Multiple Modernism

Modernism can be understood broadly through criticality, experimentation and consciously challenging tradition. Rather than a single set of aesthetic and formal principles, modernism should be considered as a polyphonic and global phenomenon, or the plural form of the term, modernisms, should be used to highlight the diversity of phenomena.[1] Modernism has not been distinguished from avant-garde in the Finnish debate, although the conceptual difference between the terms is significant. The avant-garde is strongly concerned with changing society through art, while modernism refers more generally to the stylistic features of art and the expressions of modern life in art.[2]

Abstract painting, atonal music and stream of consciousness literature are often placed at the hegemonic centre of modernism. However, modernism also found expression in architecture, poetry, design, advertising, film, dance, fashion and various interdisciplinary forms. The long-standing canonical approach to modernism limited it geographically to the West, especially to the metropolises, temporally from the 1900s to the 1950s, and strongly to so-called high culture. The New Modernist Studiesthat have developed since the turn of the 21st century seek to push these boundaries and consider modernism as a transnational spread of influences beyond the Western focus.[3]

At the same time, there is a debate about whether the term “modernism” – whose canon has long been strongly masculine, heteronormative, English-centred and literary – is any longer appropriate. As modernism expands to encompass very different aesthetics and expressions, the terminology associated with it also refers to a great variety of phenomena that do not necessarily have clear common denominators. The terms modern, modernism and modernity therefore remain without a clear definition precisely because of their contextual nature, and may also cover contradictory or even opposing meanings.

The term “modern dance” refers to a form of dance modernism that sought alternatives to the technique, movement language and themes of classical ballet. The various trends in modern dance began to develop in the early 20th century, characterised by a movement language and technique based on each choreographer’s personal style.[4] To limit dance modernism to a formalist choreography that emphasises only the form of movement is to cover a very narrow area of this phenomenon. Indeed, dance as an art form expressing the experience of modern life has replaced the earlier idea of modernism as a kind of gradual development towards an increasingly abstract movement.[5] It is also important to see various forms of popular culture, from cabaret to musicals, and new social dances as expressions of modernism. Moreover, in dance, international interaction was particularly active, for example in comparison with language-based forms that required translation.[6]

The new modernist research raised the visibility of dance as part of modernism, while at the same time increasing the cross-artistic perspective. Instead of a linear narrative, modernism evolves as a complex international rhizome in which different artistic disciplines, such as literature, music, visual arts or dance, are in constant interaction with each other. For example, expressionist Wassily Kandinsky collaborated with dancer Alexander Sacharoff and Mary Wigman’s student Gret Palucca.[7] Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró contributed to the Ballets Russes’ performances with their costumes and sets. (see The Russian Ballet of Diaghilev (and a Few Others)) In this interdisciplinary activity, dance participated in a modernist exchange of ideas from a central bodily perspective. The ephemerality of dance appealed to the other arts. At the same time, it seemed to have a particular potential to embody the fluidity, polyphony and certain contradictions of experience of modern society.[8]

Early 20th Century Body and Dance

In one sense, the development of modernisms began in the 19th century, but from the 20th century onwards its various expressions grew exponentially and in very different directions. On both sides of the turn of the last century, dancers[9] began to look to create meaning in new ways that were not based on imitation of reality (mimesis). The academic traditions and techniques of dance art, perceived as rigid, were replaced by new means of expression and methodologies. Dance modernism encompasses a range of different expressions of dance, reflecting very different experiences of the social events of the period: wars, revolutions and politics, the development of science and technology, industrialisation or the emergence of a consumer society. Some expressions of dance modernism are thus even opposites of each other.

Technological developments offered artists new means of expression. In Paris, a major art centre of the fin de siècle, Loïe Fuller (1862–1928) rose to fame with her multi-artistic performances that combined dance and technology. In 1892, Fuller’s Serpentine Dance was the main attraction of the famous variety theatre Folies Bergère. In the dance, Fuller moved multimetric fabrics, on whose moving surface different colours and patterns could be projected thanks to the lighting design she developed. Fuller’s use of technology to create illusion succeeded in capturing the aspirations of art nouveau in dance.[10] Her popularity was so overwhelming that at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair she was given her own theatre and became the symbol of the entire exhibition.

The Evolution of Serpentine Dance

American actress Loïe Fuller started her career as an actress, touring vaudeville and burlesque stages as a teenager, not only in the United States but also in Europe. While working at London’s Gaiety Theatre in 1889, Fuller learned the skirt dancefrom its famous late 19th century performer, Letty Lind.[11] In the skirt dance, the dancer’s twirls and leg lifts were accentuated by the movement of the skirt. Fuller’s dance evolved from this skirt dance when she dressed up a long skirt in an empire-style dress, increasing the reflective surface of the light and the surface area of the moving fabric. At the same time, the movement of the fabric became the main means of expression in the performance.[12] This was in contrast to the dancing on burlesque stages, for example, where the large skirt was primarily a decorative frame for the presentation of the female body.[13] Gradually, Fuller used ever larger fabrics and held long sticks in her hands to extend the range of movement of the fabric. In the performances, the dancer’s body expanded into space as a movement of the fabric on the one hand, and disappeared invisibly into the folds of the fabric on the other.

The dance also has another, lesser-mentioned source of inspiration: the performances of Indian dancers that Fuller saw in Paris at the end of the millennium. Anthea Kraut has shown that Serpentine Dance contains kinaesthetic traces of the spirals and twists of Indian dancers. Inaddition to seeing Indian dancers, Fuller had performed in several oriental music hallor burlesque shows that used floating canvases to build a fantasy.[14]

Fuller was a tireless practitioner, researcher and experimenter in both movement and lighting design.[15] For her, dance was a combination of art and technology: a fusion of aesthetic, creative process and technical skill, where the movement of light and colour on the canvas could be calculated systematically. The Serpentine Dance evolved from its 1892 premiere into versions using increasingly larger fabrics and more complex light effects. Fuller darkened the space for her performance, which was new for dance performances. The technical complexity of the dances is illustrated by the fact that they required the work of 20 technicians to succeed.[16]

During the golden age of Parisian cabaret, dancers and actors were also superstars of the emerging popular culture, and “La Loïe” danced on famous advertising posters painted by Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.

The Serpentine Dance quickly gained imitators on both sides of the Atlantic, and Fuller defended her copyright by suing the copiers of her dances. She also tried to patent the dance she had invented, but lost the lawsuit because it was not narrative or character-based. The court decision remained the precedent for choreography copyright cases in the United States until 1976.[17]

The experience of the modern world was also accompanied by a fear of the adverse effects of a rapidly industrialising and urbanising society.[18] It was believed to destroy the physical wellbeing of the body, and this was counterbalanced by an emphasis on the importance of body culture. As early as the 1830s, various body techniques were developed and disseminated in Europe and the United States.[19] They laid the foundations for the development of early modern dance forms, which were also seen as a way of balancing the consuming nature of the modern world with the health-giving effect of natural, free and flowing movement.

Various forms of natural dance and movement took inspiration from, for example, romanticising ancient Greece. Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) is perhaps the best-known representative of the school that believed in the natural movement. When the American Duncan settled in Paris in 1900, “Greek dance” was already a well-known phenomenon. However, she rose to unprecedented popularity by emphasising the link between body control and the development of spiritual qualities. Duncan’s dance was simple, with everyday movements that defied natural harmony, such as running, jumping, walking and steps from social dances such as the waltz and polka. Although the choreographies were carefully rehearsed, Duncan aimed for a complete impression of spontaneity: the idea of improvised movement that occurs in the moment.

The relationship between dance and sexuality was so strong that women’s public performances in theatres were seen as very dubious. Maud Allan (1873–1956) was a famous performer of “Greek dance” and a contemporary of Duncan’s. In the early 20th century, her most famous solo dance, The Vision of Salome (1903), inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play, shocked theatre audiences. The dance was interpreted as overtly sexual, even “nudity”, as it combined Greek erotic fantasies with dance.[20] Socially, the dancer’s profession was often equated with prostitution, while dance was equated with sexuality and the display of the body. The private salons, a kind of semi-public spaces, were an important support network for female dancers, and enabled Isadora Duncan, for example, to pursue a career as a respectable dancer.[21]

A postcard of Salome (Maud Allan) looking at the severed head of John the Baptist. Atelier Grünberger, Prague, c. 1908. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. S.63-2021.

The change in moral codes after the First World War was important for the breakthrough of free dance. Professional dancing was slowly opening up to the daughters of “respectable” families, and the health benefits of free dancing were an important step in this process. Duncan linked dance prominently to a moral lifestyle, including the role of social dancing in education and the health benefits of dancing.[22] Although the solo dancer rose to prominence in various modernist dance forms, performance was not necessarily the main function of dance, but rather dance was practised and taught to others precisely for health and spiritual wellbeing. Michael Huxley sees similar experiences in the writings of many dancers in the 1900s and 1920s. Through dance, something was sought that involved individuality, freedom, naturalness and spirituality in movement, but it was not yet called modern dance.[23]

After the First World War, the role of women in society changed forever as the “new woman” became more involved in the workplace and in political and social events. The modern woman was active and independent, and a new conception of leisure included not only a role as a consumer but also self-fulfilment. Dance and the spontaneous expression it brought with it became an important activity for the new woman, both as an educational and social activity. At the same time, the moral rules relating to sexuality and the body were updated. Dance expression was one way of distancing oneself from outdated gender norms that restricted women’s bodily freedom.

The relationship between natural dance and dance modernism is not unequivocal, as it also contains strong anti-modernist features. In dance, the link with the past represented a return to a society perceived as better and healthier, a time before the harmful effects of technology and urbanisation on the body. Indeed, Ramsay Burt and Michael Huxley point out that this may have led to natural dance receiving less attention in the study of dance modernisms. However, many practitioners of natural dance had little connection with the development of modernist theatre dance.[24]

Natural movement was the antithesis of the new social dances of the period, such as the tango and ragtime (swing dances), which were popular in the 1910s. Their syncopated rhythms and angular movements represented the degenerate body of the urban metropolis against which the new art dance was fighting. The word “modern” also referred to the new social dances, so it was not exclusively associated with art dance.[25]

Variety artist Josephine Baker and her orchestra on stage in Helsinki in 1933. Pietinen. The Finnish Heritage Agency.

Cabaret and Charleston as Expressions of Modernism – Josephine Baker

Jazz evolved from blues and ragtime after the First World War in the United States and spread to Europe in the 1920s. The transatlantic touring system of variety theatre ensured that influences moved quickly in both directions and that Black performers in particular sought better pay and more equal work opportunities in Europe, especially after the war.

Josephine Baker (1906–1975) rose to prominence as a performer at La Revue Nègre (“The Black Revue”) in Paris in 1925. Her early performances were based on exoticism and the association of uninhibited sexuality with the Black other, and these racist and caricatured dances were performed for white audiences based on the ideas of white managers. White images of “Africanness” were reflected, for example, in a duet Baker danced with Jo Alex wearing only feathers around her waist and ankles.[26] In the 1930s these themes receded and Baker performed as a singer, took ballet lessons from George Balanchine and danced his choreographies in pointe shoes. Katherine Dunham considered Baker a brilliant and versatile performer in singing, dancing and acting.

Baker’s dances were a meeting place for many different kinds of embodiment. Raised in Saint Louis, Missouri, and later living in Harlem, Baker started as a musical theatre dancer on Broadway, but rose to fame in Europe. She is considered a key figure in the spread of jazz music in France, as Baker was the first to dance the Charleston, a fashionable dance for free and independent women in Paris. In 1920s flapper culture, dance was seen as a way for “the new woman” to be herself and independent in public space. This was also emphasised by the new fashion’s emphasis on straight-line clothing and shorter mid-calf hemlines.

At the same time, in the avant-garde artistic circles of Paris at the beginning of the millennium, ideas about Africa were associated with a positive connotation of freedom and spontaneity.[27] The “primitive” was associated with an experience of authenticity as a counterweight to the bourgeois and rigid culture of modern society. The (white) audiences and critics of the period saw Baker primarily as an exotic and racialised dancer who represented a romanticised “primitive” modernism. In it, dance and the embodied unity it brought were a salvation from the malaise of modern society.[28]

Jazz music was also seen by the (white) public of the period as both “primitive” and extremely modern: at once the thrum of jungle drums and the noise of industrial machinery. Dancing, for example in the Charleston, was perceived as a ritualistic surrender to the strong “primitive” rhythms of jazz. Dance was thus an experience of community and naturalness that had been lost to the degeneration of the modern world.[29]

Readings on Baker’s dance, based on essentialism and mystification, often ignore her skills and achievements. Baker’s dances were based on polyrhythm, which was reflected in the movement of different parts of the body. She was extremely skilled at improvisation, which involved the mastery of certain structures and codes that allowed her to communicate not only with other dancers but also with musicians. Baker’s dancing incorporated Black cultural themes of community and shared history that were linked to pre-diasporic Africa.[30] Baker is situated in a continuum of Afrodiasporic rhythm and expression; as typical of the period, her dance had many Africanisms, or features of African or African American dance.[31] (see Afrodiasporic and Pan-African Modern Dance)

Josephine Baker performing in a restaurant in Helsinki in 1933. Pietinen. The Finnish Heritage Agency.

Baker became an instant star in Paris in the 1920s, where she made her debut at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées,[32] the same theatre where The Rite of Spring had had itsscandalous premiere in 1913. African American performers in particular were the subject of much attention in Europe, and critics noted Baker in a way that would have been impossible for example in New York.[33] In the United States, racial segregation caused performers to be treated unequally.

Nicknamed “la Bakaire” in Paris, Baker became not only a famous performer but also a glamour-defying style icon. Baker was also an active civil rights campaigner and anti-racist.[34] In Miami in 1950, for example, Baker refused to perform at a whites-only club until her demands for diversity in the audience were met.[35]

With a few exceptions, Josephine Baker has long been absent from dance historiography, although her popularity and influence on the dance of the period is undeniable. Ramsay Burt suggests that Baker’s invisibility is due not only to the fact that she was a young woman and an African American, but also to the fact that her venues were not the so-called high culture stages.[36] Baker’s dance represented ragtime and variety, which was not given artistic status in the dance discourse of the turn of the 20th century.

Flourishing Dance of the Weimar Republic

During the Weimar Republic (1918–33), German dance culture was diverse and developed on many kinds of stages. Variety of forms of body culture (Körperkultur), from gymnastics to nudism or various body techniques and forms of dance expression, flourished. Jazz and the new social dances associated with it spread to nightlife. Germany was heavily influenced by international touring, and in Berlin in particular you could see famous dancers from the United States or Paris. Josephine Baker danced the fashionable Charleston in Berlin for the first time in 1926.[37] The Tiller Girls, a group of English origin, delighted audiences with a simultaneously moving dance chorus line, an array of bodies whose movement was like a perfect machine operating with precision.[38] This was a period of great political and economic uncertainty. Kate Elswit describes the polyphonic meaning-making of Weimar-era dance as rehearsing modern citizenship, an experimental art reflecting a highly charged period in which anything was possible.[39]

The new modern dance forms of the period are called Ausdruckstanz (dance ofexpression).[40] The term usually refers to dance forms that developed in the early 20th century, especially in the German-speaking regions of Central Europe. However, the name was given retrospectively, since from the 1910s to the early 1930s, the new German art dance was called, for example, Absoluter Tanz (absolute dance), Freier Tanz (free dance), Moderner Tanz (modern dance), Neuer künstlerischer Tanz (new artistic dance) and Bewegungskunst (art of movement).[41] The term Ausdruckstanz encompasses not only a wide range of very different aesthetics, but also many practical and theoretical approaches to dance. Some of the loose common features among the forms of Ausdruckstanz could be the independence of dance from other arts, the connection of movement to emotional and mental processes and to the cosmos, the central role of improvisation and the role of the dancer as a dance maker.[42]

Ausdruckstanz was only one part of the diverse body culture and dance of the Weimar period, which encompassed a polyphonic set of dance styles and choreographic languages.[43] Dance was strongly present in other arts. In the famous dance scene in Fritz Lang’s Weimar-era silent film Metropolis (1927), the humanoid robot dance combines ecstatic dance with stylised and mechanical expression with the aim of an erotic nightclub performance. The Bauhaus also worked with performance. Oskar Schlemmer[44] introduced dancers dressed in geometric shapes in his Das Triadische Ballett (“Triadic Ballet,” 1922), where costume was a motor for a different kind of physicality: huge swirls of iron wire around the body, golden spheres with no openings for the arms, and long costumes that prevented movement of the knees and hips.[45] Many Bauhaus teachers and students were inspired by Gret Palucca’s dance.[46]

The canonical narrative of German modern dance emphasises the importance of Ausdruckstanz. In the Weimar Republic, however, the various modernist dance forms were performed not only in theatres, concert halls, various private spaces and cinemas, but also in popular cabarets.

Weimar Cabaret

In Germany, the cabarets of the Weimar period were thriving venues, especially in the big cities. The performances consisted of short and varied numbers, including singing, monologues, dancing or pantomimes. Through pungent parody and satire, they dealt with social phenomena and current events. With the end of censorship after the First World War, sexual liberation increased and cabaret performances also began to deal with gender, homosexuality and prostitution. Performances could include nudity. Politics was present in cabaret, and in the last years of Weimar agitprop connected cabaret more strongly to socialism. Politically sophisticated cabaret was often left-wing or left-liberal and therefore fell foul of the National Socialists.[47]

Like many artists of the Weimar period, Valeska Gert (1892–1978) was inspired by the nightlife of the metropolises. Another important influence were the Berlin Dadaists and their avant-garde ways of dealing with violent modern life. Gert had some ballet training at a young age and later studied theatre, but above all she became acquainted with expressionism and its theatre, playing small roles under the direction of Max Reinhardt and Otto Falckenberg. By the mid-1920s Gert already had her own style, which, like early expressionist theatre, focused on movement, gesture and expression, and on the inner state of being as the starting point for art. This reduced but precise expression is evident in her early dances, where a single arm movement can contain a range of emotions from joy to anxiety.[48]

Corporeality was Gert’s way of constructing a stinging social critique in which she mocked social rules and bourgeois values. The caricatured characters in the performances ranged from stereotypical portrayals to satire. The characters often highlighted silenced realities. In Gert’s words: “Because I despised the burgher, I danced all of the people that the upright citizen despised: whores, pimps, depraved souls – the ones who slipped through the cracks.”[49] Perhaps Gert’s best-known work is the chillingly realistic Canaille (“The Prostitute,” 1919). It shows the whole arc of buying sex, from the hip-swinging seduction to the raw sexual act and the woman’s orgasm, all stripped of bourgeois romantic love. Gert also used elements of mass culture, such as circus or boxing, in her performances. Mocking parodies of the Charleston and American variety line-dancing can be found in Variété (1920), a commentary on the commercial stereotype of Americanism.[50]

Valeska Gert: Canaille, 1925. © bpk / Kunstbibliothek, SMB/ Suse Byk.

The precise interpretation of body and facial expressions and the grotesque exaggeration were aesthetically different from other dance phenomena of the period. Gert brought to dance the influences of the theatrical avant-garde, such as the distortion of the grotesque into a caricature, montage, repetition and exaggeration of everyday gestures, and the use of speech and sound as part of the dance.[51] Bertolt Brecht admired Gert’s way of distancing the audience on the dance stage. Gert was a regular performer in Brecht’s cabaret Die Rote Revue at the Münchner Kammerspiel and in his Threepenny Opera (1931).

During and after the First World War, the horrors of war were part of Weimar society, and death was ever-present on many levels. Physically and psychologically crippled soldiers could be seen on the streets after the war as a sign of the crippling of Germany itself. Death was a place (topos) of authenticity and its treatment in the public space extended to art.[52] Valeska Gert’s Der Tod (“Death,” 1922) could even be described as hyper-realistic dance theatre. During the performance, which lasted about two minutes, Gert stood still in silence and embodied death with her upper body and face, with slight changes of gesture, spasms and finally a release of tension. At the time, the work was discussed as direct expression, as death experienced and immersed in by the performer, rather than as imitating (mimesis)or performing of death.[53]

The cabaret performances of Anita Berber (1899–1928) were a combination of the macabre and the erotic. Subjects such as morphine or absinthe were inseparable from the performer’s real addictions. The solo Kokain (“Cocaine,” 1922) lasted seven minutes and, as its name suggests, dealt with the effects of cocaine as a bodily experience. The dancer sometimes moved like an involuntary marionette, with simple steps, between reality and delirium.[54] Berber’s performances included dance from all sides, such as very refined and skilfully performed ballet movements or new social dances like ragtime and Charleston.[55] The performances were too serious, both in their physical expression and in their themes, to be mere light entertainment; they blurred the line between art and variety. At the same time, it remained unclear how much of the movement was actively produced and how much was the result of the dancer’s own addictive experience. As Berber surrendered to the dance, her body appeared strange and distant, and the dancer may not have been fully aware of this in her performance.[56]

After the National Socialists came to power, cabarets considered degenerate were closed and Jewish performers were persecuted. Valeska Gert was also branded as unpatriotic and non-German, because of both her critical art and her Jewish heritage. Gert fled to London and from there to the United States, eventually settling in New York, where he opened her famous cabaret Beggar Bar (1941–45).[57] Social criticism of the Weimar Republic was distant to American audiences, so Gert’s repertoire expanded to include criticism of the Western bourgeoisie.[58]

After the communist uprisings in the United States after the Second World War, Gert moved back to Europe. She performed and opened new cabarets and appeared in several films, including Federico Fellini’s Giulietta degli spiriti (1965). In the 1950s and 60s, Gert’s performances were satires on the National Socialist past and criticisms of post-war West Germany. In the 1970s, Gert appeared on German television talk shows as a strong, unconventional figure in her 80s with black hair and red lips, inspiring the punk movement.[59] Dance artists have also explored the figure of Gert and avant-garde art in their work.[60]

Gert is an example of a dancer who was long outside the canon and whose importance was only really reassessed in the 1990s. Like Josephine Baker or Anita Berber, she belongs to the group of performers whose dance does not fit into the canon’s fundamental idea of a healthy and therefore pure body, promoted by dance art, on which the narrative of modern dance has long relied, not only in Germany but also in the United States.

Movement choir in a gym, Moreton Hall, 1942. Photographer unknown. Laban Collection, Laban Library and Archive, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

Free Dance, Dance Education and Movement Choirs – Rudolf Laban

The narrative of the German modern dance canon builds from forms of German body culture (Körperkultur) towards Ausdruckstanz and finally towards the strong and healthy “pure” body idealised by the National Socialists. The central figure in the canon is Rudolf Laban,[61] who was born in Austria-Hungary and studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris while taking lessons from a student of François Delsarte. Laban founded a dance school in Münich in 1912 and began to develop the principles of free dance (Freier Tanz) – a dance that would not be based on fixed steps, music or storytelling.

During the summers, Laban’s art school’s experimental and holistic approach to the arts was at the heart of the Monte Verità community.[62] Located in the Swiss Alps, this alternative lifestyle (Lebensreform) community sought a return to a simple life and a connection with nature and the self. The idealistic spirit of Monte Verità is reflected in the ritualistic Sonnenfest (“Festival of the Sun”) built by Laban in 1917, which began with a sunset dance, continued at midnight with a dance of torches and moonlight demons, and ended at dawn. The 12-hour outdoor performance included a series of movement choirs, a kind of participatory dance, where the energy created by dancing together was central.

Laban’s teaching in the early 1920s was not based on copying steps or postures, but on the dancer’s ability to work with different elements. He valued the dance of Isadora Duncan for its fluidity of movement and composition that maintained an organic continuity.[63] Laban’s free dance was based on exploring the body’s functions and movement through improvisation. Like many of his contemporaries, Laban was inspired by various mysticisms, including theosophy, which influenced his understanding of energy. In German modern dance, the intuitive and irrational world of the “primitive” tribes, believed to be found in the memory of each body, was widely admired.[64] It was seen as a counterweight to the sensory and emotional numbing lifestyle of modern society.

Rhythm was central to Laban, especially the rhythmic movement of the body (Schwung). The body’s inner rhythm became more important than the rhythm provided from outside by the music. Movement could be associated with silence or poetry, for example. Rhythm was believed to connect the dancers’ bodies through vibration in the movement choirs and to build a connection between the bodies and cosmic forces. Laban also sought to understand the nature of movement. Time, weight, space and energy were qualities of movement that contained information about movement and its “natural” characteristics. The dancer had to develop awareness of the different aspects of movement to a level that went beyond the everyday.[65]

In the 1920s, the popular movement choirs were central to Laban’s conception of dance art. They were strongly associated with health and dance education, as dance was seen as belonging not only to professionals but also to ordinary citizens. The group exercises and body awareness exercises did not require participants to have any prior knowledge of dance. In addition, the ritualistic nature of the movements brought to the choreography the characteristics of folk and social dances by building a sense of community. In German modern dance, community also fought against the degenerating influence of the modern world.[66] The communal experience through participation was stronger than when just watching dance.

The culmination of Laban’s movement choirs was the Festzug der Gewerbe (“Parade of Trades”) in Vienna in 1929. The procession was attended by 10,000 performers, from dancers to actors. Among them were blacksmiths, tailors and bakers. The dance was inspired by the rhythms and movements of different types of work. Laban did a lot of choreography for festivals that became popular during the period, which were often one-off large-scale dance events. Festivals also challenged the perceived bourgeois conventions of theatre by blurring the distinction between spectator and performer, and Laban’s movement choirs and activities with dance enthusiasts were well suited to this purpose.[67] Another key interest in Laban’s artistic work was the theatrical forms of dance that combined dance and pantomime.[68]

Lisa Ullmann working inside a natural-sized icosahedron, the 20-polyhedron, at the Ashridge Summer Course, 1955. June Petit. Laban Collection, Laban Library and Archive, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

Laban’s Theories and Labanotation

Laban’s work in dance education and art progressed in parallel with his theoretical understanding of movement. A complex theory of movement developed over decades of research. These theories combined the experiential nature of dance with systematic observation and analysis of movement. The book Die Welt des Tänzers (“The World of the Dancer”), published in 1920, opens up Laban’s ideas on the basic principles of dance and movement. Although structured more as a collection of notes than a systematic treatise, the book had a strong influence on dance and its teaching, particularly in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. The book also established Laban as a leading figure in the new dance phenomenon developing in Germany.[69]

Laban’s term kinesphere refers to the space surrounding the body. Various geometric constructions – a cube, an octagon or even an icosahedron with 20 different surfaces – made the kinesphere visible in different ways and allowed it to be explored in movement. At the same time, the forms symbolised the relationship between nature and dance, with the aim of restoring the relationship between humans and the cosmos.[70] Laban did not completely deny the ballet tradition, but sought a new relationship with it. As early as the 1920s, he articulated his theories, including his spatial theory of movement (Space Harmony or Choreutics), which was based on the geometric system of ballet and sought to develop it further. In 1926, Laban presented his system based on the dynamics and rhythm of movement, called Eukinetics(from the Greek eu, good, and kinesis, movement). Its aim was the harmony of movement: a balanced connection with the world through dance.

The project to notate movement began as early as 1924. As the movement choirs grew larger and larger, notation became an important tool in their planning. Eventually, in 1928, the system became known as kinetography or Labanotation. Laban wanted the system to be simple, but suitable for notation of all types of motion. Labanotation symbols could be used to write down movement, including all body parts, as well as the spatial characteristics, dynamics and rhythm of the movement.

Working with ordinary citizens made Laban aware of the link between the choreographer’s work and the dancers’ skills, and this motivated him to develop a training system for dancers. For research and the training of dancers, teachers and notators, Laban established schools and artistic research institutes. Many of them provided practice for movement choirs.

In the 1940s and 50s, Laban’s research became increasingly theoretical, while his artistic activities declined. Effort theory, developed in the 1940s, extended earlier studies of dance towards the analysis of all kinds of movement. The theory is based on the notion of dynamic rhythm as the basis for all human activity, both physical and mental. The intrinsic motivation to move, for example as a result of an emotion or thought, is seamlessly linked to the physical movement actually happening. Effort theorysees movement as a transformative and dynamic continuum that can be analysed through four elements: space, force, time and flow. Each element has two opposite extremes between which dynamic variation occurs.

Effort Theory
  • Weight is the body’s dialogue with gravity and the environment, with the “light” masking the earth’s gravitational pull and creating an ethereal quality of movement, while the “strong” resists it, for example when lifting a heavy object.
  • Flow is a continuous movement of energy. It is divided into “free,” where the body follows the flow and momentum of movement, like when sensing the inertia while spinning with outstretched arms. “Bound” movement, on the other hand, is conscious and controlled, and can be stopped at any time, such as moving an easily broken object or moving in a pitch-dark space.

Space refers to a way of relating to the spatiality of a movement, and is divided into “direct” and “indirect.” In the first case, the direction of movement is clear and controlled, such as pointing a finger or hammering a nail. In contrast, the direction is constantly changing and mutating, such as tying a shoelace or walking in a crowd.

Time is more an internal and intuitive relationship with time than a measurable value. Time is “sustained,” for example, when dragging one’s feet or in seductive gestures that stretch the duration of a movement. “Sudden,” in contrast, is associated with haste and acceleration, such as catching a falling object in mid-air or a startle.[71]

InEffort theory, each movement is the result of the simultaneous action of several components, and different combinations produce different qualities of movement. These movement patterns, in turn, are related to the personality of the mover. Laban developed the system in collaboration with engineer Frederick C. Lawrence and assistant Lisa Ullmann by analysing body movement in industrial work. The information it provides relates not only to the expressiveness of movement, but also to its functionality and efficiency.[72]

Laban’s movement analysis and notation system have spread worldwide. Several systems based on Labanotation have been developed in countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London is not only an important centre for documentation and research into Laban’s legacy, but is also renowned for its dance training.

Mary Wigman dancing in Die sieben Tänze des Lebens (“The Seven Dances of Life”), 1921. Nini and Carry Hess. Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung, Universität zu Köln.

Dynamic Body and Space – Mary Wigman

Mary Wigman’s (1886–1973) career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher began to develop immediately after the end of the First World War. Like Laban, she saw dance as a primary, independent art, not subordinate to music or narrative. Wigman had studied at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze (1910–12) (see Hellerau and Transnational Modern Dance), where she was introduced to improvisation. However, she felt that Dalcroze’s way of tying movement strictly to music limited her expression, and to emphasise movement she became Laban’s student in the Monte Verità community. Later, both Wigman and Suzanne Perrottet, a former assistant of Jaques-Dalcroze, assisted Laban in the systematic analysis of movement and the development of its theories.

The Dalcroze Principles

The basic idea of Dalcroze Eurhythmics or rhythmic gymnastics (also Dalcroze method) was to make music visible through the movement of the body. Dalcroze saw music education as a spiritual and physical cultivation of the body and soul as a whole. Each student had a unique heartbeat rhythm, and therefore each body responded differently to music. The first step of the method was listening, focusing on the rhythms within the body and the music, as awareness of rhythms was the pathway to the release of personal expression.[73]

The exercises were based on the structure of the music, not on the interpretation of the musical expression. They included foot rhythm patterns, tapping, moving through space at different speeds and dynamics, or responding to the sound of the piano with movement, stops or changes in movement. In exercises requiring coordination, one hand could move in 4/4 time and the other in 3/8 time. Exercises were always performed to the music, never against the rhythm of the music. In addition, practice was group work – duets, trios, larger groups moving together, in canon, in different rhythms, etc. – as opposed to the individual performance of ballet, for example. Individual expression was important to Dalcroze, but as part of a community. Exercises could be done both neutrally, i.e. emphasising the technical side, or with stylistic and expressive elements, resulting in choreographic compositions, plastique animée.[74]

Dalcroze’s way of understanding music and movement as expressive elements had a decisive influence on the international development of many dance modernisms. His Hellerau school was visited by Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky, for example, who used eurhythmics to help him work with Stravinsky’s music in The Rite of Spring.

During the First World War, Mary Wigman moved with Laban to Zurich, in the Swiss Neutral Zone. There, the Cabaret Voltaire, founded in 1916, became the headquarters of early Dada, with its multi-artistic stage as a playground that challenged the conventions of art. In addition to poetry, also drama, action, dance and puppetry were the subjects of anarchist experimentation by the Dadaists. Dada was a reaction to the shock of the First World War, and the Dadaists strongly questioned the institutionalisation of art, its distance from real life and the role of the individual in art. They were counterbalanced by collective action, deconstruction, shocking events, chaos, satire and irony. Later, Dada’s influence was central to performance art, happenings and also to Judson Dance Theater’s ideas about everyday life as dance or about the self-consciousness and self-irony of dance.[75]

Many Laban’s students regularly attended Cabaret Voltaire events, notably Suzanne Perrottet, Claire Walther and Sophie Taeuber. Wigman began to use the term Absoluter Tanz (absolute dance) to describe the bright and simple dance she developed, in which neither costumes nor lights adorned or concealed the dance’s imperfections. She said the term comes from Taeuber’s performances, where, like in other Dada dances, the simple gestures and movements of the dance became central.[76]

Wigman focused on dance as a completely independent element and an all-encompassing dance movement. In her dances, Dada can also be seen in the use of masks and costumes, as in the solo Witch Dance (Hexentanz). The first version dates back to 1914,[77] but the final form of the dance was sketched in 1926, with Wigman dressed in a cape-like garment and wearing a mask inspired by Japanese Noh theatre. The dance takes place both in silence and to the accompaniment of various percussion instruments such as cymbals. The masking of the face helps the dancer to enter an altered consciousness and the grotesque figure of a witch.[78] Wigman’s use of different ways of covering the body with masks, robes, capes or contrasts of light and shadow took the attention away from the body and into the movement itself.[79] The use of percussion instruments limited the musical element, which for Wigman was primarily a dynamic content, not a linear source of order or dramaturgy.

Mary Wigman in the 1926 version of The Witch Dance. Charlotte Rudolph. Deutsches Tanzarchiv Köln.

In the dance, the figure of the witch led Wigman towards a metamorphosis in which she indulged in “some kind of evil greed I felt in my hands which pressed themselves clawlike into the ground as if they had wanted to take root.”[80] For Wigman, this altered way of being and experience (Erlebnis) was the essence of dance. The dancer was outside herself in an ecstatic state of being, in another reality, while something from within the dancer was transmitted through this bodily way of being. The dancing body was a multi-layered reality, composed not only of concrete but also of psychological and emotional elements. The relationship between the dancer and the audience was described by Wigman as “a fire dancing between two poles.”[81] Sondra Fraleigh reads this as a living kinetic connection, an inter-bodily intersubjective experience. The dancer dances the bodies of all that exist, reaching towards a universal humanity, but at the same time she is unique as an individual.[82] Wigman’s dances expanded our understanding of the expressive possibilities of dance, while the shared experience also questioned perceiving dances through an intellectual communication.

Wigman’s dance was seen as more immediate and instantaneous than Rudolf Laban’s art.[83] For Wigman, the experiential nature of dance contained a passion similar to that expressed in the writings of contemporaries Isadora Duncan or Loïe Fuller. However, some of Wigman’s dances were darker in nature, with characters such as witches, enraged spirits or demons.[84]

Many early modern dance forms reflected nationalism in several ways. The idea of a national identity was present in the American SelfofIsadora Duncan’s dances, while Wigman’s dances, like Laban’s, reflected the (mythical) “Germanness” of the period. The existence of a kind of national essentialist identity was expressed in the dances, for example, as utopias of community, a universally understood Germanness and the “German soul” that Wigman danced.[85]

Mary Wigman’s Methods and International Influence

Wigman approached dance as a strong mental and emotional exercise. The work was based on a series of different ways of moving, such as shaking, swaying, twisting, undulating, falling or reaching. These served as engines of embodiment and helped the dancer to establish contact with her inner movement and her own way of moving.[86] Improvisation was central not only to Wigman’s performances and choreography, but also to her teaching, as both technique and composition were taught through improvisation. Wigman also wrote prolifically about her theories and her vision of an evolving modern dance.[87]

Wigman had a very special relationship with space. She experienced it as sensual and immediate and said she could feel the touch of space on her skin. On a symbolic level, space represented the cosmos.[88] Both Laban’s and Wigman’s thinking about movement in space (Raum) was well developed by the 1920s. Wigman’s dance was special because of its kinetic and ecstatic energy. In her dance she was a dynamic force rather than a recognisable human being: a spatial, genderless and faceless energy, a kind of “figure in space” (Gestalt im Raum).[89]

At the same time, for Wigman, physicality was only the first step in composition. Each dance required its own form and structure, which in turn depended on expression and emotion: the dance was an external form of inner feeling.[90] The structure of a dance had to be extremely carefully worked out, clear and simple, so that the content was conveyed through it. This precise form contributed to allowing the performer to indulge in the ecstasy of dancing. In 1933, Wigman summed up her ideas about dance

Dance is the unification of expression and function,
Illumined physicality and inspirited form.
Without ecstasy no dance! Without form no dance!


Wigman rose to fame as a solo dancer due to her dramatic and profound use of the body. She is the best known of the many solo dancers of the Weimar Republic who developed and disseminated Ausdruckstanz, with a widevariety of styles and varying dancing skills, and toured extensively in Germany and abroad.[92] It was not central to Ausdruckstanz toclassify dancing stylistically, to develop unchanging methods and techniques, or to build a canon with a repertoire of specific choreographies. Since there are relatively few descriptions or other documentation of the dances themselves, reconstructing individual dances is challenging. In the 1920s and 30s, German modern dance was a vibrant and globally significant phenomenon. It was more like a dynamic and mutable system, spread through the performance and teaching of dancers, than a one-way style seeking a particular tradition.[93]

In the early 1920s, Wigman began to create not only solo performances but also group choreographies for female dancers, whom she trained at the school she opened in Dresden.[94] While working as Laban’s assistant, Wigman had been involved in directing popular movement choirs, but her only work for large crowds was Totenmal (“Monument to the Dead,” 1930).

The Dresden central school, which operated in 1920–42, was an important centre for modern dance in Europe. At its peak, the school had 11 branches, where nearly 2,000 dancers studied in the early 1930s, many of them international students.[95] With them, Wigman’s methods spread around the world.[96] The influence of Wigman’s dance also extended to butoh, as butoh pioneer Kazuo Ono and the artists Eiko and Koma studied with Wigman’s followers. (See Butoh’s Revolutionary Aesthetics and Influence on Contemporary Western Dance) Also a significant number of students came to Laban’s schools from abroad. During the interwar period, schools were established all over Central Europe. In 1927, for example, there were nearly 30 Laban schools in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland.[97]

Following the success of Wigman’s first United States tour, the New York Wigman School was founded in 1931 at the height of Wigman’s international career and long-time student Hanya Holm was sent to head the school. The heated debate surrounding Wigman’s collaboration with the National Socialists eventually led to the school’s name being changed in 1936 to the Hanya Holm Studio.

Dance in National Socialist Germany

After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the Ministry of Culture began to emphasise the “German character” of dance. Cabaret culture was thought to be degenerating and, like many other modernist art forms, was largely declared a decadent art form and censored. Jewish performers were persecuted and many fled to places such as England, the United States, Austria or France. However, several forms of Ausdruckstanz were harnessed by the National Socialists, by pruning away inappropriate aesthetics and content. Such collaboration was possible in part because of the fear and resistance to the modernisation of the society associated with early modern dance at the turn of the twentieth century. Dance sought salvation through the natural body, and the same utopian idealisation of the “healthy body” was part of the discourse of fascism.[97] The heterogeneous and vibrant dance scene of the Weimar period was considerably reduced in size. Under National Socialism, the unifying term “German dance” (Deutscher Tanz) was used, with a nationalist and racist connotation.[99]

Lilian Karina and Marion Kant describe the period of National Socialism as a triumph of mass opportunism. Few dance makers actively opposed National Socialist values or showed any sympathy or awareness of the gravity of the situation. The actions of important German dance makers are shrouded in a veil, as there is little mention or links with National Socialism in biographies of Laban, Wigman, Gret Palucca or Harald Kreutzberg. It was only in the 1980s and 90s that the almost taboo role of modern dance in the activities of the National Socialists began to be explored.[100]

Rudolf Laban played a key role in the reorganisation of dance under National Socialism. While working for the Ministry of Culture as the head of the Germanstage dance (Deutsche Tanzbühne), he designed the basis for dance education at the Deutsche Meister-Stätten für Tanz (German Masters’ Institute for Dance), which began its work in 1936. Laban codified improvisation exercises and created a new kind of dance curriculum. Wigman, Palucca and Berthe Trümpy expelled dancers and teachers of Jewish origin from their schools as soon as the National Socialists came to power, even before expulsion became compulsory. In July 1933, Wigman and her successors joined the educational and cultural organisations set up by the National Socialists, and Wigman encouraged all graduates of her school to do the same. She also agreed to have the curriculum of her school adapted to the requirements of the Ministry of Culture.

The harnessing of body culture for National Socialist purposes as a massive group exercise can be understood from Leni Riefenstahl’s film Fest der Schönheit (“Festival of Beauty,” 1938). In it, thousands of Aryan women gymnastically perform in unison and with discipline in the Olympic stadium in Berlin. In the film, gymnastics serves as propaganda for a utopian, purified community centred on a strong, controlled and agile body.[101] Laban’s well-known statement about dance belonging to everyone – jeder Mensch ist ein Tänzer; everyone is a dancer – became a call for almost compulsive group exercise,[102] which glorified athletic embodiment in line with National Socialist ideology.

Wigman sought support for her work from the Ministry of Culture and was even prepared to make artistic concessions to obtain it, but stressed that her art was separate from politics.[103] However, in her book Deutsche Tanzkunst (“German Dance Art,” 1935), Wigman describes how the focus of her dance shifted from universal experience to support National Socialist ideas of the “ordinary” people (Volk).[104] The ideas of many dance makers about “German dance” were disseminated through publications funded by the National Socialists. Goebbels’ Ministry of Culture funded dance art and organised dance festivals (1934, 1935). These culminated in the opening of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, with the participation of hundreds of dancers, including Wigman and Kreutzberg. At the last minute, the movement choreographed by Laban, Vom Tauwind und der Neuen Freude (“Of Spring Wind and New Joy”), was removed from the repertoire because of its supposedly dubious content.

The dance curriculum Laban built was implemented until the end of the Second World War, long after he fled Germany in 1937 after falling out of favour with the Ministry of Culture. Laban moved first to Paris and finally to England in 1938. Wigman also fell out of favour and gave her last solo concert in 1942. She abandoned her dance school, moving first to Leipzig and in 1949, to West Berlin.

After 1936, the Ministry of Culture emphasised lighter art dance and wanted to break away from Laban’s intellectual dance.[105] For Goebbels, dance was all about the presentation of beautiful female bodies.[106] In 1940 he instructed the dance department to break away from political and intellectual, doctrinaire dance: “Dance must address the senses and not the brain. Otherwise it is not dance any more but philosophy. Then I would rather read Schopenhauer than go to the theater.”[107] In addition to problems and war, there was a need for more entertaining content. Ballet was becoming increasingly popular and was seen as a suitable form of entertainment. Folk dances also received a great deal of state support, as they were perceived as being close to the people, as their name suggests.[108]

Susan Manning argues that the collaboration between modern dance makers and National Socialists was partly rooted in a similar (utopian) ideology of the early twentieth century concerning an alternative lifestyle in which community and body culture were keys to escape from modern industrial society. The changing political and economic circumstances of the Weimar period and, finally, the depression of the 1930s drove dancers to seek continuity in the support provided by the National Socialists. Scholars disagree on how much of the collaboration stemmed from shared political perspectives and how much from the pursuit of economic interests. At the same time, the confusing bureaucracy of the Ministry of Culture was conducive to a cunning tactic of promising dance makers opportunities to work independently, while constantly changing policies prevented dance from establishing itself along the paths envisaged by the makers.[109]

Early Dance Theatre – Kurt Jooss

Like many dancers, Kurt Jooss (1901–79) went into exile with his group after the National Socialists came to power in 1933, because he did not want to expel the Jewish members of his group. Ballets Jooss toured extensively, particularly in Europe and the United States. Its base was eventually Dartington, England, where The Jooss–Leeder School of Dance, co-directed by Jooss and Sigurd Leeder, was established for the period 1934–39. Rudolf Laban also fled Germany, eventually ending up in Dartington in 1938. During the war, people in England became increasingly interested in dance education, and by the 1940s Laban’s expertise in the field was widely recognised, but Leeder and Jooss were sent to an internment camp in 1941. On their release, they moved Ballets Jooss to Cambridge, where a new repertoire began to be rehearsed in 1942.[110]

Having studied under Dalcroze and Laban (1920–22), Jooss founded his first dance company in 1928 while he was head of the dance department at the Folkwangschule in Essen. The group came to international attention in 1932 when it won the Paris International Choreography Competition with Jooss’s iconic choreography The Green Table. The politically left-wing, pacifist work is perhaps the most famous dance work of the Weimar period. The Green Table is a depiction of the experiences of the First World War, a kind of modern Dance of Death in which Jooss himself danced the role of death, appearing in the form of a skeleton. It is also a symbolic representation of the causes of the First World War. By showing how businessmen and imperialists profited from the war, the work strongly reflects the period’s perception of the absurdity of war.

In the first and last scene of Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, the men wearing suits gather around the green table, in a photograph from 1932. Albert Renger-Patzsch. Deutsches Tanzarchiv Köln.

Jooss is known as the developer of early dance theatre (Tanztheater). The concept was introduced in the 1920s, when Jooss and Laban were interested in modern dance as part of larger-scale theatres and opera houses. This was in contrast to Wigman’s ideal of absolute dance, which sought dance’s independence from both institutions and narrative. In the 1970s, however, Ausdruckstanz was seen as an important precursor to Tanztheater, partly from a very nostalgic point of view and without a clearer understanding of its history or methods.[111]

Jooss was interested in combining dance movement with action, that is, with dramatic narrative, where gestures played a central role. Jooss was also interested in developing technique training. The Jooss–Leeder technique incorporated elements of classical ballet and Laban’s movement principles and exercises.[112] In the 1935 Ballets Jooss programme notes, the group’s aim is described as a dance whose “language is movement built up of forms and penetrated by the emotions.”[113] Moreover, Jooss’s company had a very particular way of dancing together. Ballet in Britain during this period was based on a hierarchical division into principal dancers and chorus, which was also the basis of the choreographic structure. Jooss’s company and its choreographic language, instead, emphasised the collaboration of the dancers rather than the skills of the individual dancer.[114]

On Ballets Jooss’s first major tour in 1933, the company’s modern repertoire attracted attention in London, Paris and New York. At the same time, critics found it difficult to place it in relation to ballet and modern dance. Jooss’s work is situated in interesting spaces between the technique of classical ballet and the expressive elements of dance. On the one hand, it is a dance entity in its own right, but also a fusion of dance and theatre. The movement language, on the other hand, consists of dance as action but also includes form-focused, formalistic movement.[115]

Ballets Jooss performed the choreographer’s works around the world. The Green Table, for example, was danced more than 3,000 times on the company’s numerous international tours, but was not performed for German audiences until after 1951.[116] Jooss’s student Pina Bausch dances in recordings of the work from 1963 and 1967.[117] Later, Bausch developed her own form of dance theatre and became a world-famous choreographer. Inaddition to Bausch, dance theatre in West Germany was developed by artists such as Johann Kresnik, Susanne Linke and Gerhard Bohner, whose style is described as socially critical. Their counterparts in East Germany were Tom Schilling and Arila Siegert. All of these artists had studied under an Ausdruckstanz dancer.[118] Swedish dancer Birgit Cullberg (1908–1999) also studied with Jooss at Dartington in 1935–39. She worked with dance theatre through satire and humour, creating her own style, and in 1967 founded the well-known Cullberg Ballet.

Interaction Across the Atlantic – Hanya Holm

Cultural exchange between the United States and Germany was already significant in the 1920s and 30s. American dancers travelled non-stop across the Atlantic to Germany to study, and this very close interaction was only interrupted for the duration of the Second World War.[119] In 1928, Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi performed in the United States on one of their many tours. Kreutzberg had worked not only with Mary Wigman and Rudolf Laban but also with Max Reinhardt, while Georgi had studied with Dalcroze and Wigman. Wigman’s many US tours in the early 1930s increased interest in German modern dance techniques. The international interaction of dance is thus more extensive than historiography often suggests, and Susan Manning even speaks of Americanised forms of Ausdruckstanz.[120]

Hanya Holm (1893–1992), a student of Mary Wigman, was sent to the United States as a representative of the Wigman School to spread her mentor’s working methods and artistic principles in 1930. Holm worked extensively as a teacher and choreographer, developing her vision of modern dance art. As a representative of German dance, she did not fully fit the narrative of modern dance as an all-American phenomenon. Holm was often labelled an “outsider” who had shaped her dance to reflect the American spirit and temperament.[121] As word of Wigman’s links with the National Socialists spread, Holm separated her dance from politics: “A racial question or a political question has never existed and shall never exist in my school. In my opinion there is no room for politics in art.”[122]

The codified technique and dance composition of American modern dance were the antithesis of Wigman’s ecstatic improvisations and emotionalism. In Germany, dance was often centrally associated with an educational vision in which dance was for everyone: through it, the healed body, mind and spirit awakened to a better and fuller life.[123] Initially, Holm’s teaching also involved amateurs and professionals practising together, and dance was a shared practice of community (Gemeinschaft) and experimentation. Gradually, teaching changed to meet “American needs,” in practice emphasising individual skill and repetition. However, Holm insisted on improvisation when exploring themes such as tumbling, jumping and spinning, or in composition, such as the balanced relationship between the dancer and the space.[124]

Hanya Holm performing with a dance group, c. 1938. Lotte Jacobi. University of New Hampshire. Used with permission. © 2022. University of New Hampshire.

Holm continued to implement her mentor’s artistic principles throughout her career. Like Wigman, she saw each choreography as a different whole with its own quality, form and vocabulary of movement. That is why she did not develop a codified technique during her career. Holm was particularly interested in movement as a lived experience, its abstract kinetic dimension and space. Tresa Randall has shown how Holm transformed her dance education goals into artistic outputs, thus continuing Wigman’s communal legacy in performance and in the American context to reach for a true “American spirit.”[125]

In 1935 Holm completed her first dance concert, but it was not until 1936 that her group, the Hanya Holm Company, made its debut on the professional stage. City Nocturne (1936) and Trend (1937) depicted the horrors of modern metropolises and the healing power of community, while Dance of Work and Play (1938) celebrated “primitive” rhythms and togetherness. Holm also choreographed a dozen musicals, including Kiss Me, Kate (1948) and My Fair Lady (1956). Work on musicals – in theatrical, commercial and popular settings – is often separated from Holm’s “artistic” work, although she used the same methodologies on Broadway as she did in her independent work. The use of improvisation and the understanding of choreography as the result of organic movement and collaboration also influenced the form of the musicals: the choreography was not a separate and intrusive entity but part of the organic fabric of the performance.[126]

Holm’s work challenged many boundaries. Not only did she move between the artificially differentiated fields of “German” and “American” modern dance, but she also worked freely with her own choreographies and commercial musicals, challenging both the boundaries between different artistic disciplines and the relationship of art to popular culture. New interpretations suggest that Holm’s movement outside the boundaries reflects the diversity of dance modernism more broadly.[127] Yet, the inputs of “serious artists” working in the field of popular culture, mixing so-called high and low culture – like George Balanchine’s choreographies for musicals – was for a long time systematically ignored as part of dance modernism.[128]

Development of White Modern Dance in the United States

Of the early practitioners of white modern dance in the United States,[129] the German Hanya Holm was the only one to come from outside the Denishawn School. Founded by Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968) and Ted Shawn (1891–1972), Denishawn School formed Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, the key figures of the American modern dance canon. Holm was also the only one of them who was not born in the United States. In the 1920s, Denishawn’s alumni rebelled against the group’s activities, leaving the school and devoting themselves to their own artistic work.


In the early years of the 20th century, Ruth St. Denis had become known for her orientalist dances, based on the practice of Delsartism.[130] (see The Long History of Orientalism) The United States had a strong tradition of variety dance[131] and performances combining various short numbers were a popular form of entertainment from the early decades of the 19th century. St. Denis’ orientalist performances with ornate costumes were a perfect fit for vaudeville shows and tours, which made the dance economically viable. In private salons and theatres, St. Denis was able to enter by emphasising that dance was a ritual and spiritual practice, thus distinguishing it from the sexualised dance numbers of vaudeville, which could also have orientalist overtones.[132]

St. Denis, with her husband Ted Shawn, founded The Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles in 1915, which grew into a network of schools across the United States. Denishawn’s performances were visualisations of music, often plotless compositions in which group formations were central. From a contemporary perspective, their orientalism raises questions of cultural appropriation.[133]

The school closed in 1931 when Shawn and St. Denis divorced. However, Shawn wanted to develop an American modern dance form exclusively for male dancers and established a dance training and performance centre on a farm he bought in Massachusetts. The place was named Jacob’s Pillow and is still a prominent part of the dance scene in the United States. Shawn had a positive impact on male dancing in society. However, he did so by portraying men in foreign cultures from Asia to Europe, rather than in the United States, while reinforcing both cultural stereotypes and traditional gender roles.[134]

From the 1930s onwards, white modern dance developed significantly in the United States, particularly in New York. Central to the period was the construction of white modern dance as an American art form. Its canon was largely based on each choreographer’s individual way of dancing: a personal style and a codified movement language in which the exploration and renewal of movement form was central. In this formalist approach, choreographed movement sequences and dance techniques based on repetition of movement were seen as more important than improvisation. Moreover, the distinction between amateurs and professionals was clearer than in German modern dance forms, which also valued dance as a communal activity.

Various modern dance techniques were developed to train dancers and familiarise them with the formal language of each choreographer. Many modern dancers sought financial security in teaching, as the financial risk of independent performance was high. Unpaid internships, the use of the rehearsal studios of mentors and colleagues, or the possibility of renting a theatre at a reduced rate on certain days of the week for dance concerts were the lifeblood of independent artistic work.[135]

A summer course organised by the Bennington School of Dance in 1934–42 brought together dance professionals and amateurs and made a significant contribution to the development of modern dance in the United States. In addition to providing dancers with the opportunity to learn dance techniques, it also enabled choreographers to work artistically with the support of the festival.[136] Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and Holm were driving artistic forces in Bennington. It was Holm’s school in New York and her work as a teacher at the Bennington summer course that introduced the influences of German modern dance to the United States.[137]

Revolutionary and Leftist Dance – Anna Sokolow

Strongly committed to the labour movement, Helen Tamiris and Anna Sokolow were downplayed in the American modern dance canon during the anti-communist era. They represented a politically radical form of dance emerging from socialist circles in the 1930s, leftist dance, which saw dance through leftist values. Its aim was to promote social change through dance.

The phenomenon was called revolutionary dance, and it was constructed as left-wing ideology and activism sought a physical form.[138] Indeed, the methods of improvisation in German modern dance and their educational and communal origins were of particular interest to left-wing dance practitioners in the United States, and are said to have influenced Black modern dance as well.[139] Revolutionary dance had the task of reflecting social problems, such as class divisions or issues of equality, and of addressing the realities of the working class. The dancer Jane Dudley (1912–2001) described how mass dancecould express revolutionary and meaningful ideas through simple but clear group movements. Movement choirs involving large crowds required little training for the individual dancer, but with good direction they were an opportunity to embody revolutionary ideology.[140]

Anna Sokolow and Anita Alvarez, c. 1939. Sokolow Dance Foundation.
Anna Sokolow in The Exile, 1939. Sokolow produced several works on Judaism, and this one was the first in a series depicting the rise of National Socialism in Europe. Barbara Morgan. Sokolow Dance Foundation.

Founded in 1932, the Workers Dance League (WDL, later the New Dance League) brought together revolutionary dancers and dance groups and provided dance education and performance opportunities. Among the revolutionary dancers were many members of the Graham and Humphrey companies, such as Anna Sokolow (1910–2000), whose strong and charismatic performance was praised by critics of the time.[141] Sokolow was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York. She danced with the Graham company (1930–39), but was also an active member of the WDL. Sokolow founded her first dance group in 1933, and in 1935 it was permanently renamed Dance Unit.

Sokolow’s works highlight individual stories that expand to address the ills of society.[142] Strange American Funeral (1935) exposes the injustice of capitalism by recounting the accidental death of a migrant worker in a steel mill. The work depicts the chaotic feelings of despair in the community. The programme notes describe in detail how Jan Clepak was “a worker who was caught in a flood of molten ore – whose flesh and blood turned to steel”[143] Case History No. – (1937) embodies the life of a marginalised youth on the street. Sokolow herself danced this solo work, but surprisingly the critics read the character as male, while the manuscript does not give a reading of the character’s gender.[144]

Revolutionary dance ranged from communist propaganda (agitprop) to works that more lightly reflected leftist values.[145] At its most radical, it used extreme emotional expression to break away from the formal language of the modern dance canon, in which dance technique played a central role. Body-to-body emotion was a powerful tool of influence, the theory of which Mark Franko succinctly describes as “without emotion, no revolution.”[146] Many dance critics were dismissive of revolutionary dance and found these anti-modernist works artistically unattractive.[147] In addition to the political message, Sokolow was working on the emotional load of the theme. In the mid-1930s she collaborated with the Group Theatre and became familiar with Stanislavski’s ideas on emotional memory and inner impulses, which became part of Sokolow’s choreographic process.[148]

In the 1950s, Sokolow’s choreography took a more abstract turn, for example in Lyric Suite (1953) and Rooms (1954), which brought the alienation of urban life to the stage. In addition to a universal level, her works often have a very human approach to their subject matter. Rooms, for example, allows for a wide range of readings, from the loneliness of the urban metropolis to a love affair told from a queer perspective.[149] Dreams (1961) and Steps of Silence (1967) dealt with the Holocaust. Hannah Kosstrin points out that the history of dance has often ignored leftism in Sokolow’s works and concentrated on this later phase that deals with modern society.[150]

As modern dance developed rapidly in the United States in the 1930s and 1950s, left-wing dance networks actively interacted with well-known dance makers. The studios of active modern dance practitioners (Graham, Humphrey and Weidman, Holm, Tamiris) were also frequented by left-wing dancers, and many dancers were active in both networks. However, left-wing dancers often perceived the technicality of American modern dance as bourgeois, and its formal language did not necessarily lend itself to radical choreographies of oppression, hunger, rebellion, brotherhood of nations, etc.[151]

Anna Sokolow managed to move interestingly between many frames of reference. She did not abandon her training in modern dance, but incorporated elements of Graham’s formal language into her choreographies, while working with Graham raised her to the status of an artist worthy of consideration by critics.[152] In contrast, the formal language of Sokolow’s work appealed to modern dance audiences,[153] while the themes of everyday life were easily accessible to audiences seeking a leftist value system. Her group performed not only at working-class events but also for a variety of audiences in Broadway theatres and Jewish cultural centres. Even Sokolow’s Jewish origins seemed to have lost ground in the United States, where Jews were not considered “white” until after the Second World War.[154]

Doris Humphrey: Shakers, 1938. Barbara Morgan. Barbara and Willard Morgan photographs and papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Dance between Individual and Group – Doris Humphrey

Instead of Denishawn’s far-flung themes and exoticising dance, modern dance makers sought themes from American reality. Doris Humphrey (1895–1958) was also interested in American society and the individual experience as a starting point for her dances:

I believe that the dancer belongs to his time and place and that he can only express that which passes through or close to his experience. The one quality in a work of art is a consistent point of view related to the times.


In addition, interest shifted from the codified way of expressing emotions in Delsartism towards the possibilities of movement as a means of expression. Humphrey sought new approaches to movement with her colleague Charles Weidman (1901–75), who became a long-time collaborator. Humphrey stressed that the choreographer had to constantly search for new movement, not just repeat the movement vocabulary of different styles and techniques. For her, movement observation was a fundamental principle of dance, so that everyday movement was based on the same principles as dance choreography: the anatomical structures of the human body and the expressive power of gestures.[156]

The style developed by Humphrey is based on an alternation of resisting and surrendering to gravity, known as “fall and recovery.”The movement takes place between two extremes, in what Humphrey called “the arc between two deaths.” It reflected Nietzsche’s thinking about the opposing Apollonian (reason, intelligence) and Dionysian (emotion, chaos) forces, both of which as such led to death. The dancer – and human in general – balances between these two opposing extremes. The movement is both physical and psychological, since falling, or going off balance, represents danger and ecstatic abandonment, the opposite of which is returning to balance and being stuck.[157]

For Humphrey, the function of art was to stimulate and move the viewer, which also draws on Nietzsche’s idea that the rituals of Dionysus, as a break from the Apollonian, restrained and orderly everyday life, were needed to maintain the wellbeing of society.[158] For Humphrey, dance was a way of breaking everyday rules through the experience of passion and freedom.

Water Study (1928) is not only Humphrey’s first large-scale group choreography, but also a work in which her philosophy of dance becomes physically visible.[159] The choreography, which proceeds without music and in silence, is based on the dancers’ shared rhythm of breathing, in which each individual is an equally important member of the group. For Humphrey, the conscious use of the rhythm of breathing was central to the construction of the dance, because when breathing, the movement of the lungs spreads throughout the body, becoming the physical engine of all movement. The pelvis is an important starting point for movement, as it builds the connection with the breath and the abdominal muscles. Without this connection, movement of the body starts from the limbs, peripherally, thus Humphrey’s central ideas of a holistic dance “from the inside out” are not realised.[160] Other stylistic features include the constant flow of movement, taking it to extremes and the lyrical nature of the dance.

In Water Study, it is the phrasing of movement, the variation in dynamics and the varied positioning of the group in the space that builds a tension that mediates the flow of water, a continuum of “natural” movement, instead of imitating (mimesis) the movement of water or related imagery. Most of Humphrey’s choreographies convey an idealistic and harmonious worldview, such as Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1938), in which the precise movement of the dancers in space is central.

Humphrey was particularly interested in the balanced relationship between the individual and the group. She declared the era of solo dancing to be over, while criticising the way many people were content to be part of the mass of the chorus and forget about individuality. For Humphrey, it was important to find the place of the individual as part of the group, thus linking dance to a democratic value system, as in New Dance (1935), which was performed at the Bennington Festival in 1935. It is through group action and a gradually evolving movement language that dance can approach the ideal of freedom and democracy in modern society.[161] For Humphrey, the dancing group was like a symphony orchestra, capable of expressing tones more broadly than even the most skilled individual dancer.[162] When the works featured characters and theatrical situations – as in Shakers (1931), a work about a religious community, or With My Red Fires (1936),[163] a dramatic depiction of destructive maternal love – the characters were often symbolic. Humphrey was a strong believer in kinaesthetic empathy, where movement is transmitted directly from body to body.

Kinaesthetic Empathy

A key insight in the reception of modern dance was kinaesthetic empathy, which the influential dance critic John Martin (1893–1985) used in the 1930s to explain the communication between dancer and spectator. In 1933, Martin referred to this embodied connection in his book The Modern Dance with the term “metakinesis.” According to him, the spectators actively share the performer’s movement experience, as the muscles of their bodies, as it were, reproduce and reflect the dancer’s movements, its rhythm and dynamics and their changes. Martin’s ideas were influenced by formalist art theory, in which the art form had to strive towards its most characteristic quality. In the idea of dance for dance’s sake, this meant exploring movement through form or use of space. Martin believed that the viewer shared not only the dancer’s movement experience but also the aesthetic and emotional content conveyed by movement. Linked to this was a notion of symbolism as universal: the belief that abstract art had the capacity to touch and convey universal experiences and emotions.

From a 21st century perspective, Martin’s definition of kinaesthetic empathy is problematic. It excludes from dance any culture-specific content and embodied communication that has a connection to, for example, the cultural roots of dance or themes of social identity associated with dance, such as gender. Instead, a kind of normative kinaesthetic experience is emphasised, through which one has access to the “authentic” experience of another body. Thus, kinaesthetic empathy in fact emphasised the critic’s right to determine what they saw on the basis of their own experience. Despite all kinds of misconceptions, many modern dance practitioners emphasised this potential of dance for embodied communication. Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Mary Wigman, for example, believed that dance was directly transmitted from body to body.

However, kinaesthesia, or the sense of movement, is central to the experience of dance, and as early as the 1880s it was understood how it conveys information about body position and movement in relation to the environment. In the 2000s, neurologists understood the function of mirror cells and how they are activated both when a person moves and when they watch another person move.[164]

Doris Humphrey’s Theory of Choreography

Humphrey was also the first modern dancer to begin formulating a theory of choreography in the 1930s, but it was not published until after her death in The Art of Making Dances (1959). She divided dance into four areas: design, dynamics, rhythm and motivation. These had to be combined into a balanced whole in order to support the central idea of choreography through the structure of the dance.[165] The analysis of the structure of the choreography separated the dance event from the dancer and their personality.

For Humphrey, the dance form consists of two elements: time and space. The composition of space is divided into symmetrical and asymmetrical forms, the first of which has a calming effect, while the second stimulates the senses. There are two ways of combining the forms: successional and oppositional composition. Humphrey criticises in particular the tendency of choreographers to use too much symmetry, which leads to “monotony and death for a dance.”[166]

According to Humphrey, the space of the stage is divided into strong and weak areas, the conscious use of which helps to convey the content of the choreography to the audience. The strong areas are the four corners of the stage and the entire centre line of the stage. The strong areas at the back of the stage help to build the status of the dancer, a distant and even mythical heroic figure. The front, in contrast, creates a personal and human relationship with the dancer, an empathic reaction in which the dancer is one of us. The passages between these areas depict the character’s displacement, journey or solitude.[167]

The key to temporal design is the dynamic design of movement sequences to resonate with (the spectator’s) breath and other natural rhythms. The design should not be monotonous but a harmonious blend of energy, consisting of action and rest. There are three types of movement sequences: diminuendo with a climax at the beginning, crescendoending in a final climax, and curvilinear structure with a climax in the middle of the movement sequence.[168]

The dance company Humphrey led with Charles Weidman from 1928–44 was important for the development of modern dance. The choreographers worked both separately – Humphrey with female dancers and Weidman with male – and together, as in Shakers. In this case, the dancers’ movement language did not depend on gender, but everyone danced in the same way. The company was closed down because of the financial difficulties caused by the Second World War, while Humphrey stopped dancing for health reasons. She served for many years as artistic director and choreographer of the dance company of her protégé José Limón (1908–72) and influenced the dance education programme at the Juilliard School, which began in 1951. The techniques used by Humphrey and Weidman were based on similar exercises and principles and formed the basis of the Limón technique. Humphrey’s work is less often seen performed, but choreographic theory is a prominent part of her legacy.[169] There is much documentation of her works in the form of recordings, photographs and Labanotation. Many of the dances have been reconstructed with the help of dancers who worked with Humphrey for many years.[170]

The Mythical Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894–1991), a myth of American modern dance, had an artistic career spanning half a century. Choreographing more than 180 works, her style evolved and changed over the years. The Graham technique is one of the best-known forms of training modern dance and is taught internationally.

Graham’s early works were short solos or group choreographies, such as the debut of her company in 1926. The evening with four dancers included 18 dances, nine of which were solos that Graham choreographed for herself. The choreographies lasted a few minutes and still showed the strong influence of Denishawn’s orientalism. As a performer, Graham was charismatic, dramatic and disciplined; as a choreographer and teacher, she was demanding and uncompromising. For her, the dancer was a “divine athlete,” a kind of heroic superhuman,[171] not through the lightness of ballet, but through a powerful movement bound by gravity.

Mark Franko divides Graham’s works into three categories. In theearly dramaturgical phase, the emphasis was on female and male characters, the theatrical premise and the simultaneous presence of visible action and invisible subtext. After the Second World War, the works of the mythographic phase were choreographic adaptations of Greek mythology, such as the stories of Medea, Theseus, Oedipus or Jocasta. Narratively, the invisible and the symbolic were still strongly present. The intention was that the audience would sense the themes through archetypes and by identifying with the universal pattern suggested by the character’s actions. In the later psychodramatic phase, Graham abandoned her cryptic and ritual-myth structure and approached life from a more contemporary perspective. There were no longer hidden motivations, symbolic meanings and psychological complexes with their universal extensions, but sexual needs and emotional turmoil in an imperfect world. All the forces at play were visible, on the surface. Voyage (1953) is a typical work of this phase.[172]

Graham’s psychodramatic phase work Embattled Garden was first performed in 1958. It is based on the choreographer’s interpretation of the events in the Garden of Eden through the relationships between Adam, Eve and Lilith. Martha Graham Dance Company, Centre Cultural de Caixa de Terrassa, 22 April 2007. Josep Aznar. MAE. Institut del Teatre.

In Heretic (1929), for example, the strong formal language and the dramatic juxtaposition of soloist and group highlight the rejection of the individual. The drumming rhythm of the choir’s heels and the heads turning away from the soloist build up anger. Graham himself described the symbolic level of her dance in this way:

The audience does not have to be aware of the symbolism. What the spectator has to be aware of is something within his own body. He does not have to analyze what flight means, but he should have the feeling or sensation of flight.


Graham’s collaborator Louis Horst wrote that instead of narrative, modern art suggests a subject or emotion, refers to it implicitly and by association. In dance, this expression took place through various rhythms and dynamics or spatial settings, not through pantomime, which was the opposite of subtle allusion.[174]

Louis Horst

Graham’s mentor for a long time was Louis Horst (1884–1964), a well-known accompanist and composer of modern dance of the period. He encouraged Graham to place dance at the centre of her work in a way that other art forms supported it, and spoke to his protégé about other art forms such as modern painting, Cubism and Kandinsky.

Horst was open-minded and cultured, professing to be an existentialist, encouraging his students to read Nietzsche and encouraging dancers to develop their own expression. In 1925–26, Horst travelled in Europe, following the art scene and seeing Mary Wigman perform in Switzerland.

Horst taught dance composition using a system based on musical structures as early as the 1920s, making it a credible subject in the American modern dance tradition.[175] He also founded the dance magazine Dance Observer (1934–64), which had a small circulation but at the time generated significant debate about dance modernism.

In addition to Graham, Horst mentored many dancers such as Helen Tamiris, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Agnes de Mille.

Through the characters of heroines and myths, Graham’s choreographies referred to human emotions and relationships between people. Dance scholar Susan Foster describes the atmosphere of Graham’s dance as psychologically charged. The choreography and music create a dynamic situation in which the dance evolves in an organic continuum of successive emotional states.[176] Both Graham and Humphrey are searching for an embodied, lived experience. For Graham, experience was often an imagined event, while Humphrey sought a concrete embodied activity in which the forms and dynamics of a particular movement were its expressive elements. German dancers, instead, referred to experience through emotions and inner life, which was expressed in different ways of being.[177] In German modern dance, energy and sharing it with the spectator, even as an ecstatic, mystical and irrational experience, was often more central than the formal language of dance. Indeed, the formalistic language of Graham’s dance was often perceived as distant and even cold, especially by left-wing critics, who favoured revolutionary dance and called for more emotional expression – and political engagement.[178]

Graham’s iconic 1930s work Lamentation draws strength from the geometric shapes of the stretching fabric. Martha Graham Dance Company, Centre Cultural de Caixa de Terrassa, 22 April 2007. Josep Aznar. MAE. Institut del Teatre.

In the 1930s, Graham founded an all-female company and the heroine of the performances was often Graham herself. Much of the work dealt with women’s experiences, emotions and the difficulty of expressing them. The tragic Lamentation (1930) is one of Graham’s best-known works. In it, the dancer is seated for almost the entire choreography and her tubular garment leaves only the face, hands and bare feet visible. The movements stretch the costume into various geometric shapes, extending the angular formal language of the dancer’s body into the surrounding space. The angular shapes, the positions that avoid the legs to turn outwards and the pounding movements radically oppose both the aesthetics of ballet and the softness of movement stereotypically associated with femininity.[179]

In the period between the world wars, modernist artists turned to the traditions of “primitive” cultures to look for self-expression. Graham’s iconic work Primitive Mysteries (1931) was inspired by the religious rituals of the Penitente Indians of New Mexico. Ramsay Burt points out that for Graham, primitivism was a means of deconstructing the bourgeois aesthetic forms and conventions of dance art inherited from the 19th century, such as the formal language inherited from Denishawn. Dancers were fascinated by the altered consciousness of ritual, in which the connection with the unconscious recalled the thought of psychoanalysis. A different culture allowed for the articulation of their own lived experience in relation to the modern world. Yet, at the same time, Primitive Mysteries presented indigenous peoples from a Western colonialist perspective and romanticised “noble savages.”[180]

Martha Graham’s International Success: Psychoanalysis, Fascism, Nationalism

Between 1938 and 1948, Graham was artistically prolific and became internationally renowned. In the late 1930s the company incorporated male dancers, first Erick Hawkins and soon Merce Cunningham. Graham, who had previously vehemently rejected ballet, incorporated lifts and softer movement qualities into her choreography. At the same time, the rise of fascism towards the Second World War was reflected in Graham’s art in the form of public anti-fascist statements. For example, she refused an invitation to dance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and gave a speech in 1937 entitled “Nazi Destruction of the Arts.” Her opposition to fascism and the influence of psychoanalysis, particularly through Jungian thought, were two key phenomena in Graham’s most productive period.[181]

Erick Hawkins danced as a soloist in Martha Graham’s El Penitente, 1940. Barbara Morgan. Barbara and Willard Morgan photographs and papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Psychoanalysis was popular in the United States, and many visual artists of the period, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, were impressed by Jung’s ideas. Mark Franko calls Graham a model of psychoanalytic modernism. The influence of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis was present not only in Graham’s personal life, but also in her art, in which many levels of meaning emerged. Graham’s choreographic process resembled a kind of self-analysis, as the mythical environment of the work included a very personal ritual of the dancer.[182]

In Graham’s choreographies, Americanism was sometimes exaggerated to the point of nationalism. American Document (1938) was overtly political and also used speech as a means of expression, with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address read aloud. Appalachian Spring (1944) depicts the heroism, hopes and fears of American settlers.[183] The project of building an American modern dance was linked to the nationalist aspirations of the time, which the Graham and Humphrey generation were realising through their dance. The representation of a certain kind of Americanism through art also had a cultural diplomatic dimension. The state supported not only Graham’s company but also, for example, Alvin Ailey’s international tours. During the Cold War, dance was part of a political strategy whose aims included demonstrating US cultural superiority and spreading US values.[184] Graham’s company also visited Finland in 1962 during their tour.[185]

The central element of Cave of the Heart (1946) is a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. Martha Graham Dance Company. Festival Castell de Peralada 23.7. 2005. Josep Aznar. MAE. Institut del Teatre.

Martha Graham’s Artistic Collaborations

Graham often worked on her choreography for a few years, documenting the subject through literature and other arts, and made manuscripts[186] for her collaborators as a basis for their artistic work. Graham’s artistic collaborators were often prominent figures in their respective fields, and in her work, dance built strong links with the rest of the art world.

Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi staged more than 35 of Graham’s works. Noguchi saw the sculptor as the animator of space, building its energy and form through the visual element so that the work’s ambition was intensified by the coexistence of space and bodies. The set for Appalachian Spring was based on two diagonals that suggest interior and exterior spaces; a settlers’ home and yard. A wooden stylised rocking chair was central, and Noguchi described it as both a seat and a sculpture.[187] He emphasised the importance of how the chair’s material felt to the touch in the dance performance. The rocking chair also symbolised the woman’s place.

Staging played an important symbolic role in Graham’s works and took on new meanings in various scenes. In Graham’s Night Journey (1947), part of a series of Greek mythologies, the rope with which Jocasta strangles herself is, in another moment, an umbilical cord. Often the set’s elements were moved and used in different ways during the dance. In Cave of the Heart (1946), based on the Medea story, the central element was an iron wire sculpture designed by Noguchi, which the dancer puts on at the end. Graham’s collaborators included the artist Alexander Calder, the designer Halston, who costumed several of her late works, and Calvin Klein, who costumed Graham’s last full-length work, Maple Leaf Rag (1990).

Graham’s early favourite composer Louis Horst was composing music for modern dance while working at the Denishawn School (1915–25), where they met. Horst already accompanied Graham’s first concert in 1926. The music for Graham’s works was often commissioned new music. Sometimes the music was also found, already existing music, that supported the choreography’s idea. Other composers who composed for Graham included Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti.

In some works, the technical purity of Graham’s movement sequences becomes a central element, as in the last movement of Acts of Light, “Ritual to the Sun.” Martha Graham Dance Company, Festival Castell de Peralada, 22 July 2005. Josep Aznar. MAE. Institut del Teatre.

Graham Technique

The maturation of Graham’s style required a clearer methodology for training dancers. Over more than 60 years of teaching, Graham’s technique evolved piece by piece into a specific training method. Early training was a deconstruction of choreographies; the application of existing movement vocabulary to systematic training in the style and to the construction of new choreographies from components of earlier dances.[188] The method was aimed not so much at training the body in a variety of ways, but at transmitting Graham’s aesthetic to dancers and students.

The Graham technique has a style and a movement vocabulary that repeat certain movements, but the technique contains few individual named movements. Instead, the names often refer to groups of movements; for instance, turns or spirals can mean many different movements. The contraction and release are counterparts on which the technique is based and are rooted in breathing. Exhalation and contraction tighten the pelvic and abdominal muscles; inhalation releases the tension into movement. This use of a dynamic movement pair can be traced back to Delsarte’s teachings on tension and release and to breath-centred practices taught in the Denishawn School, such as yoga. Graham’s style is dominated by dramatic dynamism, as her student Joan Cass describes:

The movement is tense. Even on the lighter side of the dynamic scale, there is never a relaxed swingor easy follow-through, but abrupt little motions. No limb of the body falls free, but is held in position or moves in fixed paths.


With the motor of the movement at the centre of the body – breathing, contraction, pelvic rotation and spinal spirals – the dance seems to grow from the centre of the body towards the limbs. In addition to physical skill, Graham emphasised the dancer’s emotional and intellectual development, a certain maturity of the psyche. For her, dance was “an enlarged, clarified version of psychologically motivated movement.”[190] She did not offer dancers psychological instructions, but created an atmosphere for exploring individual expression, albeit within a very strict choreographic framework. Not only the movement itself, but also the expression had to grow from within the dancer towards the surface of the skin, as the link between movement and psyche was central. Graham’s teaching in dance classes was also interwoven with a ritualistic atmosphere that demanded total discipline and dedication, but also courage and abandon.[191]

Graham’s school and company trained a large number of dancers and future choreographers, including Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Ohad Naharin. Graham stopped performing in 1969 at the age of 75. Founded in 1926, the company continues to operate as the Martha Graham Dance Company.


The complex legacy of dance modernisms lives on in many ways. The works can be seen in the repertoire of some dance companies, as well as in the activities of dance education programmes and university research. In some cases, the choreographic heritage is protected by strict copyright laws. For example, in the early 2000s, disputes over Graham’s copyright between the school, the dance company and the foundation were settled by legal action.[192] Efforts are being made to reconstruct new versions of forgotten works on the basis of notations, notes, embodied knowledge of dancers or practitioners, photographs and recordings. But some dances are irrecoverably inaccessible. Nevertheless, the ephemeral and embodied quality of many dances has been conserved by the artists of the period in visual art, film, photography or poetry.

Modern dance lives in dance studios and schools through the teaching of techniques. Or its methods and movement languages have been mixed in dancers’ bodies, creating new forms of expression for contemporary dance. The first postmodern dance openings in the 1950s began to seek alternatives not only to the movement vocabularies of modern dance, but also to the ways of making choreography and to the hierarchic structures it included. While polyphonic dance modernisms do not necessarily have the same aspirations for a transgenerational continuum as ballet, many modern dance traditions already have a century-long history.


1 See for example Ross & Lindgren 2015.

2 Hautamäki, Piippo & Sederholm 2021, 11.

3 See Ross & Lindgren 2015. The book deals extensively with modernisms in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

4 Performing Arts: Modern Dance in the Helsinki Term Bank for the Arts and Sciences.ävät_taiteet:moderni_tanssi (accessed 23.4.2022).

5 Burt & Huxley 2020a, 5.

6 Burt & Huxley 2020a, 5.

7 For more on this, see Huxley 2020c.

8 Burt & Huxley 2020a, 7.

9 Michael Huxley points out that in the early 20th century, modernist dance artists spoke and wrote of themselves as “dancers”, although in today’s terminology they were also choreographers. The dancer was at the heart of modernist dance, and critics also referred to dance makers as dancers. The word “choreographer” was more associated with ballet during the period and was less frequently used than it is today. The choreographer emerged as a central figure in modern dance towards the end of the 20th century, when the term also became more common. Huxley 2015, esp. 1–11. However, this article uses 21st century terminology, which helps to emphasise the dancer or choreographer aspect when needed.

10 Albright 2007, 188.

11 Kraut 2015, 57.

12 Fuller says she invented the dance when she noticed light reflecting off a gauzy fabric and then started looking for ways to move that reflection. On the genesis of the Serpentine Dance see the autobiography Fuller, Loie. 1913. Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life. Boston: Small, Maynard.

13 Albright 2007, 17–23.

14 Kraut 2015, 55–62.

15 Fuller has also been called the first light designer, see Ervasti, ​​Tarja. 2017. Valaistuksen historiaa. Teatterikorkeakoulun julkaisusarja 54. Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu. (accessed 10.3.2022).

16 Albright 2007, 61.

17 Herb 2015.

18 Phenomena of modern life, such as steam turbines or electricity, were however praised in the mass spectacles of ballet at the end of the 19th century (see The Second Half of the Nineteenth Century – Towards an Increasingly Spectacular Spectacle).

19 German gymnastics, for example, focused on muscular strength and used a variety of equipment such as rings and poles. It included synchronised group movements and competitive sports such as wrestling or running. The US Dio Lewis system, which became popular in the 1860s, emphasised flexibility and agility. Synchronised movements were often performed to music. Swedish gymnastics also developed an agile physicality, focusing on individual performance, but under the guidance of verbal commands. It included dance-like gymnastics, such as ballet positions. Tomko 1999, esp. 11–16. A method of teaching rhetoric, Delsartism, pioneered by the Frenchman François Delsarte, was particularly popular in the United States in the late 19th century and influenced early US modern dance forms (see The Significance of Antiquity for Art Dance), while in Central Europe, rhythmic gymnastics, developed by Jaques-Dalcroze, emphasised the connection between music and movement (see Hellerau and Transnational Modern Dance).

20 Macintosh 2011, 52.

21 Dorf 2012.

22 Daly 1995, 25–26.

23 Huxley 2015, 17–18.

24 Burt & Huxley 2020b, esp. 37.

25 Huxley 2015, 19.

26 Adair 1992; Burt 1998.

27 Many artists of the period were inspired by “Black art” (l’art nègre), an exotic approach to art from Africa, Asia or the Pacific, where the source and value of inspiration was not particularly recognised. For example, Picasso’s famous “primitivist” works based on African sculptures and masks were an important step towards Cubism in the early years of the 20th century.

28 Cheng 2011; Burt 1998.

29 Burt 1998, 63.

30 Burt 1998, 64–68.

31 For more on reception of Baker’s dance, see Burt 1998, 60–61.

32 The name of the theatre was temporarily changed to Opéra Music-Hall des Champs Elysées.

33 Burt 1998, 75–76. Burt also points out that Martha Graham did not receive the same attention as Baker in 1925 and that Katherine Dunham also received very special attention in Europe.

34 Ks. See Josephine Baker’s speech, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 28 August 1963, from (accessed 15.3.2022).

35 Adair 1992, 167.

36 Burt 1998, 58.

37 Funkenstein 2005a.

38 Elswit 2014, 26–59.

39 Elswit 2014, xix.

40 Performing arts: Ausdruckstanz in the Helsinki Term Bank for the Arts and Sciences.ävät_taiteet:ausdruckstanz (accessed 25.4.2022).

41 The term Ausdruckstanz only became established after the Second World War, with the aim of distinguishing early 20th century dance from the modern dance that developed in the 1940s and 50s. At the same time, the misleading perception of the phenomenon as a single style was confirmed. Elswit 2014; Franco 2007; Manning 2007.

42 Franco 2007, 80; Toepfer 1997, 6.

43 The term “Weimar dance” does not refer to a stylistically coherent whole, but is more of a temporal qualifier. Many dance scholars refer to a model based on film studies terminology, in which the term “Weimar cinema” describes a broader spectrum of art than, for example, “Expressionist film,” which covers only a small part of the period’s cinema. The use of the temporal determinant leads us to look at the dance of the period from a broader perspective and to consider dance forms that have been excluded from the historiography. Franco 2007; Elswit 2014, xxiv, 164 n44.

44 Schlemmer had no training in dance or theatre but a background in painting and sculpture. Since 1915 he had been studying the body form, especially the tension between abstract form and humanity. In Schlemmer’s case, one can also look at dance, marionettes and modernism as an interdisciplinary phenomenon. See Preston 2014; Elswit 2014.

45 Toepfer 1997, 138. Debra McCall reconstructed several Bauhaus dances in the 1980s, with the help of Andreas Weininger, who had been a member of the Bauhaus and Schlemmer’s dancer. More on Schlemmer’s studies on movement in the documentary Man and Mask: Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus Stage, 1968. Directed by Margarete Hasting.

46 Funkenstein 2012.

47 For more information, see Jelavich 1993 and Toepfer 1997.

48 Norton 2007, 100. There is little documentation of Gert’s early dances (1919–24), only a few photographs and mentions in autobiographies.

49 Valeska Gert in his autobiography Mein Weg (1931), quoted in Norton 2007, 97.

50 Burt 1998, 30–34.

51 Norton 2007, 99. The author sees a connection with Pina Bausch in both her use of everyday movements and gestures and her questioning of social conventions.

52 Elswit 2014, 2.

53 Elswit 2014, 17.

54 Jencik 1990, 91–92.

55 Toepfer 1997, 84.

56 Elswit 2014, 23.

57 A place for experimental artists and performances, where for example Living Theatre founding member Judith Malina and playwright Tennessee Williams worked.

58 Elswit 2012.

59 See also Deutsches Tanzarchiv, “Puck, Punk or Pausen-Clown? New and old Valeska Gert jokes by the artist Wolfgang Müller.” (accessed 10.2.2022).

60 For more on Eszter Salamon’s starting point, see MONUMENT 0.5: The Valeska Gert Museum on her website (accessed 10.2.2022). In Finland, Kirsi Monni became interested in Gert’s art in Für Valeska (1994). See Monni 2018. ”Situaatio, kehollisuus ja kielellisyys – merkintöjä modernin jälkeisestä koreografiasta 1980-luvulta tähän päivään.” Niko Hallikainen & Liisa Pentti, eds. Postmoderni tanssi Suomessa? Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu, 77–108.

61 Originally Rudolf von Laban, he changed his name to Rudolf Laban when he moved to England in 1938.

62 Founded in 1900 in Ascona, the Monte Verità community was an alternative lifestyle to the city’s bourgeois society and, according to historian Martin Green (1986), the starting point of the counterculture. In addition to representatives of various artistic disciplines, the community was home to anarchists, philosophers, anthroposophists and naturists, who lived in close interaction and according to an alternative set of values. For more see Green, Martin. 1986. The Mountain of Truth: The Counterculture Begins, Ascona, 1900–1920. Hanover: University Press of New England.

63 Maletic 1987, 36, 154. Isadora Duncan’s ideas about dance spread to Germany before the First World War. Laban may also have seen Isadora Duncan perform in Paris at the turn of the millennium or visited her school in Berlin.

64 Franco 2019, 156–157.

65 Franco 2019, 156–158.

66 Franco 2019, 158.

67 Manning 1993, 72–74.

68 For Laban’s works from the Weimar period, see Preston-Dunlop, Valerie. 2013. Rudolf Laban. Binsted, Hampshire: Dance Books. For Laban’s ideas on the possibilities of film and dance from the 1910s to the 1930s, see Franco, Susanne. 2012. “Rudolf Laban’s Dance Film Projects.” Susan Manning & Lucia Ruprecht, eds. New German Dance Studies, Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 63–78.

69 Huxley 2015, 22–23.

70 Franco 2019, 157.

71 Description and examples of Effort theory from Loureiro 2020.

72 Laban’s book Modern Educational Dance (1948)presents a system of free dance based on Effort theory. Mastery of Movement on the Stage (1950), on the other hand, focuses on the principles of the theory in relation to acting and dancing, especially from the point of view of the connection between internal impulse and external movement.

73 Toepfer 1997, 18.

74 Odom, Selma Landen. 1986. “Wigman at Hellerau,” quoted in Manning 1993, 53. Toepfer 1997, 15–21.

75 Manning 1993, 68–71. For more on Dada, see the History of European Theatre, section 7.3 “Playful modernism – futurism, dada, surrealism.” (accessed 16.2.2022).

76 The origin of the term is linked to the Zurich Dadaists, whose aim was “absolute poetry, absolute art, absolute dance.” Newhall 2009, 24.

77 Only a short recording of the Witch Dance has survived. See Newhall 2009, 108–111 for a description of the dance.

78 Manning points out how in the second version of the Witch Dance Wigman wore a mask, but in several dances her costume or facial expression, or both, act as a kind of mask. Manning 1993, 43. Also in the dance Götzendienst (“Idolatry,” 1917), the dancer’s face was covered by a stocking and the costume, which covered the body from the neck down, left only the legs visible.

79 Toepfer 1997, 70.

80 Mary Wigman in The Language of Dance (1966), quoted in Newhall 2009, 105.

81 See for example the film Mary Wigman 1886–1973: When the Fire Dances Between Two Poles (1991), directed by Allegra Fuller Snyder. Dance Horizons. (accessed 10.1.2022).

82 Fraleigh 1987, xxiv, 28, 61.

83 Huxley 2015, 24.

84 Manning 1993, 60.

85 Manning 1993, erit. 28–29.

86 Manning 1993, 43–44, 54.

87 Her first writings were published in 1921, and over the next ten years her work was published in 12 different journals and books. Huxley 2015, 32.

88 Newhall 2009, 84.

89 Manning 1993, 41, 294. The concept as such was formulated by Susan Manning, but critics of the period used the word Gestalt for Wigman. Oscar Schlemmer, who worked at the Bauhaus, also worked with the relationship between body and space and used the term Figur im Raum (figure in space). Funkenstein 2005b, 833.

90 Newhall 2009, 87. Newhall refers to this external form of inner feeling as a basic principle of Ausdruckstanz.

91 Mary Wigman in Rudolf Bach: Das Mary Wigman Werk (1933), quoted in Newhall 2009, 88.

92 Toepfer 1997, 155–163.

93 Toepfer 1997, 97–99. Reconstructions and versions of Wigman’s works have been made by Marja Braaksma (Schwingende Landschaft and Witch Dance, 1990). Several versions of Witch Dance have been performed by Ruth Solomon, Fabian Barba, Mary Anne Santos Newhall (2015, danced by Latifa Laâbissi). For more on the reconstruction of the Ausdruckstanz and related questions, also in relation to Wigman, see Fisher, Betsy. 2002. Creating and Re-Creating Dance. Performing Dances Related to Ausdruckstanz. Acta Scenica 12. Helsinki: Teatterikorkeakoulu.

94 Manning 1993, esp. 85–96.

95 Manning 2007, 47.

96 Randall 2012, 81. Wigman’s methods spread through the teaching of his former students Gret Palucca and Berthe Trümpy. With the students of the Dresden School, Wigman’s influence spread to at least France, the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, the United States, Poland, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, India, Israel and Japan.

97 Maletic 1987, 19.

98 Manning 1993, esp. 172–173; Franco 2007, 84.

99 The term originated in the international tours of Ausdruckstanz, where the term “German dance” was used to distinguish it from (especially US) modern dance. Franco 2007, 80.

100 On the problematics of dance history in Germany, see Manning 2017 and Kant 2004. On dance and National Socialism, see Karina and Kant 2004. See also the documentary Tanz unterm Hakenkreuz (“Dance under the Swastika,” 2003), directed by Annette von Wangenheim. Cologne, WDR television.

101 For more on National Socialism and body culture, see Burt 1998, 101–120.

102 Manning 2017, 396. The author refers to a 1993 book by Hedwig Müller and Patricia Stöckemann.

103 Manning 2017; Manning 1993, esp. 167–205.

104 Huxley 2015, 53.

105 Manning 2017, 406.

106 From Joseph Goebbels’ 1937 diary, quoted in Manning 1993, 4.

107 From Joseph Goebbels’ letter to the head of the dance section, quoted in Karina and Kant 2004, 140.

108 Franco 2007, 83.

109 Manning 2017.

110 Huxley 2015, 70; Lidbury 2018.

111 Franco 2007, esp. 81–82.

112 Huxley 2020a, 142–144.

113 The Ballets Jooss programme notes dated 1935/1936, quoted in Huxley 2020a, 144.

114 Huxley 2020a, 148.

115 Huxley 2020a, 134–136. In a chapter of his 1939 book Introduction to the Dance, described as “Middle Ground,” dance critic John Martin wrote about Jooss’s work in relation to ballet and German and American modern dance. In the same section, Martin also discussed Ted Shawn and Harald Kreutzberg.

116 Elswit 2014, 129.

117 The Green Table is recorded in Labanotation. See Hutchinson Guest 2003. The Joffrey Ballet has performed several versions of the work, the first in 1967. For a reconstruction and the significance of the work during the Weimar period, see Elswit 2014.

118 Manning & Ruprecht 2012, 4.

119 Manning 2007, 46–47.

120 Manning 2007.

121 See Manning 1993, 257–265.

122 Holm in 1936 when he announced that the school would change its name to Hanya Holm Studio. Quoted in Manning 1993, 279.

123 Randall 2012, 83.

124 For more on Hanya Holm’s teaching, see Manning 1993, 272–275.

125 Randall 2012.

126 Huxley 2020b.

127 Huxley 2020b.

128 Burt & Huxley 2020, 5. For more see Franko 1998.

129 Black modern dance, which developed simultaneously in the United States, is discussed in Hanna Väätäinen’s article: Afrodiasporic and Pan-African Modern Dance (see Afrodiasporic and Pan-African Modern Dance).

130 Ted Shawn was also familiar with Delsarte’s techniques and wrote Every Little Movement: A Book on Francois Delsarte (1954).

131 Vaudeville was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and included not only burlesque social parody but also choruses of female dancers. The New York-based Ziegfeld Follies (1907–1932) presented a gigantic line-up of female dancers as an elegant, feathered spectacle. Dance choruses were central to backstage musicals in Hollywood films, especially in the 1930s and 40s, and on Broadway. These various forms of entertainment dance and a wide variety of musical revues were the basis for both Broadway musicals and Hollywood musical films, in which dance still plays a central role. See Allen 1991. On the connection of chorus girl dancing to the effectiveness of capitalism, see Franko 2002, 30–37.

132 Priya Srinivasan discusses the central role of Indian dancers’ labourin the birth of American modern dance. The kinaesthetic legacy was passed from Indian dancers, the Nachwali, to white dancers, such as Ruth St. Denis, who in 1904 saw dancers from North India and Sri Lanka perform in the Coney Island attraction Durbar of Delhi. The physical encounter was a direct cross-cultural communication. Although this interaction was important at the turn of the 20th century, Indian dancers are invisible in the trajectories of dance history. By the 1930s, this kinaesthetic knowledge had already become embedded in American modern dance and was transmitted through Ruth St. Denis, for example, not only to the public, but also to her students such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. Srinivasan 2012, esp. 72, 81.

133 Denishawn’s activities were also strongly influenced by the nationalist thinking of the period, which included white supremacy. For example, dancer Edna Guy (1907–1982) studied at Denishawn in the 1920s, but because of her African American heritage, her performances were limited to a few student matinees and she eventually left the school. Manning 2004, 3. Denishawn also limited the number of Jewish students.

134 Add Burt 1995. See also the documentary The Men Who Danced: The Story of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers and the Birth of Jacob’s Pillow 1933–1940, directed by Ron Honsa. A brief history of Jacob’s Pillow: (accessed 03.1.2022).

135 Manning 2004, 4–5.

136 Also known as the Bennington Festival, since 1948 the American Dance Festival. Nearly 150 students, most of them women, took dance classes each year. Among others. Graham’s Panorama (1935) and Holm’s Trend (1937) are productions made possible by the festival. For a broader history, see (accessed 03.1.2022). See also Manning 2004, 6–8.

137 Susan Manning points out that the international perspective of the early years of German modern dance is still unwritten, but examples of interaction abound. For example, Truda Kaschmann (1906–1986), a student of Laban and Wigman, moved to the United States in 1933, attended Bennington’s summer courses for six summers and combined the techniques she had learned with Graham and Louis Horst with the improvisational methods of Ausdruckstanz. She taught modern dance to several generations, including Alwin Nikolais, who from the 1950s onwards developed a very particular modernist multimedia aesthetic, combining dance with various stage elements, lights and electronic music. Manning 2007.

138 Franko 1995, 28.

139 Manning 2007, 46.

140 Dudley’s text “The Mass Dance” from 1934, published in Huxley 2015, 61. Also Franko 2002, esp. 24–29.

141 Kosstrin 2013, 7.

142 Kosstrin 2013, 6.

143 Text for the programme Anna Sokolow and Dance Unit, 1936. Quoted in Kosstrin 2013, 13.

144 Kosstrin 2013, 15.

145 Kosstrin 2013, 8–9. See also Graff 1997.

146 Franko 1995, 33.

147 Edna Ocko, a dancer and dance critic who was actively involved in revolutionary dance during the period, describes how agitprop dance was so committed to the desired content that it became pantomime. Franko 1995, 36–37.

148 Rossen 2014, 68.

149 Kosstrin 2017.

150 Kosstrin 2013, 6–7.

151 Franko 1995, 28.

152 Rossen 2014, 68.

153 The dances were non-narrative, they did not offer solutions to a problem but ended openly and the modernist formal language demanded intense concentration from the audience. Kosstrin 2013, 6.

154 Kosstrin 2013, 8. See also Manning 2004.

155 From Humphrey’s text Declaration, quoted in Legg 2011, 38. On dancers’ self-reflection and relationship to the environment, see also Humphrey 1959, 18.

156 Humphrey 1959, 31, 115.

157 Fraleigh 1987, xxxi. Main 2011, 107–108. For more on the Apollonian and Dionysian, see Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

158 Humphrey 1959, 50–51, 56.

159 While reading Nietzsche in 1931, three years after choreographing Water Study, Humphrey recognized in his thinking a connection to her own art and its philosophy. Main 2011, 99.

160 Main 2005. For more on the technique, see Strodelle 1979; the author is a dancer who worked with Humphrey for many years.

161 Huxley 2015, 70–71. See also Burt 1998, 145–158. New Dance is part of what Humphrey calls his masterpiece trilogy, the other parts being With My Red Fires and Theatre Piece.

162 Jowitt 1988, 178.

163 Humphrey’s harmonic style, With My Red Fires, is an extraordinary immersion into the dark side of the human psyche. Main 2005.

164 See Foster 2010.

165 Humphrey 1959, 46.

166 Humphrey 1959, 51.

167 Humphrey 1959, 74–80.

168 Humphrey 1959, 68–70.

169 For more on the Humphrey legacy, see the Foundation’s website (accessed 08.1.2022).

170 Main 2011.

171 Fraleigh 1987, xxiv.

172 Franko 2012.

173 Graham to choreography students in 1952. Quoted in Cass 1993, 262.

174 Horst & Russell 1987, 20.

175 For Horst’s ideas on composition, see his books Pre-classic Dance Forms (1937) and Modern Dance Forms (1961).

176 Foster 1986, 25.

177 Huxley 2015, 36, 57.

178 Franko 2002, 58.

179 Horosko 2002, xi.

180 For more on primitivism and ritual in relation to modernism and especially the works of Graham, Wigman and Dunham, see Burt 1998, 160–189.

181 Franko 2012, 6.

182 Franko 2012, 6–7.

183 Ramsay Burt points out how the treatment of Americanness as the content of dance was also a necessary step for choreographers who grew up in Denishawn – such as Graham, but also Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman – and for breaking away from its borrowed and exotic dance styles. See Burt 1998, 132–133.

184 Croft 2015.

185 For more on the Graham’s visits impact and political nature, see Korppi-Tommola, Riikka. 2013. Toisia liikkeitä, toisia virtauksia. Suomalaisen modernin tanssin muutosprosessi 1960-luvulla. Dissertation. University of Helsinki, Theatre Research.

186 The 1943 manuscript of Appalachian Spring can be viewed at the US Library of Congress Archives: (accessed 17.3.2022).

187 For more on Noguchi’s work with dance, see Tracy 2001.

188 On the development of the Graham technique and the structure of the class, see Legg 2011, 27–33.

189 Cass 1993, 261.

190 Foster 1986, 28.

191 On teaching the Graham technique in different periods, see Horosko 2002. The book is based on interviews with dancers who worked during Graham’s career, from the early 1920s to the early 2000s. See also Cass 1993, 254–269.

192 See Horosko 2002, 177–179. For more on copyright, including in relation to Graham’s legacy, see Kraut 2015.


Adair, Christy. 1992. Women and Dance. Sylphs and Sirens. New York: New York University Press.

Albright, Ann Cooper. 2007. Traces of Light. Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Allen, Robert C. 1991. Horrible Prettiness. Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Burt, Ramsay. 1995. The Male Dancer. Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities. London & New York: Routledge.

Burt, Ramsay. 1998. Alien Bodies. Representations of modernity, ‘race’ and nation in early modern dance. London & New York: Routledge.

Burt, Ramsay. 1995. The Male Dancer. Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities. London & New York: Routledge.

Burt, Ramsay. 1998. Alien Bodies: Representations of Modernity, ‘Race’ and Nation in Early Modern Dance. London & New York: Routledge.

Burt, Ramsay & Huxley, Michael. 2020a. “Introduction: Dance, Modernism, and Modernity.” In Ramsay Burt & Michael Huxley, eds. Dance, Modernism and Modernity. London & New York: Routledge, 1–10.

Burt, Ramsay & Huxley, Michael. 2020b. “Dancing and Modernism: Natural Dancing and Modernity.” In Ramsay Burt & Michael Huxley, eds. Dance, Modernism and Modernity. London & New York: Routledge, 35–52.

Cass, Joan. 1993. Dancing Through History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. 2011. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. New York: Oxford University Press.

Croft, Clare. 2015. Dancers as Diplomats. American Choreography in Cultural Exchange. New York: Oxford University Press.

Daly, Ann. 1995. Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Dorf, Samuel. 2012. “Dancing Greek Antiquity in Private and Public: Isadora Duncan’s Early Patronage in Paris.” Dance Research Journal, 44(1): 3–27. Accessed 8 March 2022.

Elswit, Kate. 2012. “Back Again? Valeska Gert’s Exiles.” In Susan Manning & Ruprech Lucia, eds. New German Dance Studies, Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 113–129.

Elswit, Kate. 2014. Watching Weimar Dance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Foster, Susan Leigh. 1986. Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary Dance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foster, Susan. 2010. Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. London: Routledge.

Fraleigh, Sondra Horton. 1987. Dance and the Lived Body. A Descriptive Aesthetics. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Franco, Susanne. 2007. “Ausdruckstanz: Traditions, Translations, Transmissions.” In Susanne Franco & Marina Nordera, eds. Dance Discourses. Keywords in Dance Research, London & New York: Routledge, 80–98.

Franco, Susanne. 2019. “Energy, Eukinetics, and Effort. Rudolf Laban’s Vision of Work and Dance.” In Sabine Huschka & Barbara Gronau, eds. Energy and Forces as Aesthetic Interventions: Politics of Bodily Scenarios, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 155–174.

Franko, Mark. 1995. Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Franko, Mark 2002. The Work of Dance. Labor, Movement, and Identity in the 1930s. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Franko, Mark. 2012. Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Funkenstein, Susan Laikin. 2005a. “Fashionable Dancing: Gender, the Charleston, and German Identity in Otto Dix’s ‘Metropolis.’” German Studies Review, 28(1): 20–44.

Funkenstein, Susan Laikin. 2005b. “There’s Something about Mary Wigman: The Woman Dancer as Subject in German Expressionist Art.” Gender & History, 17(3): 826–859.

Funkenstein, Susan. 2012. “Picturing Palucca at the Bauhaus.” In Susan Manning & Ruprech Lucia, eds. New German Dance Studies, Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 45–62.

Graff, Ellen. 1997. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928–1942. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hautamäki, Irmeli, Piippo, Laura & Sederholm, Helena. 2021. “Johdanto. Avantgarde yhteiskuntahistoriallisena, poliittisena ja taiteellisena kysymyksenä.” In Hautamäki, Irmeli, Piippo, Laura & Sederholm, Helena, eds. Avantgarde Suomessa. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 9–40.

Horosko, Marian. 2002. Martha Graham. The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Horst, Louis & Russell, Carroll. 1987. Modern Dance Forms in Relation to the Other Modern Arts. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Book Company.

Humphrey, Doris. 1959. The Art of Making Dances. Alton: Dance Books.

Huxley, Michael. 2015. The Dancer’s World, 1920–1945. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Huxley, Michael. 2020a. “The New Ballet: Kurt Jooss, Ballet, and Modernity.” In Ramsay Burt & Michael Huxley, eds. Dance, Modernism and Modernity. London & New York: Routledge, 134–164.

Huxley, Michael. 2020b. “Hanya Holm: A Modernist Pioneer.” In Ramsay Burt & Michael Huxley, eds. Dance, Modernism and Modernity. London & New York: Routledge, 183–198.

Huxley, Michael. 2020c. “Wassily Kandinsky, Dance, and Interdisciplinary Modernism 1908–1914.” In Ramsay Burt & Michael Huxley, eds. Dance, Modernism and Modernity. London & New York: Routledge, 73–93.

Jencik, Joe. 1990. “Kokain – An Attempt at Analysis of Anita Berber’s Dance.” In Valerie Preston-Dunlop, ed. Schrifttanz: A View of German Dance in the Weimar Republic, London: Dance Books, 91–92.

Jowitt, Deborah. 1988. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kant, Marion. 2004. “German Dance and Modernity. Don’t Mention the Nazis.” In Alexandra Carter, ed. Rethinking Dance History. A Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 107–118.

Karina, Lilian & Kant, Marion. 2004. Hitler’s Dancers: German Modern Dance and the Third Reich. Translation. Jonathan Steinberg. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Kosstrin, Hannah. 2013. “Inevitable Designs: Embodied Ideology in Anna Sokolow’s Proletarian Dances.” Dance Research Journal, 45.2: 4–24.

Kosstrin, Hannah. 2017. “Queer Spaces in Anna Sokolow’s Rooms.” In Clare Croft, ed. Queer Dance. Meanings and Makings. New York: Oxford University Press, 145–165.

Kraut, Anthea. 2015. Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Legg, Joshua. 2011. Introduction to Modern Dance Techniques: Cunningham, Dunham, Graham, Hawkins, Horton, Humphrey, Limón, Nikolais/Louis, Taylor. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Co.

Lidbury, Clare. 2018. “Rudolf Laban and Kurt Jooss: The Good, the Bad and the Very (Un)fortunate.” Choreologica, 9(1). Accessed 16.3.2022.

Loureiro, Angela. 2020. L’Esforç: l’alternança dinàmica en el moviment. Translated by Agustí Ros i Vilanova. Barcelona: Institut del Teatre Edicions.

Macintosh, Fiona. 2011. “The Ancient Greeks and the ‘Natural.’” In Alexandra Cartes & Rachel Fensham, eds. Dancing Naturally. Nature, Neo-Classicism and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Dance. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 43–57.

Main, Lesley. 2005. “The Dances of Doris Humphrey. Creating a Contemporary Perspective through Directorial Interpretation.” Dance Research, 23.3: 106–122.

Main, Lesley. 2011. “Nature Moving Naturally in Succession: An Exploration of Doris Humphrey’s Water Study.” In Alexandra Cartes & Rachel Fensham, eds. Nature, Neo-Classicism and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Dance. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 98–109.

Maletic, Vera. 1987. Body – Space – Expression. The Development of Rudolf Laban’s Movement and Dance Concepts. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter.

Manning, Susan A. 1993. Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Manning, Susan. 2004. Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Manning, Susan. 2007. “Ausdruckstanz Across the Atlantic.” In Susanne Franco & Marina Nordera, eds. Dance Discourses. London & New York: Routledge, 46–60.

Manning, Susan. 2017. “Modern Dance in the Third Reich, Redux.” In Rebekah J. Kowal, Gerald Siegmund & Randy Martin, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics, New York: Oxford University Press, 395–415.

Manning, Susan & Ruprecht, Lucia. 2012. “Introduction: New Dance Studies/New German Cultural Studies.” In Susan Manning & Ruprech Lucia, eds. New German Dance Studies, Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 1–16.

Newhall, Mary Anne Santos. 2009. Mary Wigman. London & New York: Routledge.

Norton, Sydney Jane. 2007. “Dancing Out of Bounds: Valeska Gert in Berlin and New York.” In Maureen Tobin Stanley & Gesa Zinn, eds. Female Exiles in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Europe. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 97–120.

Preston, Carrie J. 2014. “Modernism’s Dancing Marionettes: Oskar Schlemmer, Michel Fokine, and Ito Michio.” Modernist Cultures, 9(1): 115–133.

Randall, Tresa. 2012. “Hanya Holm and an American Tanzgemeinschaft.” In Susan Manning & Ruprech Lucia, eds. New German Dance Studies, Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 70–98.

Ross, Stephen & Lindgren, Allana C. 2015. “Introduction.” In Stephen Ross & Allana C. Lindgren, ed. The Modernist World. London & New York: Routledge, 1–14.

Rossen, Rebecca. 2014. Dancing Jewish. Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strodelle, Ernestine. 1979. The Dance Technique of Doris Humphrey and Its Creative Potential. Alton: Dance Books.

Srinivasan, Priya. 2012. Sweating Saris. Indian Dance as Transnational Labor. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Toepfer, Karl. 1997. Empire of Ecstasy. Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910–1935. Berkeley, London & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tomko, Linda. 1999 Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890–1920. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Tracy, Robert. 2000. Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs. New York: Limelight Editions.


Riikka Laakso

Riikka Laakso works in the field of dance as a writer, lecturer and dramaturg. She holds a PhD in performing arts from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (2016) and teaches theatre analysis and dance history at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona. Laakso has collaborated with Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, the Theatre Academy, Helsinki and choreographer Sanna Kekäläinen, and is responsible for the dramaturgy of works by choreographer Marina Mascarelli.