Modern dance: Poetry in motion

One of America's biggest contributions to the arts, besides jazz, is modern dance. Back in the 20th century, a group of dancers rebelled against the rigidity of ballet and the non-seriousness of vaudeville.

They wanted to be viewed as serious artistes rather than mere entertainers. Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn are considered to be the first generation of pioneers of modern dance in America.

Duncan, a revolutionist, is considered the founding mother of modern dance. She discarded the corset, ballet slippers and tutus used in conventional ballet attire, adopting instead tunics that freed the body and revealed its movement.

She referred to dance as an art with a moral purpose. Using classical music scores in her interpretation, she kept the movement vocabulary simple yet expressive. It was liberating.

What America initially referred to as modern dance is now known as contemporary dance and the terms are used interchangeably.

While Fuller used gas lighting to enhance the effects of her silk costumes, St Denis and Shawn combined eastern spiritualism and imagery, along with European travel, in their works.

Their movements were inspired by Eastern cultures and mythologies, including those from India and Egypt. Both eventually opened Denishawn, as a school and company, nurtured leaders of the next wave of modern dancers, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

Graham needs no introduction and is synonymous with creating the contract and release technique, which is still being used by every modern dance school in the world.

This method of muscle control gave both Graham's dances and dancers a hard, angular look.

Humphrey, a choreographic master and theoretician, was the creator of the technique known as fall and recovery.

A dancer needs to know how to suspend in the air, fall to the ground and spring up quickly with grace and agility. Both these techniques have been introduced to other dance genres as well.

The second generation of pioneers include artistes such as Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, José Limón, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey, Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer and Twyla Tharp. Their works are a little more sophisticated in terms of technique and technology.

Today, many Malaysian contemporary choreographers, besides learning from the masters and their disciples, continue to use the techniques invented by the pioneers.

Contemporary dance is constantly evolving as new, more gravity-defying methods are introduced to enhance the artistry and challenge the performer.

Contemporary dance has become a fusion of multiple genres and in the works of Malaysian choreographers, one can see the influence of ballet, silat, tai chi, bharathanatyam and odissi.

Despite the blends, contemporary dance is deeply grounded in its movements, explosive bursts, and vitality.