The American origins of modern dance: [1930-1950] from the expressive to the abstract
With the passing of Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan and the emergence of several choreographers from the Denishawn school, the late 1920s heralded a new era in the history of American modern dance.
New York was buzzing with choreographic innovation. The Big Apple afforded artists a tightly woven creative network, consisting of teachers and performers; cultural venues and commercial theaters; the white and black performing arts scenes; entertainment and sociopolitical activism; companies and collectives; private investment and institutional support. The Great Depression has its impact on choreographic scene, which by the 1930s encompassed several generations of modern dancers. This period was also marked by the emergence of a brand-new aesthetic: the post World War II era saw abstraction come to American choreography, contrasting with Modern Dance’s previously expressive, dramatic, representational style.
Doris Humphrey, With my red fires (1936, performed at Connecticut college by a group of professional dancers under the direction of Charles Weidman, 1972)
Choreographed in 1936 at Bennington College, With my red fires is a group work exploring the dynamics between two young people in love, a possessive mother and a moralistic society. In it, the ensemble symbolizes the abstract notion of society enacting ritual punishment on the two lovers.
Exploiting the rhythmic variations of Wallingford Riegger’s music, Doris Humphrey deploys her entire choreographic vocabulary, composed of symmetries and asymmetries, successions and oppositions. The dancers’ movements rise and fall, tracing semi-circles and spirals. Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman developed a style based on the concept of fall and recovery: the art of staying off balance! Within the choreographic structure, the dancers trace out a three-dimensional space shaped by the interplay of lines, planes, and groupings. Humphrey and Weidman sought to depict contemporary American women and men steeped in the emotions and social changes of their time.
José Limon, The Moor’s Pavane (1949)
Like many of his contemporaries in the 1930s, José Limon was captivated by modern dance. Among others he would help popularize a style of dance inspired by the Humphrey- Weidman technique. Summer schools and dance festivals also encouraged the spread of various modern dance styles, and The Moor’s Pavane was created for the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in 1949.
Similarly to Humphrey and Graham, José Limon used demonstrative, stylized movements to express an all-encompassing vision. The Moor’s Pavane is a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello, in which the dancers represent characters from the play. Here, Othello, Iago, Desdemona and Emilia inhabit an intense microcosm, filled with contrasts, conjured by the music of Henry Purcell. While the choreography is based on a courtly dance, its form is gradually disrupted by an outpouring of passion. By degrees, the dancers eschew gravity and symmetry, their hurried and spiraling movements reflecting the characters’ psychological states as they struggle in vain to break free of their emotions.
Hanya Holm, Trend (1937, archive images / 1985 documentary)
German dancer Hanya Holm moved to New York to open a dance school on the invitation of Mary Wigman. Immersed in the theories of Laban and Dalcroze, she developed a style characterized by figures of eight and gyrations. Her work explores a wide range of spacial curves and dynamic variations.
In 1936 the school became the Hanya Holm School of Dance, with its own company. There she trained many dancers, including Alwin Nikolais. In 1937, she presented Trend at Bennington College.
Trend is a piece for 37 dancers, an epic work about human survival in the face of worker alienation, egocentrism, authoritarianism and the trauma of war. Arch Lauterer designed the minimalistic set, which critic Jean Martin described as “the first truly modern set design for dance”. Many of Hanya Holm’s dancers would go on to make politically and socially engaged work.
Jane Dudley, Time is money (1934, reconstruction by Jane Dudley, 1993)
A dancer with Martha Graham’s Company, Jane Dudley, saw modern dance as a means of political and social engagement. She was part of the New Dance Group: a choreographic collective advocating communist values and the idea that “Dance is a weapon!” The solo Time is money is inspired by and danced to a poem by proletarian poet Sol Funaroff. The piece highlights workers’ alienation and the frenetic rhythm and pace dictated by capitalism.
In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, this solo danced by Dudley herself, a white woman, spoke of the alienation of workers from all cultural backgrounds.
In this 1993 reconstruction, Dudley decided to include more dancers, so as to emphasize the universal nature of oppression and alienation, beyond questions of gender, historical context and skin color.
Pearl Primus, Hard time blues (1945, transmission by Mary Whaite to the James Carlès Company, 2009)
In the 1930s, politically engaged modern dancers faced many challenges, and this was particularly true for African American dancers. Lester Horton was the first to provide a platform for them to express their culture and concerns through modern movement, within an ethnically diverse dance company. But it was Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham who were the true impetus behind the Black modern dance movement. Both were fascinated by the ethnological and anthropological aspects of dance; sources of inspiration for their modern choreography. Their emotionally and physically powerful work is marked by its deep connection to music, characteristic chest movements and grounded nature.
Black Modern Dance defends the dignity of people and cultures too often derided since slavery. The 1945 solo Hard time blues, is about the widespread poverty, solitude and oppression experienced by African American sharecroppers in the mid-20th century South.
Alwin Nikolais, Tensile Involvement (1953, Nikolais dance theater, 1983)
A student of Hanya Holm, Alwin Nikolais designed all aspects of his abstract total dance theater. He combined dance, scenic design, music, lighting and even video projections to create a unique, kinetic, multimedia environment.
In one of his early works, Tensile involvement, dancers share the stage with elastic ribbons that cut the space into specific geometric forms creating a dynamic matrix of color and sound. Genderless in their unitards, the dancers move around the stage in a decentralized manner, representing nothing more than their own movements. The dance itself has its own kind of sentience.
Merce Cunningham, Rain forest (1968, Ballet de Lorraine, 2017)
Choreography: Merce Cunningham; Music: David Tudor; set design: Helium-filled pillows in metalized plastic from Andy Wahol’s Silver Clouds installation; Costumes: Jasper Johns
In Merce Cunningham’s work, abstraction arises from juxtaposing various equal, stand-alone works from different artists on stage. The movements of the dance are swift and articulated, bringing different parts of the body into concert to drive the action. In this way, Cunningham subverted modern dance’s previous focus on expressivity, despite his training from Louis Horst and time dancing with Martha Graham’s company.
Merce Cunningham and John Cage both utilized randomness in their work in order to move beyond habitual human patterns of thinking. Cunningham reimagined space, time and the relationship between elements, inspired by Zen notions of non-obstruction, non-interference and simultaneity. The novelty and freedom to be found in the experience of the present moment is reflected the random movements of the silver clouds in Rain Forest.
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 30ansdanse.fr. Alongside her activities in/for/around choreographic art, she has practiced hatha yoga in France and in India for several years.