Many dance artists wax poetic about the various aesthetic differences between any given dance style, and the general public can generally see at least a visual differentiation. After all, one of the most common questions a dance artist receives after “What do you do for a living?” is “Oh, what kind of dance do you do?” However, when it comes to a deeper knowledge of dance history, the general public is sadly ill-informed about the intricate and often interesting differences between the various styles of dance. Now, there are all kinds of different types of dance techniques, and if I were to write one article about all of them, it would be exhausting to write, let alone to read. Thus, this piece will highlight two disciplines often conflated in the public’s imagination: ballet and modern.

So, what is ballet, what is modern dance, and where did each style come from? If you spent part of your winter holidays trying to explain to your aunt that the modern dance piece you choreographed is indeed not the same as The Nutcracker, next time, you can just forward her this article.

If ballet is the artistic child of the ludicrously opulent European courts, modern dance is the brash daughter of the United States of America.

Of the two, ballet is the elder art form, arising out of Europe during the sixteenth century. The earliest inclinations stem from the lavish dance performances mounted by the various princes and nobles of the Italian city-states like Florence, Venice, and Milan during the Renaissance. In 1533, Catherine de Medici, the great-granddaughter of Florence’s famed ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent, married Henry II, the King of France, and came to dominate the French courts. When her husband died in 1559, Catherine went on to live for another thirty years, and her deeply influential presence loomed over the courts of her young sons: the short-lived reign of her eldest, Francis II, and the subsequent rules of her other two sons, Charles IX and Henry III.

As a daughter of the Italian Renaissance, Catherine used art and spectacle, particularly lavish dancing, singing, and jousting performances, to distract and placate the French populace during a time of vicious religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The upheaval was brutal, bloody, and violent, and deeply threatened the stability of the realm. So it was against this socio-political backdrop that ballet began to take root in France, but it was during the reign of Louis XIV just shy of a century later that it came to grip the French imagination.

Louis XIV, the “Sun King,”  is perhaps the most famous of absolute monarchs. The supposed speaker of the apocryphal pithy line, “L’état c’est moi” (I am the state), and the king responsible for the stunning grandeur of Versailles, he also established the Académie Royale de Danse in Paris–the basis for the Paris Opéra Ballet–and elevated ballet from a courtly activity to an intense display of kingly might. As dance historian Jennifer Homans notes in her book Apollo’s Angels, “Under Louis XIV, dance became much more than a blunt instrument with which to display royal opulence and power. He made it integral to life at court, a symbol and requirement of aristocratic identity so deeply ingrained and internalized that the art of ballet would forever be linked to his reign.” It is this century of formalization and codification from the rule of Catherine de Medici to the era of Louis XIV that gave ballet much of the character we recognize today, and it is the reason why most terminology in the dance style is in the French language.

King of France Louis XIV in Ballet de la Nuit in 1653
King of France Louis XIV in Le Ballet de La Nuit - 1653

Yet, today, France is not the country most deeply associated with ballet, despite the retention of French terminology. Though many European countries have their own balletic tradition like the Royal Ballet in the United Kingdom, the Bournonville Method in Denmark, and Italy’s Cecchetti Method, it is Russia that is often considered the current home of ballet.

Before Peter the Great became the tsar in 1689, Russia was considered a cultural backwater by the rest of Europe. Isolated geographically, linguistically, and religiously, Russian traditions were informed by the liturgies of the Orthodox church, with much of the artistic expression in the region limited to religious iconography and sacred hymns. There was no courtly tradition of art, music, and dancing seen at many of the wealthy European courts Peter sought to emulate, and no other kingdom grabbed his attention quite like that of Louis XIV’s France. By the time Peter was in power, the Sun King was fifty-one years old and deep into his reign, and Peter had plenty of French inspiration to draw from.

Many of the beloved full-length ballets that have survived into the present were born in Russia.

Seeing himself as a Russian Louis XIV, Peter moved his capital city away from Moscow to his own newly constructed, European-style city on the westernmost edge of his kingdom: St. Petersburg. There, he built the Peterhof Palace, his own stunning residence modeled on Versailles, and introduced various other aspects of Western European culture. He mandated Western styles of dress and levied a beard tax on courtiers who refused to comply with Peter’s clean-shaven Western aesthetic. A large part of this great Westernization project was the introduction of ballet into Russian society.

This was furthered by his niece, Tsarina Anna, who established what would become the Vaganova Ballet School under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Landé, a French ballet master. Then, in 1766, the presence of ballet in Russia was expanded when the wife of Peter’s great-grandson, Tsarina Catherine the Great, issued a decree that established a Russian theater specifically for ballet and opera. As an aside, this would go on to become the famed Mariinsky Opera Company. With the art form now comfortably ensconced in the Russian court, interest in the dance style spread among the populace, and ballet was a favored artistic endeavor throughout the Imperial period.

A class at the Imperial Ballet School
Students of the The Imperial Ballet School trained for the Mariinsky Theatre.

Additionally, many of the beloved full-length ballets that have survived into the present were born in Russia under the direction of Marius Petipa, a French ballet master brought to Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, and many more productions were the result of Petipa’s famed tenure as the Ballet Master of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. Furthermore, the scores for two of those ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, were the brainchild of the revered Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. With the partnership of Petipa and Tchaikovsky alongside the talented Russian dancers, ballet came to maturity not in its birthplace of Western Europe, but in the far-flung, wintry landscape of Imperial Russia.

Whereas the revolution in France in 1789 was quite hard on ballet as an art form, it largely escaped the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 unscathed. Ballet would, in fact, go on to become a kind of artistic weapon during the ensuing Soviet years, with Russian ballet dancers becoming some of the most revered technicians in the world. As Soviet Russia and the United States faced off during the Cold War, dance became a proxy for war, with dancers serving as cultural ambassadors to the world. Russia showed the world the brilliance of Galina Ulanova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Maya Plisetskaya, and the United States of America answered with Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, José Limón, and Alvin Ailey.

Perhaps it is the present-day formality of the various modern dance techniques, or the natural, gradual commingling of two art forms in proximity, but somewhere in the last century, modern dance has become more closely associated with ballet than any other dance form or technique. This is somewhat ironic because the origins of modern dance have their roots firmly planted in a rebellion against the art form of ballet and much of what it represented.

If ballet is the artistic child of the ludicrously opulent European courts, modern dance is the brash daughter of the United States of America. To be sure, modern dance now flourishes globally, but its seeds were sown in North America. As José Limón notes in his essay An American Accent, “An American idiom is needed to say what cannot be said within the vocabulary of European dance. This idiom, created by generations of American artists, is in essence non-academic; in principle, experimental; in practice, eclectic and inclusive.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, ballet seemed to have reached a period of stagnation, and American artists, frustrated with the status quo available to them, began to create something different. Interestingly enough, one of the first recognized modern dancers, Loie Fuller, was not a trained dancer in any way. Much of Fuller’s work centered around moving large swaths of fabrics around her body and the stage. Her translucent costumes and bare feet shocked audiences used to pointe shoes and tutus, but still managed to capture the public imagination in both Europe and the Americas.

Modern dancer Loie Fuller
One of the first recognized modern dancers, Loie Fuller, was not a trained dancer in any way.

Other grandmothers of modern dance, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, were introduced to ballet at an early age and subsequently rejected it, professing a greater interest in creating and curating their own artistic sensibilities. Duncan became renowned for her spontaneity and free-flowing movement, drawing inspiration from nature. St. Denis, on the other hand, was more interested in what other cultures might have to offer, often drawing inspiration from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. As an aside, it bears remembering that though St. Denis came from a different time, her portrayal of non-European cultures is problematic and comes from an appropriative place rather than a place of true appreciation and understanding. As Rebecca Fitton notes in her thoughtful piece, “Retiring Ruth St. Denis,” “St. Denis’ work is orientalism–a stereotypical and racist representation of Asian cultures that is referential to colonial perspectives. It is painful to bear witness to her work without an acknowledgment of these facts.”

For good or ill, it is from Fuller, Duncan, and St. Denis that many of the artists recognized as the founders of modern dance sprouted. Both Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey studied at the Denishawn School–a performing arts institution founded and operated by Ruth St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn. Modern dancers were encouraged to explore their personal movement inclinations, dance in freeing clothing, and shun shoes. Rather than exploring fairy tales and fanciful stories like the great works of ballet, modern dance performances were often focused on deeper emotions and psychological experiences, using breath, contraction and release, and fall and recovery as methods to physically tell a story. This was a far cry from the pantomime and delicate movement sensibilities of Europe’s ballet étoiles.

Additionally, whereas ballet drew from the various cultures of Europe, American modern dance was influenced by Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous cultures and movement languages. Katherine Dunham, a dancer and anthropologist, conducted research in Haiti and integrated her findings into her choreography, creating a unique fusion of African and Caribbean movement styles. The Dunham Technique, a dance training method she developed, is renowned for its emphasis on isolations, polyrhythmic movements, and a holistic approach to dance education. Her company, the Katherine Dunham Company, toured nationally and internationally as the first self-supporting all-Black modern dance company in the United States.

José Limón, a Mexican-American dancer and choreographer, initially studied under Martha Graham before moving on to form the José Limón Dance Company. His work and technique were an amalgamation of all of his heritage: Indigenous, Spanish, and American, showcasing the degree to which modern dance was available to blend and blur the lines between dance styles. As Donald McKayle notes in his work The Act of Theatre, “One’s cultural heritage serves to flavor one’s work, and the groups that are segregated socially, politically, and economically from the body of society tend to keep their cultural identity strongly intact, most often giving the national culture its mark of uniqueness… One cannot help but be moved by these forces, no matter what one’s birthright, and they become national and international treasures, for art knows no boundaries”

The origins of modern dance have their roots firmly planted in a rebellion against the art form of ballet and much of what it represented.

Modern dance, it seems, could have only arisen in the United States. Both the positive and negative features of the country’s history shaped the creation of a unique art form that was initially a complete deviation from balletic sensibilities. In recent years, the codification and preservation of the techniques and works of Graham, Horton, Limón, Cunningham, and more begs the question, has modern dance become what it sought to rebel against? Modern dancer Anna Sokolow highlighted this problem in her essay from the 1960s entitled The Rebel and The Bourgeois: “The trouble with modern dance now is that it is trying to be respectable. The founders of modern dance were rebels; their followers are bourgeois…The modern dance should be non-conformist. We should not try to create tradition. The ballet has done that, and that’s fine–for the ballet. But not for us. Our strength lies in our lack of tradition.”

What the future holds for either art form is anyone’s guess, and it certainly isn’t necessary to cling to outdated definitions and strict labels that do not serve today’s dance artists. Many dancers, especially those who go through a university program in the United States, are trained in both ballet and modern dance and expect to utilize both disciplines throughout their careers. So in an age where all dance disciplines are borrowed from and utilized in many different ways, it is still useful to remember their origins and cultural heritage. Dance, one of the oldest forms of human expression, remains a societal artifact that can display a culture’s hopes, dreams, fears, and ills. 

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