Arucad Cover 3

Pioneers of Modern Dance

Pioneers of Modern Dance

Yard. Doç. Dr./Asst. Prof. Dr. Handan Ergiydiren Doğan

ARUCAD Faculty of Music and Dance Performing Arts Head Of Contemporary Dance)

Modern Dance, which describes the dance formations in the years 1900-1950, is the period in which the separation from classical ballet was experienced in dance, the attitudes and questionings towards the values of ballet increased, and different forms from ballet sprouted. As in other arts, it is the historical period in which modernity becomes active, or more accurately, the concept of “modern” begins to emerge. However, it should be noted that; although this period is called “modern”, it is not exactly modernist in a conceptual sense since Avant-Garde or other progressive approaches that are unusual for their own period have emerged in a wide variety of forms. If modernity is summarized as forms simplified by abstraction and reduction, and being free from references to a certain period, culture or life, it cannot be said that all of the art productions in this period were “modern”.

The geographical center of the period called Modern Dance is the USA and Germany. The history of modern dance for the USA begins with Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth Saint Dennis- Ted Shawn (Denishawn Project), known as the “pioneers”. These names seek a more independent and subjective dance language, apart from classical ballet techniques, which are over-structured due to the theatrical revolutions and political conditions of the period. In fact, they transform the ethnic spectacle or visual creations of ancient cultures or other continental cultures, which are also the triggers of modernist-avant-garde movements in the visual arts, into materials for dance. These artists, who rebelled against the excessive formality and artificiality of ballet and the ordinariness of the dances in the stage shows of the period, seek to convey both an internal and an external reality to the audience.

Loie Fuller (1862-1928)

Loie Fuller is one of the unforgettable women of art history as the living representation of the Art Nouevau movement. Although she did not receivany dance training, she captures a catchystagvisuality with the movement she gives to thelooselfolded fabrics of her costume and the reflections of various colors that fall on them, in addition to the body technique she uses sparingly.

Instead of telling a story, she designs 6-7 minute dance pieces that express natural phenomena such as insects, flowers or fire. She is inspired by the fact that nature contains the most perfect movements in its essence and instead of telling something to the audience, she dances with the following idea in her mind: “I should leave an impression on the mind of the audience with my actions, cause the creation of this idea in his mind, trigger his imagination so that he is ready to accept the image.” Fuller is an artist who went down in history with the light designs he used. She expresses her influence from the Notre-Dame Church, which she visited during her Paris trip, as follows: “…what fascinated me more than anything was the lateral rosettes, and actually, moreover, it was the sun rays vibrating with intense colors, formed inside the church by passing through these magnificent glasses in different directions.” With her following words: “…color permeates everything so much that the universe is busy producing it everywhere and in everything. This situation repeats itself as a result of chemical combination and fragmentation. There will come the days when people will use it in an exquisite way…” Fuller makes the concept of “color” an important element of the stage and the movement. It is revolutionary in its use of light; she mixes unique colors, tries to use phosphorescent salts and modernizes the dance by using avant-garde techniques such as indirect light beams coming from under the stage.

Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)

Isadora Duncan, with her extraordinary identity representing the “free spirit” that still has an influence on the dance world, is still a very important identity even in today’s styles as the spiritual founder and inspirer of modern dance. Duncan, who says that she performs her first dances in the womb, takes some ballet lessons. When she reaches adolescence, she begins to be watched as a show dancer in music halls and community meetings.

During her trip to Europe in 1900, under the intense influence of Ancient Greek art, she began to wear white tunics and shawls, the fabric of which was poured in layers, on the stage, evoking Greek paintings and sculptures with his bodily posture and demeanor. “Simplicity” is the main idea of the dance style; she uses the stage completely empty except for the famous blue curtain hanging on the back surface, her dance consisting of improvisational movements that he rarely repeats is always accompanied by an orchestral music (Wagner, Gluck, Beethoven). The most important innovation she brought to dance is dancing barefoot on the stage, which is a pioneering attitude that is mostly preferred in today’s contemporary dance education and stage productions, both technically and aesthetically.

With the following words: “Contrary to the laws of gravity or the natural will of man, today’s ballet school tries in vain and the form and movement it adopts doesn’t work in harmony with the form and movement of nature. As a result, it creates sterile movements that do not allow future movements and die as soon as they are made.” She reveals her attitude towards ballet in the text she wrote titled The Dance of the Future. Duncan, who was unable to bear the damage that ballet inflicts on human anatomy, points to the deteriorated bone structure inside the dancing muscles hidden under ballet skirts, which is a result of ballet training, and criticizes that it condemns the naturally beautiful female body. She expresses her ideal dance education as follows: “…I will not teach my students to imitate my movements, I will teach them how to create their own movements. …I will help them develop movements that feel natural to them.”

During his Russian tour in 1905, despite her technical inadequacy, she even influenced the famous Russian choreographer Fokine, who could not break away from ballet, but was looking for an alternative. She also sympathizes with the workers’ revolution movements and visits this country frequently after the Revolution. During one of her performances in the USA, upon her return from Russia, she is booed on the grounds that she is a communist. When the audience escalates the situation by throwing eggs at her, she takes off her clothes and dances naked. Although Duncan thus caused a serious indignation, behind this attitude “The most noble thing in art is the nude. …the person who should remember this the most, namely the dancer, has forgotten this fact; because the instrument of the dancer’s art is the human body” is a possible trigger. Duncan describes the future dancer with a “feminist” approach as follows:

“This dancer will not dance in fairy, jinn, or coquette form, but in the form of a woman in her most wonderful purest expression. The woman will realize the mission of her body and the sanctity of these body parts. …Every part of the female body will sparkle with intelligence, bringing the thoughts and desires of thousands of women into the world.

This dancer will dance the freedom of women.”

Ruth St. Denis (1880-1968) and Ted Shawn (1891-1972)

Having a direct impact on the future of modern dance in the United States, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn are two important pioneering identities. As a teenager, dancing in Broadway musicals and small touring bands, St. Denis creates her oriental-themed choreographic style, inspired by the Egyptian Goddess figure depicted on an advertisement poster she sees in a shop one day. Then comes the Indian Goddess Radha, and the audience takes great pleasure in her “exotic mystery and sensuality”. St. Denis returns with great success from her three-year European tour.

Ted Shawn is a young theology student who developed numbness below the waist during treatment for diphtheria. As soon as he starts walking again with great will, he starts taking dance lessons to strengthen his muscles more quickly. He becomes Ruth St. Denis’s student, whom he watched for the first time in 1911, then her partner, and finally her husband in 1914. Shawn’s robust, clean-lined body and hearty movements go well together with St. Denis’ graceful, serpentine movements. Their fondness for flamboyant scenes and elaborate ornate costumes combines, and the duo quickly climbs to success. The duo, who opened a school in Los Angeles under the name of Denishawn in 1915, spread their branches all over the world. In schools with a swimming pool and tennis courts for practice, where pets roam the grounds, classes are held outdoors, where ballet, oriental, Indian, Native American, and Spanish dances are taught—in line with the belief that a good dancer must be familiar with all forms of art—Japanese sword dancers or Hawaiian Hula dancers are brought in as teachers. In the school where dances designed from poetry, only percussive music, or pieces with no sound are produced and where pure experimentation dominates, Shawn is the head teacher of the institution, while the muse is St. Denis. As a result of the school, Denishawn Dance Company also manages to become the highest earning dance company.

In 1932 St. Denis leaves the group and tours with a female-only group with works focused on religious themes. Shawn, on the other hand, formed another troupe of male-only dancers that toured for seven years, proving that dance was not a feminine art, which was the most important issue of his career. His farm, Jacob’s Pillow, becomes the home of the community. In the following years, this venue also hosts organizations that still continue today as the Jacob’s Pillow Summer School and Dance Festival.


History of Ballet and Modern Dance, Judith Steeh, Hong Kong, Hamlyn Publishing Ltd.-Bison Books, 1982. Yirminci Yüzyılda Dans Sanatı: Kuram ve Pratik, Haz.: Şebnem Selışık Aksan, Gurur Ertem, İstanbul, Boğaziçi Üniversitesi Yayınevi, 2007.

Staff Login Student Login