Contemporary Dance, restless and revolutionary. (Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Hanya Holm, Mary Wigman, Doris Humphrey.)

This is for Frances Wessells, aged 92, one of my formative teachers and a highly original choreographer. She worked and studied with Hanya Holm but is influenced continually by other dancers and, in turn, influences them. Please Frances, more of your choreography on youtube.

In 1927 Isadore Duncan died. Her new dancing had been a sensation in Europe and had influenced Diaghilev. Ballet was seen by a revolutionary movement in dance as ‘sterile’, ‘academic’ and ‘effete’. I wish to address this description, while explaining the new philosophy which was being born in Germany and America.

‘ To be a modern dancer was to decry systems and codifications- although, ironically, choreographers devised training techniques that would  hone dancers to perform their individually designed styles.[Each styles would suit the body of its inventor, whereas, in both the Russian Ballet and The Royal Ballet, bodies would be chosen to fulfil the technique. For example, a hyper-extended foot was required, great natural turnout and a very flexible spine. In fact doctors were used  to determine the fitness of candidates. The body propotions needed to be correct with the potential to attain an appropriate height. In the Vaganova academy in St. Petersburg today, they have 3000 applicants for 60 places . Applicants are about 10 years old. Seven or eight years later when the class graduates, it contains 25 dancers from the original 60.] ‘The modern choreographers’ high-minded program notes, articles and statements to the press were meant to separate the new dance from the old, with its aristocratic roots, centuries of tradition, and (to them) confectionary stories. “There must be implicit some attitude toward the meaning of existence […  stated Doris Humphrey in 1932] “What shall we dance about?” […] “In general, no man can dance convincingly like any other man whose experience lies outside his own.” [ from Deborah Jowett’s Introduction to  ‘Jose Limon  An Unfinished Memoir’].

The early techniques tended to take their shapes from human gesture. They pointed to the inherent rhythms  of inhaling and exhaling. Movements of arms and legs had their source in the torso. There was a notional  ‘solar  plexus ‘ or centre of the body which initiated all motion. There were no poses like ballet, but rather design, pattern and ‘pure movement’ which could be abstract. Pure movement was  functional not decorative, i.e., a movement happened because the former movement motivated it. Dance was continuous movement and did not have to fit music; in fact, its relationship to music was explored.

Was/ Is  ballet confectionary and effete? Any art form has its codifications and disciplines. So modern/contemporary dance does, it is simply that the codes are specific to the originators. Art is not, I believe, untrained and accidental. The art of ballet expresses a certain concept of the aesthetic values prevalent in the eras in which it developed. The origins of ballet may not have been entirely courtly; I believe ballet was influenced by the commedia dell’arte (Italian ‘street theatre’). It is no more obsolete than a Leonardo da Vinci or a Botticelli. The experiments with varnishes, with mixing pigments, with painting on wood or canvas,with perspective, with light, are not considered effete. The ballet developed its techniques in order to enhance its capability of expression.The tales told in dance often reflect the Romantic period. Ballet has continued to change, as might be seen from ‘Anyuta’ on my last blog. I will document some of this change .Yes, art has always needed wealthy patrons. That does not mean that in our democracies we should exclude people through the cost of tickets. Since we are all human, inspiration and expression through the arts are the right of Everyman.

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