The Beginnings of Modern Dance


Modern dance was born, of all places, in San Francisco, the birthplace of the American dancer Isadora Duncan, a pioneer in the new "free" dance style. Perhaps this is a fitting place for modern dance to have originated since the life-style of the California frontier at that time was primitive, simple, free and natural, the hallmarks of the new style. It was life in the midst of this self-invented, ever-evolving society that shaped Isadora into a redeemer who saw herself as a liberating force from all sorts of conventions and constrictions, whether moral, social, sexual or artistic, that obstructed free expression of one's feelings. And so, Isadora decided that she was going to revitalize what she thought was a moribund art, dulled by mechanical frippery. An intuitive rebel against formal ballet training, Isadora was artistically weaned on the fluidity of nature, especially the ebb and flow of the waves by the seashore. It was from nature's rhythmic impulses and decorative, sinewy forms that she shaped her undulating movement.

Isadora's aim was to strip ballet of all superfluousness and to express in movement the essence of life rather than to tell a story through character or situation. In order to accomplish this, she rebelled against the prevalent artistic conventions of her day which she thought rendered dancing contorted, inexpressive and artificial. At the time, classical ballet was based on the principles that all movement emanated from the spine and that dance needed to defy gravity. For Isadora, however, all movement originated from the solar plexus region of the body, the center of feeling which could be activated by an idea or an emotion: "Working much like a motor does--in progressive development--a single movement from an initial impetus gradually follows a rising curve of inspiration, up to those gestures that exteriorize the fullness of feeling, spreading ever under the impulse that has swayed the dancer." Furthermore, Isadora felt that the body had to move naturally rather than resist the law of gravity, for movements not corresponding to the basic function and design of the human form were unnatural. For her, true dance sprang from the undulations of the body's rhythms sympathetic to the organic rhythms of the universal energies of the world. In other words, Isadora Duncan wanted to express the rhythm of the spirit that permeates all life.

Isadora Duncan

But Isadora Duncan managed to revolutionize dance in other ways also. Inspired by Greek art, Isadora shed her toe shoes and tutu in favor of bare feet and diaphanous, flowing tunics. This subversive act made her the more notorious, for propriety was of the utmost importance. For more than a century, ballet dancers' feet had been bound in wooden blocked ballet slippers that were supposed to be worn two sizes too small to facilitate the mechanical movement of classical ballet. Furthermore, the ballet dancer's body was further constricted by a heavily boned corseted costume that made the human form and its movement appear artificial and were designed to portray a story-line character. In trying to heighten the expressiveness of the human body, Isadora adopted the chiton, the Greek one-piece tunic favored by the sculptors of the classical age. As worn by Isadora, the chiton could be softly bloused by belt or cord around the waist and crisscrossed between the breast. Several slits extending from below the hip allowed for free pelvic and leg movements. Needless to say, Isadora Duncan was slammed with several lawsuits assailing her for her indecent exposure, but managed, at the same time, to inspire the Parisian world of haute couture, and fashion would never be the same.

Isadora Duncan also radically transformed the use of music and choreography in modern dance. Traditionally, ballet scores were tuneful, piecemeal compositions that featured waltzes, polkas, pizzicati and polkas. In search of the purest expression of the soul, Duncan concentrated on the mood piece, from which movement could grow organically. For Isadora, the perfect dance was unaccompanied dance, a self-sufficient expression independent from all musical support. Such a dance would have the dancer moving in accord with her own bodily rhythms, in dialogue only with an inner voice--no music, no text. It would be pure dancing for oneself to the "rhythms of some invisible music," not interpreting but creating expression and taking place in privacy. And so, the function of music is the inspirational element that brings high excitement and full realization to a dancer's artistic powers. In other words, music provides the dancer with emotional and physical energies. At no time did Isadora see music as the means of creating dances but as a nourishment of the soul. And thus she turned to the finest music of the master composers-- Chopin, Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Gluck and Beethoven--performed as simple piano accompaniment.

In December of 1904, Isadora Duncan first performed in St. Petersburg, and then returned in 1905, 1907 and 1909. These visits were to inspire two of the most important players who would transform modern ballet: Sergei Diaghilev and Michel Fokine. Sergei Diaghilev was a young Russian aristocrat who at the time was a profound influence of Russian cultural life by publishing an art periodical and mounting a massive exhibition of historical portraits in St. Petersburg. As a reward for Diaghilev having revealed Russia to herself, the Czar made it possible for Diaghilev to obtain further support for several exhibits in Paris that would export Russian art to the West--first, with an exhibition of Russian painting (1906), concerts of Russian music (1907) and the first production outside of Russia of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. This production was a soaring success due to its authenticity and extravagant costumes and settings. For the following Paris season, Diaghilev decided to take a dance program also since ballet had almost died in the west and would therefore be a novelty. To his surprise, Diaghilev discovered that it was ballet that gave him the opportunity to combine many of his loved artistic disciplines--choreography, drama, painting and music--with his taste, fondness for experiment, and patronage of artists.  And so, Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes, a company of Russian dancers and choreographers residing in Paris which transformed the worlds of dance, music, art, theater, and fashion.

Sergei Diaghilev

To stage his first ballet in Paris, Diaghilev brought with him the young brilliant choreographer, Michel Fokine, whose emergence coincided with the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the artistic turmoil that was taking place in the Imperial Ballet school and theater. As with the state of art all over the western world, Russian ballet had also become stultified, going through the motions rather than exploring new artistic territories. Everyone connected with ballet felt that Fokine was part of the birth of a new form of ballet. He became well-known for his call for authenticity and realism: that art must represent its race, historical moment and its cultural environment and that it belonged to the masses. Fokine was credited with revitalizing ballet by incorporating into it national and ethnic styles of movement by drawing on living sources and the remains of lost civilizations. Basically, Fokine worked as an ethnographer and in his task he was helped by the designer Leon Bakst, who helped him with the particulars of the historical reconstruction of time and place.

Fokine revolutionized ballet in yet another manner: he abolished the ballerina as being apart from the corps de ballet. Instead, he was drawn to the crowd and replicated revolutionary fervor in the fury of the masses, the ecstasy of race, the triumph of passion, and the liberation of the self through mass participation. Above all, Fokine wanted to create the illusion that his ballets were not choreographed at all but that they surged spontaneously from a swelling of emotion and gaiety. In essence, he gave ballet the look of improvisation. Before Fokine, ballet was too "staged" and artificially mannered. But with the entrance of Fokine into the Russian Imperial Ballet, dancers became humanized, individualized conveyors of emotional and psychological truths. Fokine personified the need for dancing and gesture to be dramatically motivated. Above all, Fokine asserted that man can and should be expressive from head to foot.

As the principal dancer of the Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky was the embodiment of this new kind of dancer, and he was to become even more controversial when he was appointed principal choreographer of the Ballets Russes after Fokine resigned in disgust over Diaghilev's manipulative intrigues. This resignation and ascension took place not only because Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers but because Diaghilev instinctively knew that if his ballet company was to remain on the cutting edge, it needed new leadership to make the transition. Whereas Fokine's artistic creativity had explored the outward forces that shape man, Nijinsky's art focused on the inward forces that drive him. In other words, Nijinsky's choreography gave expression to the forbidden unconscious and primitive energies within the individual whose portrayal had been heretofore taboo. By taking this enormous artistic risk, Nijinsky's legacy is as seminal as Picasso's, Stravinsky's, and Freud's.


Nijinsky's first ballet was L'Apres Midi d'un Faune, choreographed in 1912 to the languorous music of Claude Debussy. In this ballet, a faun, half-human/half-beast, sees seven nymphs, and he is attracted to one of them in particular. When she undresses to bathe, he tries to catch her and fails. Running away from the faun, the nymph drops her scarf and he picks it up. The faun then returns to his rock on which he was lying at the beginning of the ballet, lies down on the scarf and then makes love to it to the point of orgasm. When Nijinsky literally masturbated during the first performance, all of Paris was aghast at his publicly committing such an offensive act. But Nijinsky had been merely swept away by the unconscious forces that would soon be released in real life, for the dancer was a latent heterosexual who would eventually marry Romala de Pulzsky. Dance, for Nijinsky, became the means through which his inner self, no matter how ambiguous and unrestrained, could find expression. The audience, however, was not yet ready to accept such exhibitionism and self indulgence presented so openly on the stage. For Nijinsky, however, it was a matter of catharsis.

But Faune is not only memorable because of this scandalous incident. This eight minute ballet broke new ground in that it entirely abandoned classical ballet technique through Nijinsky's liberation of the foot. The dancers walked and pivoted, inclined, knelt and, in a single instance, jumped. In other words, Nijinsky brought ballet back to basic, primitive steps. Furthermore, Nijinsky patterns movement in this ballet to reflect the cubists' geometric experimentation. For instance, Nijinsky focused on the body and its movement as an interplay of triangles, arcs, and lines. Furthermore, in this ballet Nijinsky presents different views of the human body simultaneously, just as the cubists compressed in one single synthetic moment as many different aspects of an object as possible. This technique was borrowed from both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Greek friezes which presented frontal and lateral views of the human body in one frozen moment of time.

Nijinsky's choreography for The Rite of Spring (1913) generated even more shock waves than Faune. This time, however, the controversy involved was not sexual explicitness but the ballet's portrayal of primitiveness and barbarity. The fashionable Belle Époque audience just wasn't ready for this kind of dancing, or rather, it did not want to be subjected to the human savagery that was about to be unleashed by World War I. What this audience demanded from a ballet about spring was a vision of grace, harmony, and beauty rather than the turbulence just witnessed. What Nijinsky had submitted to the audience was a ballet that questioned the very notion of civilization. Instinctively, Nijinsky had anticipated not only what was to occur in the real world politically but also artistically. He had captured in this ballet all of the features of revolt: the rejection of traditional forms, the embrace of primitivism, the emphasis on vitality rather than rationalism, and the perception of existence as continuous flux.

Igor Stravinsky

            The Rite of Spring takes place in ancient Russia, at a time when pre-social tribes would sacrifice a young maiden to the gods in spring to ensure the fertility of the soil and hunting grounds. In other words, Rite focuses on pre-civilized man in a state of nature who is driven by the brutal energy of the continuity of life. This ballet offers no moral judgments; rather, the maiden is seen not as a victim but as someone who chooses to sacrifice herself for the benefit of her community. These were the facts of life as Nijinsky saw them. 

Rite also provoked its audience in terms of its music and its choreography. Igor Stravinsky wrote a score that violated every sacred musical tradition: it lacked melody, harmony and regular rhythm. Furthermore, the musical score was very loud. The orchestra called for was immense, with a high percentage of it being percussion. The sounds produced by the woodwinds were distorted through the use of mutes, and the violins played down-bow in order to create a louder, more dissonant sound. Nijinsky's choreography was as jarring as the music. Every classical traditional movement was eliminated: no jetés, pirouettes, or arabesques. Movement was reduced to jumping with both feet and walking in a stomping fashion. The basic position of the dancers consisted of hunching towards the ground, feet turned inward with great exaggeration, knees bent, arms tucked in, and head turned in profile as the body faced forward. In other words, the dancers appeared knock-kneed so as to stress the primitive jaggedness of existence. Neither the audience nor the critics were amused. During the first performance of Rite, a riot erupted in the theater, but even it was unable to stop the artistic revolution that Nijinsky had just unleashed.

The Rite of Spring (1913)