What is Modern Dance?

"Punch and the Judy" Photo by Barbara Morgan
“Punch and the Judy” by Barbara Morgan @ Library of Congress, Music Division

Continuing the series of introductions of Modernism in the arts, today I’ll give you a brief overview of what happened when dancers decided to go beyond the rigidity of ballet.

Following the thread that started here, where you’ve learned that modernism was a break from the past and a look to the future, in dance this means leaving behind traditional ballet, its constricted movements, the rigidity of posture, in search of freer movements and expression of feelings.

Bronislawa Nijinska and the “Ballets Russes”

Bronislawa Nijinska
Bronislawa Nijinska / Image author unknown

In the early 20th century, dancers and choreographers started to develop new work influenced by all the changes happening in society and in the arts. 

In this context, we can look at Sergei Diaghilev’s company, the “Ballets Russes” and its collaboration with modernist artists for costumes, scenarios and music. Natalia Goncharova, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky to name a few. 

In 1923 the company premiered “Les Noces,” in Paris, choreographed by Bronislawa Nijinska. She received formal training in classical ballet in Saint Petersburg and danced for many years within different companies before being appointed choreographer for the Ballets Russes. Her introductions of new sharp, repetitive movements and steps paved the way for “neoclassical ballet”. 

“Les Noces” tells the story of a peasant wedding (noces in french) with references to her Russian culture. The score was composed by Stravinsky and Natalia Goncharova designed minimalist costumes and scenery.

Here you can watch a performance of “Les Noces” by the British Royal Ballet in the ’60s.

Nijinska continued to work leading many companies in Europe, the United States and South America. Although she worked with Avant-Gard artists and her contributions to modern dance are numerous, her work is still overlooked and she is remembered by many only as Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister.


Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan - Photo Arnold Genthe - Public domain
Isadora Duncan / Image Arnold Genthe – Public domain

Born in San Francisco in 1877, Isadora Duncan started to dance and teach at an early age already showing signs of her discontent with ballet rules. Her approach to dance was imaginative and based on improvisation. 

When Duncan moved to London at the end of the 1890s, she took inspiration from classical Greek art and developed new techniques emphasizing freedom and natural movements. She performed wearing flowing tunics and bare feet, which allowed to body to move without constraints. She became an inspiration to many visual artists and toured Europe extensively during the 1910/20s. 

Isadora Duncan - Photo Arnold Genthe - Public domain
Isadora Duncan / Image Arnold Genthe – Public domain

Duncan’s philosophy of dance as liberation, as a connection of emotions and movement, became a central idea to modern dance.


Martha Graham

"Letter to the World(Swirl)" - Photo by Barbara Morgan
Martha Graham “Letter to the World(Swirl)” / Image Barbara Morgan @Smithsonian American Art Museum

Considered the greatest dancer in the US, Martha Graham led an extensive, accomplished career and redefined modern dance during the first half of the 20th century.

She was born in 1894, in Pittsburgh and studied under the Denishawn School of Dance until 1923.

Graham search for pure movements expressing the human condition and emotions without the ornamental elements of ballet brought her into creating the “Contraction and release” technique that uses breathing as a force to make strong, heavy movements and steps in comparison to the lightness of ballet. 

In this clip from 1929, you can see her performing “Heretic”.

Her vision and techniques influenced and formed a new generation of dancers in her school –The Martha Graham Dance company–  that was founded in 1926 in New York and it’s still active and carries on her legacy.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or on Social Media!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s