio-cultural realities and created for specific events. For example, in 1971,  the collective participated in a performance for the benefit of the Black Panther defence committee at the Loeb student centre in New York. In the same spirit, Steve Paxton created a new improvisational technique based on balance, weight transfer and contact between partners, known today as “contact improvisation”. Simone Forti described the technique by comparing it to everyday activities: “Think about moving through water: swimming; moving through snow: skiing; through the air: flying. The beginning of contact improvisation was like the discovery of another environment through which to move: the body of another as environment.”   

Contact improvisation involves leaning into sensation and becoming keenly aware of the here and now. Free from any notions of performance, this practice requires the dancer to take personal responsibility, make choices and react to the sensation of movement without any attempt to generate shapes or express something beyond the practice itself. Around the same time, Anna Halprin began to create therapeutic rituals she would later integrate into her Life Art Process®. She founded the Tamalpa Institute in 1978 along with her daughter. Yvonne Rainer moved increasingly towards film. Finally, many postmodern dancers continued to explore the neutrality of the dancing body, working with “pure movement”, that is, movement that is neither functional nor figurative, but simply physical.   

Dance (1979) by Lucinda Childs,  A hypnotic, minimalist, multidisciplinary work 

The initial basis of this work was the silent solo, Katema. Created in 1978, the solo consisted of constant back and forth movements along a line: walking, half-turns and turns with perpendicular arm movements. The rhythm of the dance and the sound of the dancer’s steps served as the musical score in this paired-down, neutral, implacably repetitive work. In the following year (1979), Lucinda Childs created an augmented version for the stage, with 8 dancers. A work in several parts, Dance is particularly known for the section where the dancers repeatedly traverse from one side of the stage to another in a series of minimalist variations. She chose to work with composer Philip Glass, with whom she had collaborated a few years prior on Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach. The cyclical nature of Glass’ music is reinforced by the visual artistry of Sol LeWitt, who reproduced the dance in video form. The work features projected images of the same dancers, dancing the same dance but viewed at different scales and from different perspectives than those presented on stage. The whole adds up to an immersive loop of movements, sounds, colours and shapes that draw the audience into a kind of visual, auditory and sensory hypnosis.   

What next? 

The 1960s and 70s were fertile years for new choreographic approaches in both Black and postmodern dance. Modern dance also continued to develop over this time. Some artists, like Cunningham, moved towards film, others choreographed operas. Many spent the 1970s working with a variety of networks and aesthetics. For example, in 1970, Twyla Tharp choreographed dance sequences for the musical Hair with director Miloš Forman, at the same time as her solo 1903, to the music of Randy Newman for the concert stage and began work on a piece which would take her to Broadway.   

While postmodern choreographers performed in places outside of theatres during these decades, the late 70s and 1980s would see many of them move towards the stage productions and operas. Their previous experimental works would not be recognised in France until much later, in the mid-1990s. During the 60s and 70s, French audiences discovered American modern dance through the touring works of abstract and minimalist choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs and Paul Taylor. It was modern abstract dance choreographer, Alwin Nikolais, who headed up France’s first contemporary dance school, the Angers CDND, at its founding in 1978. A few years prior, one of his dancers, Carolyn Carlson, was appointed head of the Paris Opera theatrical research group. European perceptions of American modern dance centred around Studio Cunningham and the great modern masters, such as Martha Graham and José Limon.  

In the 1980s, Black dance gained increasing recognition both nationally and internationally. Alvin Ailey was one of its leading proponents. He developed a diverse repertoire in order to expose his company to a range of different genres, styles and viewpoints. In 1974 he founded the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now known as Ailey II), a youth company for the most talented dancers in his school, which would travel the world on extensive tours.   

New York remained a hothouse for the emergence of new talents during the 1980s, in particular due to a multidisciplinary space called The Kitchen. But the 1980s was also the decade of the AIDs epidemic, which particularly affected the word of art and dance. Initially hidden due to stigma, this disease would become a subject of concern for artists from the hippy and anti-segregationist generation.   

Still/Here (1994) by Bill T. Jones:   Still here with hope and determination 

Bill T. Jones remembered:  “I was 12 when I saw the March on Washington with this beautiful orator, Martin Luther King, speaking and holding the world. There was hopefulness. I wanted to be part of that.”  Jones would play his part in this movement by promoting tolerance and diversity in dance. In 1982 he cofounded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in New York with his partner Arnie Zane. The company’s works melded dance and speech and were characterised by improvisation and images, influenced by Zane’s photographer’s eye. Its early works used this multimedia approach to evoke issues of homosexuality and the physical and racial differences affecting the couple. The choreography draws on a mix of popular and folk Afro-American dances, modern and postmodern dance, ballet and contact improvisation.  

In the 1980s the company was made up of dancers recruited for the diversity of their bodies, sexual orientations and racial ethnicities. The death of Arnie Zane in 1988 marked a turning point in the work. Still/Here (1994) was created from workshops with groups of patients dubbed “survival workshops”. It evokes mortality through the words and movements of those facing the perils of illness. The work was created in two parts, which function like two sides of a mirror. “Still” represents the inner world of the sufferer, and “Here” speaks to the feelings of one learning the diagnosis. The piece includes video and spoken stories of people suffering from AIDs and cancer. Eminently political, it caused controversy in its time, particularly in the United States. Dance continues to speak powerfully of the world around it.

[1] A reference to memories of the racial violence he experienced growing up in Texas.

[2] To read the scores, see Halprin, Anna, Moving Towards Life, ed. R.Kaplan, Wesleyan University Press, 1995, p. 124.

[3] Rainer, Yvonne 1964

[4] Bryan-Wilson Julia, “Practicing Trio A”, in OCTOBER 140, Spring 2012, pp. 54–74. 

[5] In her work “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A”, Yvonne Rainer lays out the seven requisite principles: 1. energy equality and “found” movement; 2. equality of parts; 3 repetition or discrete events; 4. neutral performance; 5. task or tasklike activity; 6. singular action, event, or tone; 7. human scale. - in Banes, Sally, Terpsichore in Sneakers, Post-Modern Dance, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown CT, 1987  pp.123-124.

[6] Statement from the exhibition.

[7] Simone Forti, “La sensation d’une forme ancienne”, in Nouvelles de danse n°38/39 Contact improvisation, Bruxelles, ed. Contredanse, Spring/Summer 1999, p. 13. 

[8] In John Rockwell, “Biographical Essay and Tribute”, S25 EP6: Bill T. Jones: A good man, 26 October 2011. cf.

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Holder of a doctorate in the history of art, Céline Roux is an independent researcher. Specialising in the performative practices of the French choreographic field, she is in particular the author of Danse(s) performative(s) (L’Harmattan, 2007) and Pratiques performatives / Corps critiques # 1-10 (2007-2016) (L’Harmattan, 2016). A lecturer, trainer and teacher, she works in a variety of higher education contexts as well as coaching dancers. She also collaborates in the artistic projects of contemporary dancers-choreographers, whether for artist archives, the production of critical texts and editorial projects or dramaturgic coaching. She has contributed to a number of digital projects for the sharing of choreographic culture such as Alongside her activities in/for/around choreographic art, she has practiced hatha yoga in France and in India for several years.


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