Modern dance is one of the most difficult genres to define by technique. Modern is not necessarily fast or slow or done to specific music, or any music. It doesn’t necessarily highlight a specific physical ability or tell a story. It is not necessarily nothing. And it can include everything. This is fine and great from the point of view of many choreographers and dancers because, in theory, it gives them endless possibilities to play with.
The problem is that the “infinite possibilities” make modern dance really hard to talk about and very hard for the general public to understand. (This is important as they are the ones paying the bills.)
This identity crisis is understandable for an art form whose sole purpose seems to be not to do what was done before. Studios and even universities often don’t have time to go into modern dance theory. However, only those who take the time to learn where modern dance came from have what it takes to give it a serious future.
Define Purpose, Define Genre
The heart of this problem has a lot to do with the fact that the original purpose of the modern was very, very vague. Something like, “Exceed the limits set by ballet! Break the assumed rules and find a new way to move!” That’s an inspiring place to start, but a definition like “modern is a 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 spin on what the purpose of modern dance should be. And interestingly, every purpose has a survival track today.
The Original Purpose
The beginnings of modernity, 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 the opposition to the ballet rules. Doris Humphrey spoke about the beginnings of modern dance:
“This is not to say that the ballet form was bad, but that it was limited and suffered from arrested development: sixteen permanents, the same Sleeping Beauty. So well established was the formula for so many hundreds of years that, as the twentieth century dawned With its flurry 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 doing dances Doris Humphrey, p.15-16)
And as Hanya Holm said: “You shouldn’t dance academically. It has no game, no breath, no life. The academic moves within a set of rules. Two plus two equals four. The artist learns the rules in order to break them.” . Two plus two is five. Both are right from a different point of view.” (Visions, p. 78)
Ok, originally they wanted an alternative to the rules and structure of ballet, but what did that even mean? A genre has to have definitions of what it is and 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 was no longer performing its function of communication. Communication is not meant to tell a story or project an idea, but to communicate an experience… This is the reason for the appearance of modern dance… The ancient forms could not give voice to the most fully awakened man”. (Vision, p.50)
In “The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Makers” (edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin, and Charles H. Woodford), they describe their 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 themes and reflecting their own era rather than an earlier one. Their movements evolved from the meaning of dance ., rather than previously learned steps developed by people from a different culture.In the process of finding new techniques to express their art, these pioneers of modern dance broke existing rules—indeed, that was their intention, as they were … anti-ballet, anti-past”. (Vision, p. 43-44)
The founders did not 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 in movement. In the years 1900-1930, 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 change.
The Purpose of the 3rd and 4th Generations
Modern dance went through a subtle but interesting change between the ’40s and ’60s. The genre had been around for so long that the excitement of a new way of expressing ideas had died down. Now, instead of continuing to invent new techniques, people were enthusiastic about practicing the techniques that had been created. The dancers wanted to learn the “Graham technique” or “Limon technique” and perfect this new genre of dance. The dancers also forgot about the ballet boycott and began taking ballet classes to strengthen their modern technique.
“By the 1960s, technical proficiency had become an end in itself for modern dancers, rather than a means to an end. Technique became strict and established, codified in the creator’s style, with an emphasis in increasing achievement Only those teaching in the Laban-Wigman-Holm tradition included improvisation in their classes Ballet aspects were increasingly incorporated into modern dance classes, ballet barres were installed in studios of modern dance, 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 improve it. This meant creating “modern techniques” and guidelines, the very things first and second generation modern dancers were trying to avoid.
Anna Sokolow, a second-generation modern dancer, strongly believes that “…an art must be constantly changing; it cannot have fixed rules.
“The problem with modern dance now is that it’s trying to be respectable… We shouldn’t be trying to create a tradition. Ballet has done that, and that’s fine, for ballet, but not for us. Our strength lies in in our lack of tradition. Some say the big change came in the late 1920s, and now it’s time for modern dance to catch on and take hold. That’s all wrong, because it’s like building on another tradition Without change there can be no growth, and there is not enough change today.” (Vision, p.108)
There were enough new dancers who wanted to learn the new modern technique for what it was, and not explore options now, that they “won”. Techniques were solidified and rules were made.
We see that today some companies continue to preserve the technique and original ideas of their creators. Something like a living museum. Recently, the Martha Graham Dance Company specifically announced that its new purpose is to preserve Graham’s work.
So modern dance has gone through its own growing pains as it tries to decide if the purpose is to stay true to the philosophy of always exploring and changing or preserving the new techniques we acquire. Some technique, some philosophy, and some tried to do both. This tripartite division in 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 subgenre. modern dance now they were the techniques and rules created to preserve and improve the work of the creators. Dancers who wanted to keep the philosophy modern and continue to reinvent the movement are now known as postmodernists.
the postmodern agenda
So the next generation has tried to uphold the philosophy of the original modern dancers by continuing to work against established techniques. Except now, often the established techniques are the modern techniques of the creators! So how do you reinvent a reinvention?
Currently, postmodernism is in a new shift. Perhaps they have reached a point where, as Don McDonagh put it, “there seemed to be no rules left to break… By the late 1970s, there was nowhere left to eliminate traditional practices.” (Vision, p. 199)
The postmodern agenda is to continue to break the rules, and because this has been done for a century, you’re running out of things to prove. (Perhaps this has something to do with modernity’s reputation now for being hard to understand and sometimes just plain weird.)
“The generation of the 1980s and 1990s began to work with new forms of unconventional theatrical presentation… [They] they continued to create works that required no dance training, but emphasized highly skilled gymnastic body control…Other choreographers shaped somersaults and aerial acrobatics into spectral shows…The human voice reciting narrative or descriptive material sometimes became an accompanying sound for dances.” (p. 200)
Popular postmodern experiments have become to test not only the definition of modern dance, but also dance and even art in general. Speech has been added, music has been removed, and technique has been reduced to “pedestrian movement” (aka walking around the stage).
Mary Fulkerson, a self-proclaimed postmodernist, explains it this way. “Modern works seek to show, to communicate something, to transcend real life. Postmodern works seek to be, to question textures and complexities of real life.” (“Vision of Modern Dance”, p. 209)
Ironically, this statement sounds very similar to what the creators of the modern were saying almost a century earlier.
Graham trained, Erick Hawkins had this to say: “More than ever in history, society needs the rich variety of powerful artists who don’t fake science but explore sensibility and don’t do away with the senses.” (Erick Hawkins, p. 14)
Modern dance has come full circle: acknowledging the norm, questioning and pushing the limits, and then becoming the new norm as specific techniques are accepted.
The goals of breaking the rules of ballet, and later of dance and art in general, have been achieved by many brave and passionate modern dancers. Now is the time for the modern to enter a new phase. He has matured into his own gender and needs to accept it. So what is the purpose of modern dance now that the rebellion has come to an end?
Martha Graham still has the answer. “The reality of dance is its truth for 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. Of course, it’s not always successful, but a dedication to communication is what will continue to set modern dance apart from other genres.
Modern has done us a great service as artists. By exploring everything that can be called dance, everyone has the opportunity to find a place that works for them. The doors of free movement have been opened. Now is the time to take what we have learned over the last hundred years and use it to express what is in the human soul.