Timeline of Modern Dance in the 20th Century

Alvin Ailey

At the turn of the century, the public looked upon dance as a diversion, not a form of artistic expression. The pioneers of modern dance, often performing in vaudeville theaters, chose classical or exotic subjects. After World War I, successors would drop gods, lyricism, and color for strong, percussive dancing and psychological and political subjects. By the 1950s, mood and relationships were presented with few historical references and in a less literal manner. The next generation mistrusted theater and favored minimalist effects. Our century winds down with a generation that favors abstract as well as timely subjects and dances them in an unconventional, frankly theatrical way to a wide variety of music.

Loïe Fuller (1862-1928). An American actress with no dance training, she became a wizard of creating magical illusions of natural forms with lighting and drapery. Idolized in France, she made Paris her permanent home.

Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) was a revolutionary who danced solos to classical music and whose private life defied political and sexual norms. Fervently believing that dance could enhance the spiritual health of society, she became a legend through her interpretive artistry and personal example.

Ruth St. Denis (1880-1968). After an international career performing lyrical interpretations of Asian myths, she returned to the U.S. and formed the Denishawn Company (1915) with her pupil and husband, Ted Shawn. The dominant serious dance company of the 1920s, Denishawn was the training ground for Graham, Humphrey, and Weidman, among others.

Mary Wigman (1886-1973). A peerless solo artist who became the most important figure in German expressionist dance. Influenced by the movement theories of Rudolf Laban, she drew on primitive mythical subjects that emphasized a bond with nature while developing a style that evolved from muscular tension and release.

Ted Shawn (1891-1972) parted artistic company with St. Denis in 1933 – they never were officially divorced – to form Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, the first all-male troupe in the U.S. He disbanded it in 1940 to start Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Hanya Holm (1893-1992). A student of Wigman, she established a school here in 1931 and introduced the German Expressionist use of space as a sculptural entity to U.S. modern dance.

Martha Graham (1894-1991). After a late start at age twenty-two as a Denishawn student, this intensely passionate artist developed a contraction-and-release technique based on breathign that became the most widely taught of modern styles in the U.S. Developing a company as she built a repertory, Graham explored Greek myths, the Bible, the American frontier, and the human heart while struggling against our Puritan heritage. Among the choreographers she nurtured were Hawkins, Cunningham, Taylor, and Sokolow, as well as May O’Donnell and John Butler.

Charles Weidman (1901-75) and Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) in their Humphrey-Weidman Company (1928-45) developed a movement vocabulary based on fall and recovery. His wit meshed comfortably with her idealistic humanism that stretched the body to its physical limits.

Helen Tamiris (1905-66) danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet before beginning her solo career and choreographing for Broadway musicals, the concert stage – she was the first to use spirituals for concert dance – and the company she formed with her husband, Daniel Nagrin (b. 1917).

José Limón (1908-72). Born in Mexico and brought up in the U.S., he joined the Humphrey-Weidman company (1930-40) and organized his own troupe after World War II. A hero betrayed is a motif in his work.

Erick Hawkins (1909-94) combined nature mysticism and classic folk tales in a style that substituted smoothly muscled flow for the angular tension he learned as the first male in the Graham company.

Anna Sokolow (b. 1910). Urban isolation, set to the cadences of jazz, and the lone individual, coping with the buffeting of daily life, are at the core of her works, grimly attuned to social and political reality.

Alwin Nikolais (1910-93). His dances emerge in a wonderland of visual effects and structured costumes that recall the pioneering days of Fuller. Divorced from the stress and strain of emotion, a Nikolais dance explores a world of motion in which man is a cog, not the whole wheel of life.

Katherine Dunham (b. 1912) pursued her artistic vision in popular theater and movies. A serious student of Afro-Caribbean folk culture, Dunham prepared evening-length productions of sensuously costumed dance.

Bella Lewitzky (b. 1916) shared the eclectic artistic sensibility of her mentor, Lester Horton (1906-53). In 1946 she established Dance Theater in Los Angeles, the first U.S. performing space devoted exclusively to dance.

Merce Cunningham (b. 1919). He explored and conquered an unknown world when he removed the cause-and-effect relationship between music and dance. Cherishing independence, he gave similar freedom to the artists who were his collaborators; they repaid him with stunning lighting, settings, and costumes.

Paul Taylor (b. 1930). Determined to explore human experience, he has created an outstanding repertory of antic wit and hard reality. Taylor scrutinizes the epic and the everyday with tough innocence and athletic vigor.

Alvin Ailey (1931-89) explored the black experience in America more widely than any other choreographer. Hope, despair, success, faith, and joy – all have found expression in his work. He drew inspiration from the deep belief of spirituals and from the elegant sophistication of Ellington.

Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934) studied composition under Robert Dunn and, with Steve Paxton (b. 1939), turned Judson Memorial Church into a space for a generation of minimalist choreographers.

Trisha Brown (b. 1936). Her dancers once walked around on walls in harnesses, and her recent work in more conventional settings remains muscular and distinctive.

Pina Bausch (b. 1940) is the leading force in Tanztheater, contemporary Germany’s successor to 1920s Expressionism. Sexual alienation is her main subject, and she spurns formal schooling for dialogue, gymnastics, and gesture amid such settings as pools, hillocks, and collapsing walls.

Twyla Tharp (b. 1941). Her mathematically musical mind and sympathy for popular culture have created a quick, bold, slithery, and densely packed style of movement that she applies to a wide range of classical and pop music.

Mark Morris (b. 1956). A remarkably gifted performer, he has brought his economical sense of gesture to some 100 dances created over two decades to a wide variety of music. Folk dance and homages to modern styles are undercurrents in his work.

Bill T. Jones (b. 1952) and Arnie Zane (1948-88) established their company without undergoing apprenticeship in another troupe to choreograph an eclectic body of work dealing with such topics as sex and racism, a tradition that Jones has continued after Zane’s death.

John Jasperse (b. 1963) may embody the trend of modern dance in this century: He first studied at Sarah Lawrence, and attracted attention in Europe before forming his own company. He combines a sense of social and personal crisis with wit, wisdom, and physical frankness.

Pilobolus. Four Dartmouth students – Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Walken, Robby Barnett, and Lee Harris – founded this choreographic collective in 1971. Initially, they created startling sculptural shapes that unfolded with biological linkage. The addition of Alison Chase and Martha Clarke in 1973 allowed them to set their gymnastic aplomb to exploring sexual interaction.

© Dance Magazine, Inc. 1999. Text by Dan McDonagh.

4 Responses to “Timeline of Modern Dance in the 20th Century”

  1. 1 sarah October 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    what a wonderful resource! thank you for the concise info! one question: Rudolph von Laban?

    I suppose that Laban being more of a theorist than an artist, as well as working primarily in Europe, puts him on the fringes of the art’s progress in the US.

  2. 2 dance4everDANSE January 22, 2012 at 5:10 am

    Great, compelling article on modern dance. Very informative and usefull… I love the timeline perspective…

  3. 3 Becca March 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Lester Horton is a man. You have him as a women.

    No, I don’t. Try reading that bit again, more carefully.

  4. 4 Antoinette E December 6, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Thank you for writing this, you have helped inspire me…. I have a final due and part of it is writing a modern dance time line , keep in mind Ive been out of school for 28 years so writing and designing a time line as well as a report have proven a bigger undertaking then I expected.

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