What is modern dance?
IU Contemporary Dance Coordinator Elizabeth Shea explains richness of modern dance tradition
Each semester as I introduce myself and begin to discuss the curriculum for E155, Beginning Modern Dance, the inevitable question comes up:
"Professor Shea, what exactly is modern dance?"
This always gives me pause, and even after 20 years of teaching in the university and professional world, I still search for exactly the right words.
Beginning with a bit of history always helps, so I introduce the names that every good student of dance history knows: Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, to start. I explain that at the turn of the 20th century, many dance artists were beginning to rebel against the constraints of classical ballet. They wished for a dance form where emotions, feelings and ideas could be readily expressed, and were more important than tricks and technical virtuosity. Even the ballet greats of the day, like Nijinsky and Massine were experimenting with alternative movements in performance. New and abstract forms in the worlds of music, theatre and visual art influenced these artists as well, and so modern dance, a truly American art form, was born.
Modern dance has continued to grow and develop over the past 100 years, and many other names have been added to the list of modern dance greats: Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Katharine Dunham, Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp, to name a few. Although these artists are diverse in their approaches and aesthetic, the common thread that ties them all together is the creative and individual way in which they approach art.
So now I am a little closer to answering the question, which might be phrased something like this: modern dance is a concert dance form that was born out of a rebellion against classical ballet and emphasizes the creative process in both choreography and performance. I will then have to clarify this statement and make sure the students understand that there are rules in modern dance; there is technique and craft, however, most modern dancers don't usually have any qualms about breaking them when necessary.
We are fortunate here at Indiana University to have one of the oldest modern dance majors (conceived in 1927) in the country. Although the program has been on moratorium since 1993, the Department of Kinesiology is pleased to once again offer a bachelor of science degree in dance. The major itself is 70 credits, and the curriculum includes dance technique, repertory, improvisation, composition, pedagogy, history, music, production, movement analysis, kinesiology and injury prevention. In addition, students take a strong science core and complete requirements in arts and humanities. One or more guest artists work with students each year, and for 2006-2007 we will welcome Ben Munisteri Dance Projects from New York City, as well as internationally known dancer and choreographer Bill Evans. Both will teach and set choreographic works on students; Mr. Evans will set a world premiere. (Both the Munisteri and Evans pieces will be shown at a faculty/guest artist concert in January 2007.)
The tradition of modern dance also calls for collaboration with other artists, and at Indiana University there is no shortage of talent in the performing and visual arts. We have had successful collaborations with dancers, musicians and composers from the Jacobs School of Music; for example, on April 27 at 7 p.m. at the John Waldron Arts Center in Bloomington, graduate students in composition and student choreographers will present collaborative works to be performed by our dance majors. The Department of Theatre and Drama has also provided wonderful faculty and student collaboration in the areas of scenography, lighting design and costume. Last year, I, along with composer Jeffrey Hass and scenographer Robert Shakespeare, received a $30,000 grant from the New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities program to produce the collaborative work "Coming to Light."
The future of modern dance here at Indiana University is rich and exciting, and we are anxious to have the university and Bloomington community take part, enrich and enjoy.
Elizabeth Shea is a clinical assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and coordinator of the IU Contemporary Dance Program.