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Modern and Contemporary Dance

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Let’s start from 1661.

What most matter in classical ballet are positions, attitudes and predetermined combinations of them. The movement that links them is not important but we can also say that it is, but in a different way than in modern dance. You have to pay attention to hide muscular effort, in order to make your body appear as if it were moved by an external force which eliminates it. Of course, you may produce movement but it is not considered as the constitutive material of dance.

In modern dance movement is seen as a unitarian entity, as a substance. It may vary in a spatial extension, duration, quality and intensity. However, it always a constant flux.

The movement discovery as a constitutive element of dance is one of the four important discoveries in modern dance.

When the reaction against classical ballet began around the XIX century, it pushed its limits too far in the opposite way. Dancers led by Isadora Duncan denigrated classical technique artificiality and used to talk about soul. Isadora pushed herself to the point where she localised it in the body nearby solar plexus. During this period, physical movement of romantic dance was largely the one which was defined natural and didn’t use any technique in narrow sense. Together with Isadora Duncan, also Ruth St. Denis and Loie Fuller contributed to the development of this movement. They started to think in some concepts that concerned the nature of movement, while moving on their individuation research of an engine in the body that can make more natural the dancer’s movement.

The romantic movement had a great importance because it contained the germ of the idea which was built modern dance.

Modern dance was born as a realisation of the ideals of romantic movement. It definitely contrasts with classical ballet artefacts, because it has as its principal aim the expression of an inner impulse; but it also realised it needed vital shapes for this expression, so that it understood the aesthetic value of the same shape added to it. While moving on with this objective, it set aside the past and start again from the beginning.

Martha Graham pushed the dancer for the first time to study with his hands on the floor, individuating the principles of her technique in his contraction and release movements; Lester Horton developed a technique based on strength, flexibility and exploration of joints; Doris Humphrey began a research based on the body weight and on gravity that then would have continued José Limón.

The second of the four biggest discovery of modern dance is metakinesis. It has been discovered that the relationship between physical movement and mental o psychical intention is extremely important. Movement has always been a medium through which people transfer an aesthetic and emotional message of an individual’s conscience to the one of someone else. In modern dance, dancer feelings are expressed through the movement.

The third important characteristic of modern dance is the dynamic. Dance is known as a substance that links all the positions and not as series of linked positions. Movement contains strength and intensity in itself. So, the quality of movement is determined by the quantity of strength or intensity that contains. The importance of the dynamic is in its level, rapidity and in the alternation of its variations, in its distribution in the body and in its implications as far as concerns expressiveness.

The fourth peculiar characteristic is the abandon of all the traditional shapes requirements and the introduction of a new principle according which each type of dance creates its own style.

The adjective “modern” referred to dance is not a synonym of contemporary dance because it doesn’t have such a wide connotation.

In 1962 Steve Paxton was one of the founders of Judson Dance Theatre with Trisha Brown. The Judson Dance Theatre was a collective of dancers, composers and visual artists that used to act in New York between 1962 and 1964. Artists involved in this project were avant-guard experimenters that refused boundaries of modern dance, inventing postmodern dance precepts.

During the first years of the ‘60 dancers began to talk about postmodern dance as type of dance that became popular until half of the ‘80. At the beginning it was principally individuated by its feelings of anti-modern dance rather than by its style of dance, it was a removal from the modernistic ideals. It used to claim that each movement was an expression of dance and each person could dance regardless of his training. Have been used unconventional methods such as casual composition procedures and improvisation.

Postmodern dance used many unconventional methods during the choreographic process. One of the most important methods was “chance”, a technique introduced by Merce Cunningham and which was based on the idea that “prefixed movement materials or orders for a series of actions did't exist”. Choreographers used numbers and random equations, even they would have thrown dice in order to determine how to arrange choreographic phrases, how many dancers would perform in a certain point, where they were located on stage and where did they enter and exit from. Cunningham revolutionised even the space and time ideas thanks to his technique, pushing dance to 360 grades.

Doris Humphrey’s book “The art of making dances” published in 1958, includes the first constitutive elements of contemporary dance that is to say the reasons of the origin of movement which concerned the use of scenic space and body.

The introduction of technology opens new possibilities too and in several contemporary creations there are intersections with video, software and electronic music.

Dancer’s role changes in contemporary dance and improvisation becomes an essential instrument even for choreographic creation, a listen technique of own body and the environment, a truly expression of natural movement.

During the ‘70s collaboration between artists coming from different disciplines took new nourishment to this movement, the body research and improvisation took different characteristics and connotations in various countries.

Contact Improvisation born in the USA thanks to a group of dancers guided by Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith. The Contact focuses on the study of the integration of body with its physics rules such as gravity and inertia. Also, during its development, it take from other techniques and disciplines such as Aikido and Tai Chi.

In Germany born the Tanz Theatre, where were introduced modern dance elements intensively enlivened by the fusion between theatre and figurative arts; the most important exponent was Pina Bausch.

Nowadays dance's technique and philosophies of movement employed in contemporary dance may include classical ballet, contemporary ballet, dance improvisation, interpretative dance, lyrical dance, free dance technique by Isadora Duncan, modern dance techniques from New York such Graham technique, Humphrey-Limón technique and Horton technique, release technique, floor-work, the european modern dance Laban-Bartenieff, other postmodern dance techniques such as Cunningham technique, other practices which are not linked to dance such as pilates, yoga, drama, the acting practice of corporeal mime (Decroux technique), martial arts and somatic practices such as Alexander technique, Feldenkrais methodology, Sullivan technique and Franklin method.

Contemporary dance can tend to combinate legs workout of the ballet, which is strong but controlled, with modern dance that underlines torso and with other styles of dance. Such as dancers from Batsheva Dance Company that distinguished themselves for the virtuosity of their technique and their ability to abandon it.

Also, we can find elements from other non-western dance cultures such as African dance elements or Japanese contemporary dance movements, like Butoh.

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