A short introduction to American Contemporary Dance

Every dance student learns about the two great pillars of modern dance; Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, whose techniques still form the basis of much contemporary dance training today. (By contemporary we basically mean modern dance and beyond.)

Martha Graham came first. Having trained at the influential Denishawn school in LA, Graham formed her company in 1927 and developed a style based on the principle of 'contraction and release' (think inhalation/exhalation). In stark contrast to classical ballet, her movement was angular and gravity-bound and embraced the full expanse of human emotion and expression.

Merce Cunningham was one of Graham's leading dancers in the early 40s, then a choreographer in his own right and is still forging new movement today at the grand age of 88. His style was abstract rather than angsty like Graham's and his dancers quick and light on their feet. Working with the composer John Cage, Cunningham was at the forefront of art's avant garde, and made the revolutionary step of divorcing dance from music and all the other trappings of the stage, creating movement independently of sound, sets and costumes, often using chance techniques.

In the 1960s and '70s, contemporary dance picked up on trends in the wider world of visual art, music and film, from minimalism to post-modernism. Alvin Ailey founded America's first Afro-American dance company, drawing on the blues and gospel for inspiration as well as ballet, modern and a good dose of jazz dance - after all, New York is the home of Broadway. Trisha Brown had her performers dancing on rooftops and abseiling down walls, while Twyla Tharp set aside her early experiments in stripped-bare choreography to incorporate just about every influence going, from tap and ballet to rock 'n' roll (one of her more recent projects was the Billy Joel musical Movin' Out). So in short, anything goes.

Eclecticism is also the key for Mark Morris, a one-time Balkan folk dancer who likes to throw a bit of flamenco among the myriad styles in his palette. Morris can switch between kitsch comedy and sublime beauty in a twitch and his L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988) is generally considered a bit of a masterpiece.

Another choreographer who emerged in the 80s and is still going strong is Stephen Petronio, known for his aggressive, provocative choreography as well as his dancers' flesh-baring outfits. More family friendly are the long-established Momix, founded by Moses Pendelton, a company that calls its performers 'dancer-illusionists' and adds to the gymnastic skills of its troupe with fantastical costumes, props and lighting effects to make stage magic.

by Lyndsey Winship


Coming soon to Sadler's Wells

LA Dance Project