In the 16th century court ballets were performed for the nobility
Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was a great supporter of court ballets which had elaborate sets, costumes; He himself performed and established the first academy of dance, called the Paris Opera Ballet in 17th century France.
A set vocabulary of movement was developed, including position of the feet, arms, head and use of turn-out of the legs for speed and efficiency.
By 17th century ballet masters trained dancers in a rigorous technique and continued to develop theatricality, meaning and message in the performance presentation.
Jean George Noverre created ballet d’action, having plot and using emotion in ballet.
In the 19th century the Romantic ballet came to the forefront. Important Romantic ballets are La Sylphide (first full length ballet of romantic era) and Giselle. This period introduced the pointe shoe and the rise of women ballerinas as the stars and icons of ballet.
The next period was Classical Ballet beginning in the late 1800’s. The center of ballet now is established in the Imperial theaters of St. Petersburg, Russia. Famous ballets of this period are “The Sleeping Beauty”, “The Nutcracker”, “Swan Lake”.
Two composers who created many scores for classical ballets are Peter Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinski.
A signature element of classical ballet is the “pas de deux” (duet) featuring the technical prowess of the lead ballerina and male dancers. Pantomime and elements of folk dance are also present.
Contemporary ballet evolved in Russia in the early 1900’s. Michel Fokine is the first master choreographer of the Ballet Russes and is credited as establishing the contemporary ballet aesthetic.
Ballet Russe was created by cultural impresario, Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev brought together dancers, choreographers, painters and visual artists, musicians and composers creating collaborative vision of Russian ballet outside of Russia.
Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the stars of the Ballet Russes whose choreography is highly controversial; he took the contemporary aesthetic further, using turned in positions, 2 dimensional forms (“Afternoon of a Faun”) and themes depicting sexual innuendo.
“Rite of Spring” was the infamous ballet choreographed by Nijinsky with music by Igor Stravinsky that caused a riot in the Paris Opera house when premiered in 1913, it was so innovative and outside the norm of classical ballet.
George Balanchine, formerly with Ballet Russes, came to New York in the 1940’s and established the New York City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein. His works sometimes called “Neo-classical” (meaning abstracting classical lines) extended the ballet vocabulary to include speed, syncopation and expansive use of space.
Today contemporary ballet choreographers continue to extend upon the tradition while still using the ballet vocabulary. Some contemporary choreographers and artists we have viewed are: Maurice Bejart, Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Matthew Bourne, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nacho Duato, Jerome Robbins (also important in musical theater as well as ballet, created “Westside Story”),
Cedar Lake Dance, Ballet Rambert, Netherlands Dance Theater and others.
Many modern dance choreographers create works for ballet companies, such as Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris.
Modern Dance- The Individual and Tradition
In the past dancers and choreographers were supported and commissioned by the nobility. Primary creators of ballet are male, but modern dance in America is primarily founded by women.
The development of modern dance at the beginning of the 20th century evolved from personal experiences, feelings, emotions and lives of the individual choreographers who created and extended it.
Modern dance is rooted in “rebellion”.
Pushing the boundaries, defining and redefining the rules, dance being a medium of personal expression is the “imperative” (a guiding principle) of modern dance.
One of the early icons of modern dance was Isadora Duncan, who first introduced dance as an art form, and created the first modern dance language. The idea of freedom is the core principle of dance she establishes.
Duncan’s dances included natural movements like walking, running, skipping, gestures and flowing movements. She was also influenced by Greek culture and art.
Another early American dancer of this period is Ruth St. Denis, whose works often exotic, depicted an Oriental aesthetic. With her husband Ted Shawn they formed their company, Denishawn. He later created an all male company with themes of the heroic and virile male. (“Kinetic Molpai”)
Two students of St. Denis who went on to form their own companies are Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.
Graham represents the next generation of choreographers. Her choreography is angular, hard edged, using the weight of the body with gravity, and built around the principle of the breath through the contraction and release.
She also developed the psychological dance drama using her own inner life as a source for the universal themes of emotional conflict. Many next generation dancers first danced with Graham’s company, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Eric Hawkins.
Doris Humphrey also created her own dance language and approach to choreography based on the principle of fall and recover, working with breath and suspension of lifting away from and giving into gravity. Humphrey mentored next generation dancer Jose Limon.
Humphrey also wrote the first modern dance book about the process of choreography, titled “The Art of Making Dances”.
African-American choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham studied the ritual dance of the Caribbean and created a fusion dance form with roots in the African dance aesthetic, along with classical ballet and modern. Her contribution was articulating and isolating the movements of the torso and using poly-rhythms with one body part playing against another.
Other important European dancers of the modern dance tradition are Rudolf Laban (developed dance notation and a system to define movement principles) and Mary Wigman (“Hexen Tanz” or Witch Dance).
Balanchine was also influenced by the energy of the modern city and of New York, with its urban, fast paced and industrial edge, and the modern dance. Grounded in the ballet vocabulary his work is more flexible, spontaneous and syncopated.
Merce Cunningham rejects the notion that dance must tell a story, have a message or must follow music; dance is the subject of itself and movement is inherently interesting. He used chance techniques in his choreography, took dance outside of the proscenium theater into public spaces and created major collaborations with composers (John Cage his life long partner and collaborator), artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and others) and initiated the post modern era in dance.
The creative anarchy of the 1960’s was about rebellion against the theatricality of dance and “Post Modern” dance is born; characterized by pedestrian movement, everyone and anyone can dance, movement games as source material, stripped dance of meaning and affectation, no music or text is often spoken by the performers.
Yvonne Rainer publishes her “No Manifesto” rejecting all theatricality. She is a member of the Judson Church movement.
Some post-modern choreographers we have been introduced to from the DVD, “Making Dances: 7 Post Modern Choreographers” are: David Gordan, Lucinda Childs, Sara Rudner, Douglass Dunn, Trisha Brown, Kenneth King, Meredith Monk.
The imperative continues as each new generation of artists and dancers seek to express their own voice, freedom, to reinvent the rules.
Some modern dance artists and choreographers of interest whose works we have viewed are: Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Akram Khan (fusion of contemporary and classical Indian Kathak dance), Lester Horton, Alwin Nikolais, Pina Bausch, Eric Hawkins, and others.
Dance on the Screen
Choreographers we have viewed and have contributed to this genre are the following:
Busby Berkeley-created intricate changing scenes of dancing formations with the camera from above, underneath, upside down, etc. Films of note are “Lullaby of Broadway”, “42nd St”.
Fred Astaire, a vaudeville star who later turned to film. Many famous partners like Ginger Rogers, used the camera to always view full body to see all of the movement.
Gene Kelly-many choreographic achievements and directed all of his dance scenes; Famous film sequences, “Singing in the Rain”, “An American in Paris” with jazz dance influence.
Michael Kidd, trained in ballet but known for musical theater, choreography is very athletic with acrobatics and virtuosic movements. Barn dance in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”
Bob Fosse, iconic jazz style- “All that Jazz”, “The Pajama Game”
Jack Cole, earthy, stylized form of jazz, syncopated and connected with the abstract qualities of jazz music; “Beale St. Blues” from What is Jazz?
Review also summaries from chapters on Dance Technique and Choreography, Dance Lighting and Costumes, Collaboration in the Arts.