Halloween is here, and many enjoy October as a month to celebrate all things spooky, wacky, and weird. Maybe you partake in that Halloween spirit, or maybe you’re more focused on getting your Nutcracker variations down.

Either way, you might not see dance and Halloween as related. To the contrary, many works of the 20th century’s modern dance choreographers are spooky dances – incorporating scary, unpredictable, and zany elements. Let’s look at five examples of such works from dance history: their contexts, their origins, their aesthetics, and more.

Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring (1918, The Ballet Russes)

This seminal work, from composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Nijinsky, was so provocative for its time that its premiere literally caused a riot; Parisian theatergoers of the era weren’t quite ready for the unconventional movement quality and daring choices in design and score – so much so that the police had to be summoned for crowd control.

The work told a story of pagan ritual sacrifice, in Nijinsky’s vision of prehistoric Slavic peoples. Such imagery and narratives of Pagan peoples are the basis of our modern conceptions of witches, warlocks, and other mysterious, frightening creatures – the fodder of Halloween as we know it!

Distinct choices in the work supported these qualities. Arms were angular rather than circular, dancers faced in profile or frontally, and neutral or inward rotation was common. Everything was earthy, raw, and arguably grating to the senses. Dance scholar Lincoln Kerstein noted of Stravinsky’s score: “every law of musical syntax, every canon of harmony seems to have been violated, every limit rhythmic perversity and eccentricity of orchestration exceeded in this tumultuous cataclysm of sound,” (1).  

Many works of the 20th century’s modern dance choreographers are spooky dances – incorporating scary, unpredictable, and zany elements.

If nothing else, the work was ahead of its time. Nijinsky’s grounded, percussive, and wholly inventive movement vocabulary – as well as Stravinsky’s score and Nicholas Roerich’s design – made Rite of Spring a work that could have come out of the twenty-first century, rather than 1913.

Despite the fact that the work only ran for eight performances, its influence on concert dance made it “nothing less than a watershed,” argue dance scholars Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick; “by pushing his vocabulary beyond the limitations imposed by four centuries of academic tradition and by enlarging the possibilities of what could be shown in dance onstage, Nijinsky paved the way for virtually all the modern dance developments of the twentieth century,” (2).

Martha Graham’s Lamentation (1930)

This early work of Graham’s demonstrated her influence in Audstruckdanz, German expressionistic dance of the early 20th century. It also illustrated the burgeoning of her unique technique as a modern dance choreographer: with characteristics including contract and release with the exhale and inhale, flexed feet, and angular rather than rounded arms. Lamentation was part of a group of “self-revelatory” solos that Graham made around this time, which she called “dances of possession,” (3).

Martha Graham in Lamentation
Martha Graham in Lamentation, No. 4 - source: Library of Congress

Wrapped in a single piece of long, cylindrical fabric, only her face, throat, hands, and feet were visible. Struggling against the inward pull of the elastic fabric as she moved, she embodied a poignant sense of constraint – and a persistent push against that constraint. Lighting made this sense of restraint all the more evocative, and even magnified meaning; Reynolds and McCormick describe how “as she moved [through Lamentation], modulations of light and shadow dramatized the tensions and sculptural forms of the distended costume, magnifying grief to universal proportions,” (4).

That’s at one level quite spooky, but at another, deep and resonant: getting at our deepest thoughts, feelings, and fears about personal agency and safety, the place of struggle within human existence, and even our own mortality. That’s all arguably true of Halloween itself!

Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932): Ballet Jooss

That landscape of existential fears, power and agency, and struggles within (and between) us also permeated this work. Influenced by Michel Fokine, modern dance choreographer Kurt Jooss was interested in the expression possible within movement – and how that can carry a narrative forward. In The Green Table, against the backdrop of World War I’s decimation of Europe and forces brewing that would lead to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Jooss created a “memorable indictment on the inhumanity of war,” (5).

Six separate scenes portrayed soldiers preparing for the battlefield (enlisting, training, traveling) and then mired in combat. Throughout these scenes, an ominous character represented Death – always lurking and treatenting in a context of war. Again we see imagery that’s pervaded collective imagination, particularly around Halloween: the Grim Reaper, anyone?

Arguably, the most well-known scene in the work is an epilogue of a group of ten dancers, dancing around a green table, wearing dark suits and white masks: faceless, archetypal, foreboding. They “mimed the verbiage that is stock and trade of politicians and diplomats.” Jooss later described these figures as “armament manufacturers, high financiers…the powers which gain in a war…which, in the end, through their machinations, cause a war,” (6).

Artifact calls us to experience something that defies expectations. Just like Halloween, it also flouts borders and binaries.

William Forsythe’s Artifact (1984)

“Step inside” said a woman in period dress and large wig, at the beginning of this work – like a witch-figure inviting mere mortals into a haunted house (or towards her cauldron: dubble, bubble, toil and trouble!). Below her, popping out from under the stage was something akin to a witch’s familiar, but in open brightness rather than surreptitious darkness: bathed in a blinding white, opening arms wide and heart to the sky.

In another reversal of a spooky dance trend, throughout the work a man walked around speaking mysterious words and phrases into a microphone – rather than whispering such things from a hidden place, like something furtive in the night. In a memorable section, dancers are silhouetted in black against a white background: clear rather than hidden, yet still cryptic.

Overall, Artifact calls us to experience something that defies expectations. Just like Halloween, it also flouts borders and binaries – the world of the living and the dead, the familiar and what lies in the shadows, coming together. By the time the 2018 third act hit the stage, with dancers clapping and sing-songing in rhythm for the entire act, we in the audience were ready for anything to come from around the corner – as if we’re making our way through a great haunted house, on alert and maybe even exhilarated.

Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax (1997)

This work is another that flipped our expectations topsy-turvy, with a giant tree hanging from the ceiling by its roots and its leaves falling right above the stage. Shadows from the low lighting fell all across its boughs and branches. That creates further shadows and bathes the dancers in patterns of light and dark – reminiscent of walking in a forest at night (a quintessential Halloween image).

Why this eye-catching set piece? Why does Wings of Wax match the Halloween spirit? In the Greek myth, the youngster Icarus flies too close to the sun – going too far, too fast – and the sun’s heat melts his “wings of wax.” Rather than reaching up to the heavens, the trees’ branches point downwards – if we’re staying in the Greek mythology realm, down to Hades. Icarus believes that he’ll fly high into the sky, with nothing able to bring him down, but instead he’s falling fast to the Earth.

Jiri Kylian's Wings of Wax Performed by the Royal Swedish Opera
The Royal Swedish Ballet in Wings of Wax by Jiří Kylián - photo: Sören Vilks

Movement in the piece was weighted and earthy, creeping and flitting but with limbs lengthened – like how spiders come out to crawl in the silence of night. Dancers stayed in contact as they partnered each other. Like in chilling campfire horror stories, whether benign or harmful, someone’s right behind you. That all goes back to that central idea of Halloween: the meeting of light and dark, rooting and rising, harmony and discord, where those qualities dance and create something new.

That moment after Icarus’s flight, before the fall is imminent, was akin to where youngsters hear ominous noises in the dark (and, if in a film, when we might yell to them “don’t go in there!”). A chill is in the air, and it’s full of uncertainty, but disaster hasn’t struck yet. That’s what calls us to this holiday, and dance history can offer another road into it – if we dare venture down it.

  1. McCormick, Malcolm and Nancy Reynolds. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2003. pp 56.  
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid, pp 148.
  4. Ibid, pp 103.
  5. Ibid, pp 102.

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