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Virginia VanLieshout

DANC 250


Precursors to Modern Dance

For centuries, ballet had been the main artistic form for dancers. By the turn of the

century, dancers were itching for a new, expressive and inclusive form of dance. Modern a free,

expressive style of dance that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries out of Germany and

the United States as a response and rejection of classical ballet and industrialization. For many,

this marked the start of a dance revolution. No longer were dancers confined to tutus, corsets,

pointe shoes, showy technique and story lines of classical ballet. As the ballet loving Victorian

social structure declined with the industrialization of the lower and middle classes, the dance

world shifted to forms that allowed the dance to escape the confinements of life and return to a

more natural state of being. The work started by Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Dennis,

and Ted Shawn created an early modern form, free dance that while tremendously different from

the world of classical ballet, did not have distinct modern techniques. Instead they used music

and rhythmic body movement to allow for a free expression. This paved the way for the first

generation of truly modern dancers including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles

Weidman who created the modern techniques that shaped the modern dance form as we know it


One of the first American pioneers of free dance was Loie Fuller (1862-1928). Of the

free dance pioneers, Fuller is the most controversial due fame being drawn from her creations in

lighting rather than her dance. Fuller was not a trained dancer and instead used theatrical

lighting techniques to devise a type of dance that focused on the shifting play of lights and colors
on voluminous skirts which were kept in constant movement using her arms. Her movements

were open and free. Fuller found inspiration in nature and the billowing folds of silk as seen in

Fire Dance (1895) and Serpentine dance (1889). While she gained popularity in American, Fuller

felt that the public didnt respect her as an artist and still just saw her as an actor. After a

European tour, Fuller decided to continue her work in France where she felt that she was more

valued as an artist. Her inventions in lighting include extensive use of multi-colored theatrical

lighting through electrical lighting, colored gels, slide projections and other aspects of stage

technology. Her most effective theatrical creation was under lighting in which she stood a on a

platform with a glass top and shone light up the platform. She also started the traditions of

turning off house lights before and after each performance. In addition to the creation of new

lighting techquies and designs, Fuller also concert music as integral part of her dance and

inspiration for visual ideas. She also fostered the birth of Modern dance by supporting Isadora

Duncan, one of the single biggest contributors to the early modern form, by sponsoring her

independent concerts in Europe.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) stands as one of the easiest defined pioneer of the free dance

movement and is widely regarded as the mother of Modern dance. She was nave, idealistic,

undisciplined, a symbol of female longing and strong advocate of sexual freedom and personal

fulfilment. For Duncan, movement was centered in the solar plexus and her inspiration was

drawn from nature, simplicity, positive human attributes and Greek art. Her subjects included

universal emotions, responses and aspirations. Much of her dancing predicated her belief in

positive human attributes such as beauty and harmony, courage and endurance. Duncan was

widely opposed to the artificial ballet steps, and instead moved towards what she perceived as

natural movement that included skipping, running, jumping and leaping. She also rejected the
classical ballet uniforms for tutus, corsets and pointe shoes preferring to perform in bare feet,

Greek-styled tunics and loose hair. Duncan called for the dance education of children and started

her first school in Germany that provided her students free up keep and dance classes. Duncan

was not widely popular in America because of her uninhibited moral conduct, her flimsy, see-

thru dress and her open admiration of the new Soviet Union. In America, the name Isadora

Duncan was synomonous with sexual scandal. Duncan also elevated the perception of dance by

using great music (Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Chopin), feat that classical ballet was not able to

accomplish. Later in her career her inspiration was drawn from social justice. Marseillaise

(1915) and Marche Slave (1916) her two of her well known political dances. Her work was

carried on by her six oldest pupils, known as the Isadorables, who established schools and

spread her legacy across the world.

While Isadora Duncan promoted the creation of modern dance through the creation of

free movement, Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968) devoted herself to the union of dance and religion.

She expanded the definition of dance by showing Exotic oriental dances such as Indian and

Egyptian that dazzled the audience. Her debut concert (1906) which included her famous pieces:

incense, the Cobra and Radha introduced the public to the idea of ethic dances as a form of art.

She was inspired by religion, musical structure, and Indian and Egyptian culture. St. Denis also

invented musical visualization which reflected the structure of the musical compositions without

recourse to narrative or the interpretation. She strongly believed that dance could become a form

of religious expression and an integral part of human life. Also participated in commercial

theater. Her partner and husband, Ted Shawn helped her expand her subject matter to include

different locations and time periods. Shawn also shared her belied that dance could become a

form of religious expression and an integral part of human life. He also started an all male dance
company whos movements could be characterized as warlike and primitive. Shawns company

was based on the same Massacults farm when Mary Washington Ball a dance teacher organized

the Jacobs Pillow dance festival there which became center for artistic mingling, discovery and

performance. Shawn and St. Denis later founded a dance school in Los Angeles in 1915 called

Denishawn which provided dance students with a well rounded education, giving classes it

ballet, free flowing movement, ethic and folk dances, Dalcroze eurhythmics, Delsarte exercises,

dance history and philosophy. This school as known as a kind of utopia devoted to cultivating

harmony between body, mind and spirit in dancers. Ended in 1930 but provided an education for

the next generation of American dancers including Graham, Humphrey and Weidman.

While Americans started to develop modern by discovering free dance and incorporating ethic

movements, German dancers added to the development by creating Ausdrucktanz, also known as

expressive dancing. Ausdrucktanz was first created Rudolf Laban (1879-1958). Many of

Labans innovations were sparked by his interest in physical culture. His efforts enlarged the

sphere of dance, increasing its importance in recreation, education and therapy. Best known

today for his works as a teacher, theorist, and inventor of his own dance notation, Labanotation.

His analysis of movement qualities and their motivations was known as eukinetics. He was

active in Germany before fleeing the Nazi party. His student, Mary Wigman (1886-1973), She

studied a system of musical and movement training called eurhythmics. She was known for

portraying a sense of evil and animality that emanated from the grasping, claw like gestures and

the earthbound heaviness of the dancers body, themes clearly shown in her most famous piece,

Witch dance (DATE). Wigman also wrote a book called The Language of Dance (1963). She

was known for confrontation of many subjects that people found hard to face: the dark side of

human nature, the ravages of war, aging and the irrevocability of death. She also worked with
lyricism and the formal aspects of dancing. Founded a school in 1920 in Desden. Her legacy

was carried on by her student, Hanya Holm who emphasized space, used improvisation, well

fusion of dramatic and choreographic style. She is most known for establishing Wigman school

in New York, thus bringing German expressionism to America.

Another of Labans students, Kurt Joose (1901-1979), was another notable proponent of

Ausdrucktanz. He further developed Labans notation by making performable works. He

believed that choreography and musical composition should evolve together to give expression

of the dramatic idea in unified style and form. His choreography blended academic ballet

technique with freer and more expressive movement. Forced to leave Germany after

choreographing The Green Table (1932) a piece that politically criticized the government.