Modern Dance: Its Death and Regeneration

By Alexandra Tomalonis

A few years ago, I read an interview with Paul Taylor in which he said: “I don’t know what modern dance is today.” I often think of that quote, sorry that the interviewer didn’t ask him to explain. I imagine he was puzzled by the current emphasis on virtuosity, so different from the way modern dance began, and also, perhaps that it is recycling old ideas, something that would have been anathema to the Modern Dancers of his youth. We often read how ballet has borrowed from modern dance, which it certainly has, but the borrowing has been a two-way street. When modern dancers began to take ballet classes in the late 1970s and ‘80s modern dance changed as well, becoming more elongated, more precise, less dangerous. Turns are now pirouettes; high extensions and pretzel partnering are turning up in modern dances — now often called “contemporary dance,” a non-genre genre that’s somehow slipped into the vocabulary. The power of a simple run — or a simple anything — is not often on view today.

At its start modern dance was about personal expression, not merely in the sense of expressing emotions, but in expressing the body’s movements in a very personal way. Each generation defined what modern dance was. It did not rely on a specific, standardized vocabulary carefully guarded from one generation to the next. The early moderns wondered what drove movement — the solar plexus, contraction/release, fall/recovery. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying and writing about what is ballet and have grown tired of reading crossover choreographers say that their works are “firmly rooted in the classical tradition” when they don’t even give a nod to “the classical tradition.” I haven’t worried about modern dance because I believe at the center of its identity is that it must reinvent itself with every generation. Each generation has a right to do what it wants. So what does it want in 2012?

Flash back to the mid-1970s when modern dance was king. One of the first pieces I read when I became interested in dance was by Clive Barnes in The New York Times, noting that there were no first-rank ballet choreographers under the age of 60. He was right. Ballet was drying up. Young choreographers were making not very good copies of what had gone before. After about a decade of this, ballet companies gave up on trying to create new ballets and began to look to modern dance for new work, and there were plenty of fresh voices. Modern dance was an eternal spring, churning out new, interesting choreographers every year. The 1962-64 Judson Church revolution had marked the beginning of a change. It was an explosion of experimentation. Suddenly there were no rules; dance was whatever interested the artist. Judson ushered in an age of performance art, word dances, found movement, non-dancers dancing, not moving — anything that they could think of, which was pretty much everything. The idea of “what is dance?” opened up as never before, but one of the problems with doing everything in one generation is that it’s hard for the next to come up with something new. Everything had been done. We’ve been reliving Judson ever since, watching work after work that artists, or the dance press, claims to be New!!! when it looks or sounds remarkably like something that was new 10, 20, 30, 40, now 50 years ago. In this world, paradoxically, the older one is, the more “new” work one has seen.

Dancers are aware of this. The first year I taught dance history at a Washington, D.C.-area university, the class loved the moderns of the 1930s and 1940s. They couldn’t get enough of them, and read everything there was to read. They all wanted to go to New York and starve in a garret, work with great artists, create new work of their own. Then one day I came to class early and two of the young women were sitting there, looking very glum. “It’s all over,” one of them said. When I told them modern dance has always reinvented itself and that it was their turn to make a new revolution, be a new Martha and Doris, they looked defeated rather than excited by the challenge. What happened?

There are other factors besides an exhausted aesthetic at play. Money is one, and not just in the sense that there isn’t enough to fund new work. Money pressures have led to something far more insidious. For modern dance, the days of starving in a garret are over — for one thing, there aren’t any garrets cheap enough in which one can starve, particularly not in New York. It’s daunting to start and sustain a dance company, and therefore many choreographers make work for ballet companies on dancers not trained in modern dance technique or its aesthetic. For a time, this seemed to be a triumph of modern dance. It had finally corrupted — oops, dragged ballet kicking and screaming into the 20th century, one read. But as ballet is beginning to wake from its quarter-century sleep (see Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, perhaps Yuri Possokhov and Liam Scarlett as well) — having absorbed and digested much from other dance forms and used it to refresh itself, as ballet has been doing for 400 years — modern dance may need to find new markets, and, much more importantly, redefine and refresh itself. Judson Church was 50 years ago. It’s time.

This brings us back to the original question: What is modern dance today? Is “anything goes” really an aesthetic? One of the last of the Greats, Merce Cunningham, has just passed from the scene, taking his dances with him. The last of the Great Modern Generation, Paul Taylor, still creates work that, at its best, is equal to his best, but he won’t be able to do this forever. Modern dance must wake up from its recycling sleep, digest, rethink, and move. Will this happen? Of course! Sometime soon, someone out there, somewhere, will burst onto the scene and make us look at dancing with fresh eyes, and great pleasure — not because he or she is deliberately trying to break new ground, but because she or he has a fertile imagination and will create work that is truly new as easily as dancers walk or run or fall to the ground.

Alexandra Tomalonis has written about dance in Washington, D.C., since 1979, as a long-time stringer with The Washington Post and major dance publications. In the same year, she founded a bimonthly tabloid called Washington DanceView, which is now the quarterly magazine DanceView. She is also the author of Henning Kronstam: Portrait of a Danish Dancer (University Press of Florida, 2002) and has lectured frequently about dance in the Washington, D.C. area. Tomalonis has a B.A. in American Studies from Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia and a Master’s Degree from Georgetown University’s Liberal Studies program. She is currently academic director at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C., where she teaches dance history and related courses. Before coming to KAB, she taught professional literature, dance history and aesthetics at George Washington University and George Mason University.


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