Monday, March 2, 2009




Called at various times "Papa Shawn" and the "Father of American Dance," Ted Shawn was the kind of parent who required submission and inspired rebellion in his offspring. The first of the famous Denishawn "children" to leave the fold was Martha Graham in 1923. Although Shawn had been her primary teacher and had featured her in his dances, she felt that she must strike out on her own.

The next defectors from Denishawn left in a group in 1928, joining forces for the next sixteen years. Doris Humphrey, star performer and main teacher in the Denishawn school; Charles Weidman, also a performer and teacher there; and Pauline Lawrence, school accompanist, together established the Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company in New York City. These "unholy three" were voted out of Denishawn for dis¬loyalty when Humphrey and Weidman refused to give up their experiments with movement to tour with the Ziegfield Follies. The tour was to raise money for "Greater Denishawn," at that point, a huge, unpaid-for house in the suburbs of New York City.

Shortly before that confrontation, Humphrey had been chided by Shawn for not teaching straight Denishawn tech¬nique in classes. Instead, she had been testing the discoveries she was beginning to make about dance movement.

Paramount among these, and the basis for the technique she was to develop, was her concept that dance takes place in an arc of unbalance, that is the motion which occurs between the ver¬tical (standing) and the horizontal (lying down) positions. This is the basis of the Humphrey Fall and Recovery Theory.

Martha Graham had also begun to develop a new dance technique which continued to evolve out of her choreography during her entire career. The style which she developed was sharp, angular, and percussive; the most distinctive movement, in her technique, the contraction and release involving the torso, resulted from her observations of breathing.

This was the beginning of American modern dance. For the first time American dancers were creating new movements for new subject matter, and reflecting their own era rather than a previous one. Their movements evolved from the meaning of the dance, rather than from previously learned steps developed by peoples of a different culture. In the process of finding new techniques to express their art, these modern dance pioneers broke the existing rules; indeed, that was their intent, for they were anti-Denishawn, anti-ballet, anti-the past.

The percussive, angular, and often distorted movements of early modern dance expressed the tensions of contemporary life. Similar developments in other arts resulted in the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque and the dissonant music of Hindemith and Schoenberg. At the same time, dance ceased to be regarded primarily as entertainment, and through the new aesthetics, it achieved the status of a serious, creative, indepen¬dent art form.

All levels of the dancers' space were used, resulting in a rela¬tionship to gravity that was in direct contrast to the danse verti¬cale of the Romantic ballet. The torso became fully active as it was freed of its balletic rigidity, and the dancers angled their limbs, in contrast to the extended line of ballet. Interestingly, many of these movements can be traced to the Denishawn ori¬gins of the pioneers, particularly to the Oriental and Delsartean influences. The difference between the old and the new was that these modern dance originators used the principles they had learned from Denishawn to create new movements. Their first dances accordingly showed a lingering Denishawn influ¬ence, but in time they worked away from it, although their warm-up exercises continued to include a combination of yoga and ballet.

The dancers' costumes and stage settings were extremely simplified, often to the point of starkness. The dance itself was performed either to music written for it by a contemporary composer or to no music at all; occasionally, music of the pre-¬classic or classic period was used. The dancers performed wher¬ever they could: in lofts, studios, and small theaters in New York City, and in colleges and university auditoriums and gymnasi¬ums throughout the country.

Critics played an important role in bringing this avant-garde movement before the public eye and in expanding its small but devoted following. John Martin, a staff critic for The New York Times from 1927 to 1962, had a background in theater but soon began covering modern dance performances extensively, becoming the foremost champion of the fledgling art and the first "dean" of dance critics.

By the time that Louis Horst founded Dance Observer in 1934, he was already an old friend of the modern dancers. As a musician he had accompanied classes and performances at Denishawn. He left in 1925, becoming Martha Graham's advi¬sor, critic, and music composer. In addition, he developed a for¬mal approach to the teaching of dance composition, which has been experienced by countless students over the years. This approach uses art forms and styles from all periods of human history except that in which ballet developed. Dance Observer presented reviews, articles, and advertisements devoted princi¬pally to modern dance, and Horst continued monthly publica¬tion until his death in 1964.

Walter Terry, who studied with Shawn, Graham, Humphrey, Limon, and others, was another critic who supported modern dance through his reviews in the New York Herald-Tribune. Martin, Horst, and Terry have all written definitive books on dance.

In 1931 Hanya Holm came from Germany to open the New York branch of the Mary Wigman School. She had stud¬ied with Dalcroze, Laban, and Wigman before becoming a Wigman company member and teacher. By 1936 she had established the Hanya Holm School and Company, and the New York Wigman School was dissolved. German modern dance, which up to this time had developed parallel to American modern dance, was thus injected into the main¬stream of American modern dance. This dance form, charac¬terized by its use of space and of improvisation as a teaching tool, has retained its uniqueness through the followers of the Laban-Wigman-Holm tradition in this country.
Modern dance coalesced as a movement through the efforts of two far-sighted young women, Martha Hill and Mary Jo Shelly, who established the Bennington College School of the Dance in 1934. There they invited the leading modern dancers to teach and create. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm were the permanent faculty from 1934 until its closing in 1941.
The economic stability, the artistic freedom, the space, and the chance to perform gave these four pioneers the opportuni¬ty to focus their energies on the creation of larger works dur¬ing the summer months. Some of these works composed and presented there remain as milestones of modern dance, such as Deaths and Entrances and Letter to the World by Martha Graham, With My Red Fires and Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor by Doris Humphrey, and Trend by Hanya Holm.

World War II began a period of disruption in the careers of the pioneers. The Bennington School of the Dance closed; male dancers were drafted into the armed forces; tours of the "gymnasium circuit" of colleges and universities, long a finan¬cial mainstay of modern dance companies, declined. Financial difficulties forced the disbandment of the Hanya Holm Company in 1944. Miss Holm turned to choreography for Broadway musicals while continuing to teach at her New York studio and at the Colorado College summer sessions.

Nineteen forty-four also saw the end of Doris Humphrey's performing career, owing to an arthritic hip. For a brief time she considered total retirement. But then she found a vehicle for her creativity in Jose Limon, a former member of her com¬pany who had just been released from the U.S. Army. She became artistic director for his company and composed some of her best-known works for it. She also continued to teach choreography.

Following the breakup of his partnership with Doris Humphrey in 1945, Charles Weidman continued to teach, choreograph, and maintain a company and studio theater. Because he had depended heavily on her, he found it difficult going alone as his financial problems grew. However, in spite of the drawbacks, he was able to choreograph a number of important works in the years that followed.
Of the original four pioneers, only Martha Graham was still in full command of her performing powers at the end of World War II. And the peak of her creative career was still ahead of her.

Two other important dancers of this generation were Helen Tamiris and Lester Horton.

Helen Tamiris combined ballet and Delsartean theory learned from Irene Lewisohn to create her own style of modern dance. In 1930 she attempted to unify modern dancers through the cooperative performances of the Dance Repertory Theater, but unification was not to be realized. Together with her husband, Daniel Nagrin, she founded the Tamiris-Nagrin Company in 1960, which was dissolved with her death in 1966.

Influenced by Denishawn, Mary Wigman, the Japanese dancer Michio Ito, American Indians, and ballet, Lester Horton organized a dance company in Los Angeles in 1932, which was notable as the first company to include African-Americans. Although he was aware of the activities of the modern dancers in New York, he preferred to work in isolation from them. Following his untimely death in 1953, some of the dancers from his company continued their own careers, including Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, Bella Lewitzky, Joyce Trisler, and James Truitte. Through these dancers Horton's eclectic, indi¬vidualistic technique and choreography were kept alive.
From The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators, Edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin and Charles H. Woodford.

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