The history of modern dance has been cyclical, constantly moving between phases of institution and revolution. Modern dance developed in the United States as a reaction to European ballet and expressionistic dance in Germany.
Isadora Duncan, who is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance,” began dancing in New York in 1895 and moved to Europe in the late 1890s to further her dance career. Duncan is credited with founding the “New System” of interpretive dance, which fused poetry, music and rhythms found in nature with a freeform style of movement. She often danced barefoot in simple Greek apparel, and was known to be an incredibly passionate performer. Duncan is perhaps most notoriously remembered for alluding to her Communism during a performance in Boston; she bared her breast and waved a red scarf onstage, while shouting “This is red. So am I.” Ironically, it was a scarf that caused Duncan’s untimely death in 1927.
In 1914, Ruth St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn, founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles. St. Denis was a dancer known for her impressionistic, Eastern-themed work, and she was one of the first women to choreograph in the until then male-dominated dance field. Martha Graham, who is sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of Dance” and/or the “Mother of Modern Dance,” studied at the Denishawn School.
Graham went on to develop a codified modern dance technique that allowed her to dance with intense sexual and emotional expression; the technique was based on contraction and release in the torso. Graham’s work was strongly influenced by relevant American themes and Greek mythology, and she often choreographed a woman on a heroic quest. Google celebrated what would have been Graham’s 117th birthday this year with a Google Doodle that illustrated some of her signature moves. Scroll to the bottom of the link for the video.
In 1926, Graham founded the Martha Graham Dance Company, which featured soloist Merce Cunningham.
Cunningham, who recently passed away at age 90, was considered the greatest living modern dance choreographer until his July 2009 death. Famous for working with chance procedures in his choreography, Cunningham allowed his dancers to play with repetition, directional facing and use of stage space, in addition to giving dancers independent control of the order of dance phrases. Cunningham was not interested in building clear narratives or exploring psychological relationships; he believed that the subject matter of his dance works were the physical movements themselves. Watch Merce dance here; he is the soloist in black.
Many of Cunningham’s works were collaborations with his life partner, musician John Cage, and featured cacophonous soundscapes and experimentation with musical forms. In one of Cunningham’s most recent works, audience members listened to pre-loaded iPod Shuffles, which effectively facilitated randomized audio accompaniment for the Cunningham Company’s performance.
Black Dance icon Katherine Dunham studied Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and focused on the culture and traditions of the Haitian people. Influenced by the Vodoun religion, a cult of ancestor worship that is expressed through dance, Dunham developed her own codified modern dance technique and founded the Katherine Dunham Company, the first African American modern dance company, in the 1940s. The Dunham technique incorporates African dance aesthetics, such as polycentrism, the idea that more than one spot in the body can be the center for movement initiation, and the aesthetic of the cool. Check out this excerpt from Ronald K. Brown’s In Gratitude, a tribute to Katherine Dunham that was performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the presence of Dunham herself.