Part IV: Modern Dance Pioneers


It was during this explosion of new thinking and exploration in the early twentieth century that dance artists began to appreciate the qualities of the individual, the necessities of ritual and religion, the primitive, the expressive and the emotional. There was suddenly a new freedom in what was considered acceptable, what was considered art, and what people wanted to create. All kinds of other things, as I have indicated, were suddenly valued as much as, or beyond, the costumes and tricks of the ballet.


Most of these choreographers and dancers saw ballet in the most negative light. Isadora Duncan thought it most ugly, nothing more than meaningless gymnastics. Martha Graham saw it as European and Imperialistic, having nothing to do with the modern American people. Cunningham, while using some of the foundations of the ballet technique in his teaching, approached choreography and performance from a totally radical standpoint compared to the traditional balletic format.


The twentieth century was indeed a period of breaking away from everything that ballet stood for. It was a time of unprecedented creative growth, for dancers and choreographers. It was also a time of shock, surprise and broadening of minds for the public, in terms of their definitions of what dance was. It was a revolution in the truest sense.


The dance world has never quite recovered from this revolution and today we have a situation where every backyard choreographer wants to be revolutionary. We will meet some of the continuing revolutionaries next issue but in the meantime, let’s look at those who laid the foundations: Fuller, Duncan, St Denis, Wigman, Graham, Humphrey, Cunningham.


Loie Fuller
Born in Fullersberf, Il. Died in Paris, France (1862 - 1928)
No doubt one of the more interesting of the first modern dancers, She loved the new electric lighting and used it for multi-directional/coloured effects. Though she never seriously trained for dance she was an immediate hit and admired by the new artists. She was also known for her wide range of interests, besides lighting and silk, she danced outdoors, made two experimental films and founded a school. Totalled over 130 dances, solo and group.


Isadora Duncan

Isadora was a thinker as well as poet, gifted with a lively poetic imagination, a radical defiance  and the ability to express her ideas with verve and humor. Virtually alone, Isadora restored dance to a high place among the arts. Breaking with convention, Isadora traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art.


"I spent long days and nights in the studio, seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement. For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breast, covering the solar plexus… I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversions of movement are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of dance." Isadora Duncan - My Life, 1928


 She developed within this idea, free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new American athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, leaping, tossing.


With free-flowing costumes, bare feet and loose hair, Duncan restored dancing to a new vitality using the solar plexus and the torso as the generating force for all movements to follow.


Born in 1878 in San Francisco, Isadora Duncan grew up in a childhood filled with imagination and art. It was not until she reached London, however, that Isadora began to find acceptance for her dancing. Gradually her popularity grew, and she began performing on great stages throughout Europe. Throughout her career, Isadora had a driving vision for the education of young children, grounding their learning in art, culture, movement and spirituality as well as as traditional academic lessons.


Isadora had many affairs, but her only two children drowned with their governess in the Seine river in 1913. The following years were difficult for Isadora, however, she found a renewed artistic energy when she returned to her schools.Tragically, Isadora's life was cut short in 1927 in a car accident along the Riveria.


"Imagine then a dancer who, after long study, prayer and inspiration, has attained such a degree of understanding that his body is simply the luminous manifestation of his soul; whose body dances in accordance with a music heard inwardly, in an expression of something out of another, profounder world. This is the truly creative dancer; natural but not imitative, speaking in movement out of himself and out of something greater than all selves."
Isadora Duncan - The Philosopher's Stone of Dancing, 1920


Summarised from an article by Lori Belilove, found at:


Ruth St Denis

Ruth Dennis was born in 1879 in New Jersey. Her early training included Delsarte technique, ballet, social dance and skirt dancing. Ruth began her professional career in 1892, dancing in a dime museum and in vaudeville houses. In 1898, she was hired by David Belasco to perform with his large company as a soloist. Under Belasco's influence, Ruthie Dennis became Ruth St. Denis, and toured with his production around the USA and Europe.


During her travels St. Denis became very interested in th e dance/drama of Eastern cultures. After 1900, St. Denis began formulating her own theory of dance/drama based on her early training, and her readings into philosophy, scientology, art and history. In 1904, during one of her tours, she saw a poster of the goddess Isis in an advert. It sparked her imagination and she began reading about Egypt and India.

By 1905, St. Denis left Belasco to begin a solo career. Her first solo was performed in a Vaudeville House in NYC. It was an attempt to translate her understanding of Indian culture and mythology to the American dance stage and St. Denis was quickly ‘discovered’. She left for London with her mother in 1906, and traveled the continent until 1909, when she returned to give a series of well-received concerts around the USA. During the next five years she continued building her reputation as a "classic dancer" in the same category as Duncan.


In 1912, in serious financial trouble, St. Denis went back to the studio and came up with a new exotic Japanese dance, but it was not a success. In 1914 she hired Ted Shawn and his partner to perform ballroom numbers during her show. Soon after, St. Denis and Shawn became dance partners and lovers. They set up the famous ‘Denishawn’ school in order to train dancers in their own style, and eventually the school toured performances around the United States. Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham both spent time there as pupils. However ultimately Shawn and St Denis had different aims and when they parted ways Denishawn ended.


The Origins of Modern Dance

Dateline: 11/24/97

Out of the Denishawn school came a new generation of dancers in the 1920s who wanted to move away from the Denishawn tradition. They disliked its exoticism and mysticism and instead wanted to explore the fundamental principles of movement. Modern dance as a dance technique was given its form at this time.

Not considered by Ruth St. Denis to be the stuff of a great dancer, Martha Graham was nonetheless encouraged by Ted Shawn to continue her studies. Inspired by breathing, she developed her theories of contraction and release. Contraction, with the breath's expiration, curves the chest inwards and suggested to her fear and sorrow. Release with the chest expanding, suggested joy and extroversion. The torso becomes the centre of movement, which radiates out towards the limbs. Often inspired by Greek mythology, her choreography reflected her interests in psychology and the individual. Both Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor worked with her company, although they have moved away from her technique in their own development.

Doris Humphrey was encouraged by St. Denis try her hand at choreography, although she and Charles Wiedman eventually left Denishawn to pursue their own interests. She developed her theories of movement based on fall and recovery. Her work centers around the struggle to overcome gravity and the risk involved in abandoning balance. Often using religious and American themes in her dances, she was interested in the interactions of the individual with the group. Her theories of choreography were published after her death in the book The Art of Making Dances. Jose Limon and Louis Falco were her students and continued to develop her technique in a modified form.

One should not forget that similar changes were taking place in Central Europe. Rudolph Laban, in Switzerland and Germany explored dance education and gymnastics for non-dancers. His student Mary Wigman carried on his work in what has since become known as AusdruckTanz, or Expressionist Dance.Today he is better known as as a teacher and theorist, and the creator of Laban Notation.

Today, the border between modern dance and the world of classical ballet is becoming increasingly blurred. Many modern choreographers create works for classical companies. And classical choreographers are becoming more open to experiment with new forms. Many companies will present at least one modern piece on any given evening. This has been beneficial for the public, which learns to understand a new style, and good for the dancers who expand their knowledge and control in mastering a new technique.


Mary Wigman

1886–1973, German dancer, choreographer, and teacher. After studying with Rudolf von Laban, Wigman performed in Germany and opened her own school in Dresden (1920). She became the most influential German exponent of expressive movement and toured extensively. Her school, which had branches throughout the world, was closed by the Nazis. She reopened it in Berlin in 1948, where it was the center of European modern dance for 20 years. Although her early choreography employed spontaneous movements, much of her later work was in the form of group dances that employed repetitive patterns. Through her teaching and that of her students and dancers, especially Hanya Holm and Margarete Wallmann, she influenced modern dance throughout Germany, the United States, and England.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press.


Martha Graham
Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Pittsburgh. At the age of 16, she saw a Ruth Saint-Denis performance and decided to become a dancer. From 1913-1916, Graham studied theater and dance at the University of Cumnoch. Afterwards she joined the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, where she danced several important roles. She also met the composer, Louis Horst, who was to be instrumental in the development of her later work. In 1926, she gave her first recital at the 48th Street Theatre, in New York and she opened the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1927. She continued to develop her choreography and her dance technique based on the physical manifestations of emotion in the body and on the principles of contraction and release.

The late 1930s and early 1940s proved to be fruitful. In 1936, Graham took a strong political stance when she refused to go to the Olympic Games in Berlin. In 1939, Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins joined her company. In 1944, she created Appalachian Spring, the first of many collaborations with set designer, Isamu Noguchi. Many of her pieces during this period dealt with mythology.


In 1948, after eight years of living together, Graham and Hawkins were married. The union lasted only another year. Graham's company embarked on their first tour to Paris in 1954, where her work was not appreciated. The next few years held more successes, though. Paul Taylor joined her company in 1955, and in 1956, she won the Dance Magazine Award. Three years later, she created Episodes with George Balanchine.


Graham faced depression and health problems that forced her to stop dancing at the age of 76. It was very painful for her to stop dancing, however, she continued to create new work. In 1984, Rudolf Nureyev invited her company to the Paris Opera. She was choreographing a new ballet called The Eye of the Goddess for the Olympics in Barcelona when she died in 1991.



Doris Humphrey

Doris Humphrey was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1895 and grew up in Chicago. As a girl, Humphrey studied piano, ballet, ballroom dance, Americanized Delsarte and Dalcroze's Eurythmics. A talented dancer, she began teaching dance to children when she was 15.


Dissatisfied with teaching in a small town, Humphrey joined Denishawn in 1917. She was soon teaching classes and performing with the company in featured roles. Charles Weidman was Humphrey's dance partner in the 1920s and 1930s, and was himself a key figure in the development of the American modern dance. Humphrey began her choreographic career creating, with St. Denis, famous pieces like "Soaring," and "Sonata Pathetique".

 In 1928, Humphrey and Charles Weidman left the Denishawn company to found their own school and company. Humphrey was interested in moving away from the sentimentalism and romanticism of the Denishawn company.

Doris Humphrey was interested in the fundamental importance of tension and relaxation in the body, and used it as the foundation of her own system of movement principles. She called her version of the contraction and release of muscles and of the breath cycle "fall and recovery." She codified this system in her book The Art of Making Dances (1958).

By 1931, the Humphrey and Weidman companies and their joint studio/school were firmly established in New York City. From the beginning, Humphrey's choreography called attention to the relationship between movement and music. She did not attempt to tell a story, or to evoke a specific emotion. Instead, Humphrey was interested in purely aesthetic considerations. In her use of these abstract principles of composition, Humphrey was perhaps the most "modern" of the early modern dance innovators. After her original company disbanded in the early 1940s, Humphrey was appointed the Artistic Director of the Jose Limon's dance troupe. Doris Humphrey died in 1958.

Right: Doris Humphrey’s ‘Soaring’















Merce Cunningham

Cunningham, born in Centralia, Washington, received his first formal dance training at the Cornish School in Seattle. From 1939 to 1945, he was a soloist in the company of Martha Graham. During that time, he began to choreograph independently, presenting his first New York solo concert with John Cage in April 1944. He continued to present annual concerts, by himself or with an ad hoc group of dancers, until the formation of Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1953. Since that time Cunningham has choreographed over one hundred and fifty works for his company.

His works have been included in the repertories of numerous ballet and modern dance companies around the world. He has also collaborated with PBS and BBC television on numerous filmdance projects, many of which have been seen worldwide.

“Merce Cunningham developed his own school of dancing and choreography, the continuity of which no longer relies on linear elements, be they narrative or psychological, nor does it rely on a movement towards and away from climax. As in abstract painting, it is assumed that an element (a movement, a sound, a change of light) is in and of itself expressive; what it communicates is in large part determined by the observer himself. “ -- JOHN CAGE






You may also want to look up: Ted Shawn, Charles Weidman, Oskar Schlemmer, Jose Limon, Rudolph Laban, Hanya Holm, Gertrude Bodenweiser, Alwin Nikolais, Agnes de Mille, Kurt Joos


A longer list of Modern Choreographers including brief biographies is found at: