The development of modern dance: short essay on Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

Left to Right: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

In the late 19th – early 20th century modern dance emerged as a rejection to traditional ballet, disregarding ballet’s strict movement vocabulary, unnatural positions and restricted clothing for freer movement. This shift in dance style was pioneered by Isadora Duncan, a free-spirited woman who danced to celebrate independence and self-expression. This created a domino effect of practitioners who either rejected or modified ballet to find their own idiosyncratic styles, such as Martha Graham who pioneered one of the first codified modern techniques to support her expressive choreography, and Merce Cunningham who later rejected the early developments of modern dance to find something more pure and abstract. These pioneers paved the way for future artists to experiment with movement styles and push boundaries with what dance could be. 

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) loved to dance, but was by no means a trained ballerina. She felt that ballet was an unnatural invention, and rejected the tight corsets, heavy skirts and pointe shoes which constricted her natural body movements. Instead, Duncan moved to rediscover the rhythmic motions of the human body. She believed that the soul came from the solar plexus, so her movements would stem from that place and undulate outwards, meaning that her choreography often included an open chest with hyperextension of the upper spine and natural rippling of the spine. Her choreography was lightweight and airy, with lots of hops, skips and jumps which did not focus on technique, but instead focused on height, travelling, and expressive energy. She performed barefoot, in a relaxed and free manner, which linked to her use of flowing togas and scarves as well as her bohemian philosophy. Duncan was a natural liberal, who rejected not only the restrictions of ballet movements and costumes, but the politics of her generation. She was a champion for women’s rights, and her expressive choreography was particularly popular with women because she inspired independence and freedom of expression. Therefore, Duncan’s performances either shocked or inspired audiences due to her progressive ideas, but despite any critique she became an international celebrity, and she can be credited with what came to be known as modern dance. 

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was an American dancer and choreographer, who further developed modern dance and subsequently became one of the most recognised artists of the 20th century. Graham was the first to generate a modern movement language, essentially codifying her modern technique, focusing on the following key principles. Mainly, Graham focused on the motions of contract and release in the torso, whereby the core muscles are sharply engaged, often causing a curvature of the spine which is used to express human emotions such as pain. The release of the muscles encourages hyperextension of the spine, and Graham combined these motions with the spiral of the torso, separating the torso from the hips to increase mobility. The fluid and sharp use of the spine is a development of Duncan’s undulations and opening of the chest, and distinctly opposes ballets strict posture, but what Graham did differently was combine ballets use of traditional foot positions and basic movements such as plie, releve and jete to create a professional training programme which supported her interest in torso and hip work. This was a groundbreaking development in modern dance, as it could now be taught in a similar way to ballet training, pushing modern dance into the professional industry. Graham trained a large number of professional dancers who continued to share and develop her technique across the world, but most interestingly, she also inspired others to find new ways to rebel her expressive style, such as Merce Cunningham. 

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) is considered to be one of the most important choreographers of our time, and completely opened the modern dance world to ground-breaking ideas and new ways to approach dance. Firstly, he created his own technique so that his dancers were prepared for his style of choreography, as did many choreographers of the time. Cunningham technique is rigorous and on the surface looks very balletic through the use of turn-out, plie, releve, and a controlled upper spine. However, he combines this with modern characteristics such as parallel hips and flexed feet, and adapts the use of spine in non-expressive ways e.g. through side tilts, flexing, extending and curving. Cunningham’s main focus was on ‘movement for movement’s sake’, removing Graham’s expressive use of contraction of the torso and Duncan’s free-spirited travelling sequences, and instead playing with the different lines and shapes the body could make. He took this further by pushing his dancers with unexpected changes in weight or direction, rhythmic accuracy through ‘frisky feet’ and quick intricate stepping phases, and the contrasting notion of the upper body either matching or not matching the lower body through style or speed. This created a new type of dancer called the “thinking dancer”, challenging their use of weight and spatial awareness. This supported his abstract approach to choreography, where he would take a theme or idea and play with it in an abstract way through a choreographic method he created himself called Chance Method Choreography. Therefore his choreography included interesting phases performed in random orders, developing modern dance to use improvisation and find artistic brilliance by chance. Furthermore, he pioneered Disassociation as a musical relationship, whereby he and his composer would create separately and  the dancers would not hear the music until show night. This again pushed them to become “thinking” dancers, focusing on their own counts and rhythms. Before him, modern dance was an expressive rebellion against strict, mythical ballet choreography, where the likes of Duncan and Graham explored the body in more natural ways to express emotion and tell stories. Cunningham pioneered a purer form of movement, combining logic with the desire to create shapes and push what the body is capable of. Therefore, Cunningham paved the way for post-modern dance by inspiring the dance world to continue to innovate. 

Overall, modern dance developed profoundly during the late 19th to early 20th century, with key practitioners being responsible for different time periods within the early, central and late modern periods. Duncan was the first to reject ballet and inspire others to find natural ways of moving; Graham was the first to codify modern dance as a technique to train dancers professionally in the art of expression; Cunningham was the first to innovate and push modern dance beyond its previous developments by focusing on pure movement for movement’s sake and being more creative in the method of choreography. Without these three American pioneers of modern dance, dance might not be the way it is today.  


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