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Historic Modern Dance

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Lady Kay,

To properly answer your question perhaps you could explain where you heard the term "historic modern dance" and in what context? It's very vague and open to endless interpretations - as there have been endless chapters and periods of modernism throughout dance history, indeed a hundred or so years ago Swan Lake would have been "modern" and none could have guessed it would be destined for historical posterity. Or since Nijinsky's Rite of Spring pre dated Fuller, Fokine and any of the great modern choreographers, you could argue that's when "modern" began?

Also modern dance was not just confined to America, Joos, Leeder, Laban, Wigman - all european chapters in dance's history.

In relation to the term "modern" there's nice passage from Martha Graham's memoires:

When Garson Kanin recommended that I choreograph The Goldwyn Follies. Sam [Goldwyn] said, "I've heard of her. What kind of dance does she do?"

Garson brightened with "modern dance". To which Sam replied, "Not modern dance. It's so old fashioned." He was right.

Modern dance dates so quickly. That's why I always use the term contemporary dance" - it's of its time. I never, never say "modern dance". There is no such thing. Everything in art changes, except the avant garde.

A really good starting point to learn about modern dance from the 19th century to present day would be to read "A Vision of Modern Dance"


This book charts the progression from Fuller & Duncan, touches on eastern europeans such as Wigman, deals with the big "3" Graham, Holm, Humpherys; the second generation such as Limon, Cunningham, Taylor and deals with the post modern Judson Church group, such as Rainer, Dunn and finishes off with "present" day choreographers such as Mark Morris.

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I was just thinking as well Lady Kay. that in terms of "historic" you can also apply this to certain works in a modern choreographers canon or certain "events" which became important in the history of dance and in the technique and artistic history of not only that choreographer but in dance history itself.

Martha Graham had several of these which were directly linked to certain seminal works and periods of her artistic development:

Dance, Lamentation, The Heretic, Frontier, Appalachain Spring, Night Journey - all mark several extremely important moments when certain ideas and advances in her technique took form and were expressed in a single work.

However, those can also cross over in several choreographers works within a specific artistic movement - The Americana arts movement of the 30s can include Frontier but also Doris Humphreys' The Shakers.

Merce Cunningham is another who had several of these seminal work moments: Crises, Winterbranch, Summerspace, Walkaround Time, Suite for Five, Story, Aeon, Rainforest - all moments when the art and choreography and artistic manifesto found a single expression in a single groundbreaking work which became historic.

Another such moment for Cunningham happened on the world tour on June 24th 1964 when invited to presnent the company in Vienna at the Museum of the 20 Jahrhundert, they found that the space was unable to support a proper performance with lights, prosecenium arch or even normal theatre set up. So they performed a 90 minute dance concert which incorporated several excerpts from existing dances joined together to form a tapestry of one whole new dance piece. This became known as Event 1 - over the years they've performed hundreds of these "events" each numbered - it was an historic moment in the way dance could be programmed and performed.

Paul Taylor is another who has several seminal works such as Orbs, Aureole, Esplanade - in these pieces which come to be called "masterpieces" the intention was to explore a facet of dance which was so successful that the pieces ended up being historic. Esplanade for example is a dance piece made up of not a single dance step. It's all about running, walking, skipping, falling, jumping but no actual "dancing" in the traditional sense.

Another way of looking at historic moments is in certain concerts or movements. I don't know if you've heard of the Judson Church Group? On July 6th 1962 a group of choreographers who'd all studied or performed with the "established" companies set up a dance concert at the Judson Memorial Church in New York to present work which went against all established notions of technique, virtuosity and dance. This group included people like Yvonne Rainer, Trish Brown, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Douglas Dunn presenting work which baffled, angered and bored many people. However, it became the beginning of "post modern" modern dance and set up the careers of these dance practitioners and gave a platform for their own experiments in dance form. In Paxton's case his technique is widely known as "contact improvisation". The Judson Church performance, the group and the dance form it inspired is an important moment in modern dance history - although at the time the people involved were trying to deconstruct all notion of establishment, posterity and history the irony is it was an historic moment within dance.

Indeed how does one define "historic" especially in an evolving art form - how long is a piece of string?

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As you can tell from the previous comments, there's a great deal of latitude surrounding the term "historic modern dance." In general, in the academic world, Fuller. Duncan and St Denis are considered the precursor generation in America (drawing some of their materials from Delsarte and Dalcroze). Humphrey. Weidman, Graham and Holm are often referred to as the "pioneers," and much of American modern dance can be traced back to one or the other of them. There were other artists who were their contemporaries, but they were the backbone of the work.

One other interpretation of "historic modern dance" might be work that isn't combined or "fused" with other materials (including ballet), so that the list would likely expand to include Limon, Cunningham, and Taylor, among others.

I've always liked Susan Au's "Ballet and Modern Dance" as a general dance history text, but if you're interested in Duncan and St Denis' generation, look for "Where She Danced" by Susanne Shelton. For the next chunk of time, try the "Modern Movers" section of Deborah Jowitt's "Time and the Dancing Image."

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Thank-you so much for your most informative responses. To answer your first question, Simon G, I was introduced to the the term, 'Historic Modern Dance' in an essay question. I'm a student at the University of Cape Town studying Dance, and the following question was presented as a Dance History assignment: "Merce Cunningham made a strong personal statement in his work which differed markedly from the historic generation. Discuss Cunningham's ideas and work and suggest why he is referred to as a bridge between historic modern dance and post modernism." We have recently been studying American modern dance in Dance History, so I would imagine the lecturer is referring specifically to a group of people involved in this movement, what puzzles me is that she makes mention of an historic generation (singular), leading me to think that there is only one generation that is the historic generation, if that makes sense.

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Hi Lady Kay,

Ah! Now I know exactly what you need to research for you essay question. If you can try and get your hands on these books, I don't know what your library is like:

The Vision of Modern Dance - as above.

Merce Cunningham The Modernizing of Modern Dance - Roger Copeland


There's one book which is brilliant by Carolyn Brown, Cunningham's main dancer for 20 years and will give you everything you need

Chance & Circumstance - Twenty years with Cage & Cunningham - Carolyn Brown.


Merce Cunningham 50 years - David Vaughn


Merce Cunningham Notes on Choeography - Frances Starr


I suppose the things which are most appropriate for the question are:

Cunningham's early performing experience with Graham and Graham technique. Things to focus on are:

The highly structured and codified technique of Graham.

The way that this relates to the highly structured and codified ballet technique.

The structure of Graham ballets - they became increasingly story based, the technique and dramatic structure was directly linked to commissioned scores, they had a narrative base - they're essentially story ballets.

Cunningham's breaking away from Graham and the "classical" hierarchy of American Modern dance in the mid to late 40s.

His meeting with John Cage and his first solo concerts in 1944 & 1945.

The notion that dance, story and design were not necessarily connected and all inter dependent of each other.

The formation of his company at Black Mountain college in 1953.

Bennington College.

Bennington was a very important set up. It was a summer programme where the big movers and shakers were invited to give residencies in all aspects of Modern dance. It ran for about 20 years from the late 30s to mid late 50s

At that time Graham, Louis Horst, Doris Humphrey & Limon were the leaders in the American modern dance movement - in 1958 Cunningham and his company were invited to take up a summer residency there and it was a historic meeting of the establishment vs the new young pretenders.

Things also to focus on as this is important in regards to post modernism is despite the notion of chance procedure the one aspect of Cunningham's work which was not left to chance is the technique.

In technique there is none more thorough, rigorous or challenging than Cunningham's. In that respect he was no different to Graham.

In relation to your essay question the knock on effect from Cunningham to "post modernism" is just that the post moderns were rebelling against the concept of technique, rigour, formalised dances and virtuosity.

The most famous example of this is an essay by post modern dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer called "The Mind is a Muscle" with her famous statement "No To Virtuosity".


The Judson Church Group.

The Judson Church Group were in many ways a direct rebelling against the modern vision of dance of Cunningham who was the hero of the "avant garde" because in their eyes he was still bound by formalism and technique.

However many of them had studied or performed with Cunningham or were still performing with him at the time of the famous dance concert in 1962 at Judson Memorial Church.

Democracy's Body Judson Dance Theatre 1962-64 - Sally Banes


The people to research in relation to this & Cunningham are:

Robert Dunn - Who gave a composition class at the Cunningham Studio in 1960 and was one of the movers & shakers of the post moderns.

Yvonne Rainer - essays, her "Ordinary Dance" was the big "hit" of the first Judson concert.

Judith Dunn - a dancer with Cunningham and leader in the post modern movement.

Steve Paxton - Cunningham dancer 1960-64. Inventor of "contact improvisation" technique.

Deborah Hay & Alex Hay - Deborah Hay danced with Cunningham on 1964 world tour & founded her own company.

Lucinda Childs

Trisha Brown.

Douglas Dunn - ex Cunningham Dancer

Lady Kay - if you can really get your hands on the Carolyn Brown book as it gives first hand accounts of all these people and their work - Black Mountain, Bennington in 1958 etc. She was there and also discusses Cunningham's disastrous attempt to give a "post modern" solo concert of Judson Church inspired dance.

Also The Vision of Modern Dance is a series of essays by all these movers and shakers and is excellent as each choeographer talks about their work in relation to others. It also has Yvonne Rainer's "The Mind is a Muscle" reprinted in full.

That's a really vague potted history and list but I think it should get you going in the right direction.

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Simon G,

Thank-you so much for all this information! I do believe our library contains most of the books you have suggested, some of which I have already taken out. Wow, what can I say other than thank-you? I'm really excited to start working on my essay now.

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