Modern Dance | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Modern Dance

Modern dance is a confusing term - loosely used and requiring explanation. For some people it simply means "not classical ballet," by which they mean not rooted in an established academic code of movement.
Toronto Dance Theatre
Toronto Dance Theatre (photo by Michael Cooper/courtesy Toronto Dance Theatre).
Rachel Browne
Browne played a formative, pioneering role in the development of modern dance in Canada (photo by David Cooper).

Modern dance is a confusing term - loosely used and requiring explanation. For some people it simply means "not classical ballet," by which they mean not rooted in an established academic code of movement. This usage, however, lumps together genres that are better understood in their particularity such as Post Modern Dance and New Dance. In fact, Modern Dance can now be used as a historic term referring to a particular group of choreographers and the tradition of dance values they established. Increasingly, the term is used to describe a variety of styles that developed in the early 20th century as a reaction to classical BALLET. Its exponents viewed classical ballet as decadent and moribund. They believed that ballet had drifted away from the prime motives of dance and had become little more than a bourgeois confection. Traditionalists retaliated by referring to modern dance as "barefoot ballet." This was the debate that informed the breakaway movement we now refer to as modern dance.


At best "modern dance" has always been an inadequate way to describe what was more a dance movement than a style, a movement that considered individual expression more important than rigid academic forms. Among the first wave of modern-dance pioneers, the great American dancer Isadora Duncan believed that she was returning to the purity and simplicity of ancient Greek dancing. Another American, Ruth St. Denis, espoused various exotic oriental dance styles. In time, however, certain noted dancer/choreographers emerged, such as Mary Wigman in Europe and Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham in North America. The creativity and innovation of this second wave made them seminal figures.

Unlike classical ballet, modern dance did not give rise to one academic code of movement. However, apart from a general seriousness of purpose, other shared characteristics did emerge. Modern dancers abandoned classical ballet's blocked toe shoes. They mostly performed barefoot. They did not try to create the illusion of ease and weightlessness. They strove to assert dance as an independent art form. They did not see an inevitable link between music and dance. Modern dance presented humanity in a more direct, visceral, ground-rooted manner. As dancers gravitated towards particular exponents of the modern-dance movement, they came to be identified as disciples of that individual's particular movement style.

Late Innovators

By the 1940s and 1950s, these disciples themselves began to break away, creating a third wave of modern-dance innovators such as Merce Cunningham, José Limon and Paul Taylor. Generally, however, with the exception of Cunningham, they continued to uphold the humanistic values of their mentors. As even these figures became established, a younger generation, seeking to express its own individuality, broke away in the 1960s in a movement known as Post Modern Dance. These rebels began exploring dance forms in a more rigorously analytical and intellectual way. Their efforts paralleled experiments in the visual arts and music, sometimes described generically as minimalism.

The earlier forms of modern dance continued, however, to find their supporters, although over time their work began to be recognized as a historical form, very much as ballet is a historical form. In the 1980s, mainly in Europe, yet another movement emerged called New Dance. It emphasizes individual expression. Its unifying characteristic is theatricality. Its unifying emotion is late 20th-century existential angst.

As all this has been happening, the divisions between classical ballet and 20th-century dance forms began to break down in a remarkably fertile process of cross-pollination. Modern dancers began to recognize the value of classical ballet as a sound training base. Ballet choreographers began to tap into the visceral power of modern-dance movement. People began to talk of this as "modern ballet."

Cultural Influences

In addition, social changes, the collapse of colonialism, the migration of peoples of different races and the slow erosion of the concept of an international racial hierarchy, fostered a new interest in movement styles from non-Eurocentric cultures: India, Malaysia, Africa, the Caribbean and aboriginal North America. What had once been "ethnic" became part of a multi-faceted mainstream. People of different heritages began to explore each other's dance styles. Choreographers have tapped into the possibilities of this trend with work that is sometimes labelled "dance fusion."

Integration with Other Cultural Forms

Equally, choreographers of all backgrounds began to recognize that traditional distinctions between music performance, theatre, opera, film, video, visual art, architecture, sculpture and literature are in themselves artificial, arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive. Their response has given rise to a sometimes bewildering but nevertheless stimulating period of experimentation. For example, in the 1970s Canadian choreographer Holly Small began exploring ways of integrating musicians as moving figures within a dance creation. In Montréal, Jean-Pierre PERREAULT continues to explore the integration of dance with architectural environments. In Toronto and now Vancouver, Conrad Alexandrowicz experiments with text as an equal partner with dance in theatrical manifestations that cannot adequately be described as dance or drama. In a collaboration with Graham Coughtry, Painters and the Dance, Toronto choreographer Patricia BEATTY sought to break down the distinction between dance as foreground and decor as background. The dancers, in effect, became part of a work of animated visual art.

European Influence in Canada

By the time professional theatrical dance began to establish itself in Canada the modern-dance revolution was already at a mature stage in its evolution. As in the case of ballet, Canadians initially looked to external influences for guidance and inspiration. In the case of modern dance, these inspirations were first European, derived from the teachings of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, an Austrian who believed musical sensibility could be fostered by the translation of rhythm into body movement, and the Hungarian Rudolf von Laban, who viewed dance as an enriching and ennobling art experience.

Elizabeth Leese was the first of several exiles from Europe's political turmoil to bring this seriousness of purpose to Canadian dance. Leese joined Boris VOLKOFF's Toronto-based ballet company in 1939 and then, in early 1940, moved to Montréal to open her own school. In 1944, Ruth Sorel also established a school in Montréal. She had studied and danced with Mary Wigman, herself a pupil of both Jacques-Dalcroze and von Laban and a leading figure in European modern dance. Leese and Sorel played important roles in the early years of the annual Canadian Ballet Festival (1948-54), which brought together dancers and choreographers from across the country. They created a vibrant atmosphere in Montréal in which a second generation of modern dancers could grow.

Over 20 years after the arrival of Leese and Sorel in Montréal, Jeanne RENAUD and ex-ballet dancer Peter Boneham founded LE GROUPE DE LA PLACE ROYALE. Le Groupe, which relocated to Ottawa in 1977, keeps alive a fiercely cerebral approach to modern dance. The continuation of this European tradition can still be seen in the work of such Montréal choreographers as Paul-André FORTIER and Marie CHOUINARD. A former co-artistic director of Le Groupe, Jean-Pierre Perreault, continues his innovative dance explorations of form and space in Montréal.

The European influence also dominated early modern dance in Toronto. Its major practitioners, Bianca Rogge and Yone Kvietys, were both eastern European refugees, and with a former pupil of Leese's, Nancy Lima Dent, they mounted Canada's first modern-dance festivals (1960-62). One of Rogge's students was Judy JARVIS, who travelled to Germany to study with Wigman. On her return she established the Judy Jarvis Dance and Theatre Company, which, throughout the 1970s, presented the spare and haunting vision of human existence that was Wigman's trademark. Although her company eventually foundered, Jarvis remained an inspirational teacher until her death in 1986.

American Influences in Canada

Yone Kvietys, a less flamboyant figure than Rogge, gave classes to Donald Himes, Susan Macpherson and David EARLE, and so could be called an indirect progenitor of TORONTO DANCE THEATRE. Despite this connection, TDT in fact heralded the introduction to Canada of the more personal expression of American modern dance which places less emphasis on formal training. Rachel Browne, a former soloist with the ROYAL WINNIPEG BALLET, left that company in 1964 and by the early 1970s had established the WINNIPEG'S CONTEMPORARY DANCERS as a modern-dance repertory troupe featuring work by Browne and various Canadian and American choreographers. WCD was to help develop the careers of freelance choreographers Anna Blewchamp and Judith MARCUSE, both of whom had trained in classical and modern dance. Blewchamp's training in the technique of American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham is obvious in many of her works, of which Arrival of All Time is a notable example. Marcuse's style is more eclectic and continued until the mid-1990s to be seen in the work of her own Judith Marcuse Dance Company, formerly the Dance Repertory Company of Canada.

The Graham influence played an important part in the formation of Toronto Dance Theatre since its three co-founders, Patricia Beatty, Peter RANDAZZO and David Earle, were trained in the Graham technique. More individualistic expressions of modern dance were introduced in Vancouver by Paula Ross and Anna Wyman. The company Ross established in the late 1960s had fallen into abeyance by 1987, but her strongly personal and emotional statements in dance, rooted in humanistic values, made a distinct impact. With a background in ballet and show-dancing, Ross has experimented freely with a variety of modern movement styles. In 1997, Ross was attempting to revive her company. Wyman turned to modern dance after a successful professional career in ballet. Settling in Canada in 1967 she soon began to present groups of dancers in her choreography, which ranges freely through a variety of contemporary movement styles. Her company, however, foundered in 1990.

The modern dance movement in Canada was significantly stimulated in the early 1970s by formation of a dance department at York University. Although its founding head, Grant STRATE, came from a ballet tradition, his dance interests always tended toward experimentation and innovation. He proved a visionary and inspirational teacher at York, attracting distinguished artists to the faculty and encouraging the appearance, often for the first time in Canada, of notable American modern-dance artists to teach and perform.

In a sense, 40 years of American dance history were compressed into less than 10 in Toronto. Early graduates from York constituted a new generation of dancers and choreographers for Canadian modern dance. As early as 1974, York students Marcie Radler and Andrea Smith founded DANCEMAKERS, a versatile modern dance repertory company that was to provide an outlet for both emerging and established choreographers. The American influence was felt most keenly in Toronto, although it spread to other centres. Toronto-born Jennifer MASCALL, a former participant in New Yorker Douglas Dunn's postmodernist experiments, took her interest in improvisation to Vancouver, where Iris Garland had been exposing her students at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby to the work of a wide range of American modernist choreographers, and where Helen Goodwin had been doing the same thing on a smaller scale at the University of British Columbia. The Graham tradition turned up in Calgary with Elaine Bowman, formerly with TDT, at Dancers Studio West; in Edmonton with Brian Webb, who had studied extensively with Graham's first male partner, Erick Hawkins; and for several years in Halifax, where until 1987 Jeanne Robinson directed Nova Dance Theatre.

In the mid-1970s Danny GROSSMAN, who under the name Danny Williams had been a leading member of New York's acclaimed Paul Taylor Dance company, settled in Canada, began to choreograph and in 1977 founded what quickly became one of Canada's busiest and most popular modern dance troupes.

Personal Approaches

In the 1980s a younger generation of choreographers was willing to draw from a wide range of styles and influences to evolve personal approaches to dance. Traditional distinctions between modern dance and classical ballet were often forgotten as dancers and choreographers from each school shared ideas and attempted to learn from each other. Classical ballet companies such as the NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens invited modern dance choreographers to work for them such as Christopher HOUSE, Linda Rabin, Édouard LOCK and Ginette LAURIN for Les GBC; Danny Grossman, David Earle and Robert DESROSIERS for the NBC. James KUDELKA, with his roots firmly in classical ballet but with a keen interest in contemporary movement, has choreographed for Toronto Dance Theatre and Dancemakers.

Modern dance in Canada, as in other countries, tends to be amorphous and turbulent. Companies come and go. Dancers and choreographers often work independently. Toronto's 15 Dance Lab, opened in 1972 by former National Ballet dancers Lawrence and Miriam Adams, offered a forum for these independents. Similar venues opened up across Canada to provide a network of low-cost performing spaces for the growing number of freelance choreographers and solo performers. Toronto's Danceworks and Montréal's Tangente, both presenting organizations, have become two of the most important of these venues. The annual fringe festival of independent dance artists held each summer in Toronto has also become a major showcase for emerging and established choreographers from across Canada and abroad.

During the late 1970s Montréal became a noted centre for modern dance experimentation, following the path opened by companies such as Le Groupe de la Place Royale and Groupe Nouvelle Aire. Choreographers such as Daniel Leveillé, Ginette Laurin and Édouard Lock began to attract popular followings. Lock founded his own company, LaLaLa Human Steps, as a vehicle for his gangling, loose-limbed, punk-influenced style. During the 1980s, Montréal choreographers, with their traditional orientation towards Europe, became increasingly attracted to the intensely personal and theatrical dance expression known as New Dance. Choreographers working in this genre often develop a single piece, usually an hour or so in length, which is then toured until it is time to begin a fresh work. Thus they tend not to build a repertoire in the traditional sense. Québec choreographers in particular are now much admired on the European dance circuit and Montréal hosts periodic high-profile international festivals of New Dance featuring local choreographers alongside those of their counterparts from across Canada and leading exponents from abroad.

Greater Accessibility and Varied Expressions

A notable development has been the increased accessibility of modern dance in its varied expressions to a broader audience. An increased emphasis on production values and an overt desire to entertain was aptly demonstrated by the Robert Desrosiers Dance Theatre, which provides spectacular interpretations of Desrosiers's surrealistic theatrical vision. Under the artistic direction of Tedd Robinson, assisted by Murray Darroch, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers also moved in the late 1980s towards a flamboyantly whimsical and theatrical style. Its current director, Tom Stroud, seems more obviously influenced by the values of European New Dance.

In Vancouver Karen JAMIESON, who as Karen Rimmer had been a key figure in the experimental Terminal City Dance company, continued to produce emotionally charged work. Many of these creators have chosen to explore other media beyond movement and to find new ways to integrate music and dance. Until its closure in 1990, Toronto Independent Dance Enterprise often used an improvisational creative approach, employing acting techniques and spoken text along with movement. The rapid development of electronic technology has also been exploited by a number of experimental choreographers, by the use of video within the body of their work and by drawing live musicians directly into the centre of a performance as quasi-dancers. The wide variety of approaches now adopted by Canadian choreographers and their continuing urge to explore fresh territory testifies to the vitality of their art and to the development of distinctly personal forms of expression. From its heavy reliance on outside sources of creative stimulation, contemporary dance in Canada has found its own multifaceted and self-confident identity.

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