modern dance

modern dance
   The wide spectrum of modern and postmodern dance on offer in the UK at the end of the twentieth century had its genesis in the 1960s, when small groups of people dissatisfied with ballet began to look for a new way of moving, a new aesthetic, and new choreography more in tune with the contemporary climate. In 1963, the English philanthropist Robin Howard paid for a few British dancers to study at Martha Graham’s school in New York. Howard had been captivated by Graham’s modern dance company during its UK performances that year, and in 1954. He subsequently set up the Contemporary Dance Trust, which established the London School of Contemporary Dance (LSCD), founded London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT), and opened The Place Theatre as a base for both. Led by Robert Cohan, a dancer from Graham’s company, LCDT initially performed her work as well as Cohan’s.
   Concurrently, in 1966 the Ballet Rambert took the bold move of dropping its ballet repertory and embracing a new dance genre. Assistant director Norman Morrice, whose idea this was, modelled the scaled-down company on Nederlands Dans Theater’s melding of balletic and modern techniques and invited Glen Tetley, an American choreographer working in this vein, to stage several pieces. Dancers were encouraged to choreograph, and the new repertory included work by Morrice, Christopher Bruce and John Chesworth, among others. The 1970s saw the increasing acceptance and popularity of ‘contemporary dance’ among audiences, as well as reactions to it from dancers and choreographers who rejected the Graham technique and the move to the mainstream. In 1972, Richard Alston, a former LSCD student and occasional LCDT choreographer, formed his own company, Strider, which embraced different American techniques (Cunningham and release) and a low-key, formalist aesthetic. More radical departures were taken by the X6 Collective (for example, Jacky Lansley, Fergus Early and Emilyn Claid), who presented political works, and Rosemary Butcher, whose non-technical, non-theatrical movement reflected her studies with New York’s Judson Church choreographers. Many of her dancers (such as Gaby Agis, Maedée Duprès, Sue MacLennan and Miranda Tufnell) later choreographed. Most of these alternative practitioners— who were grouped under the label ‘new dance’ — had contact with Mary Fulkerson, the American invited to head the Dartington College of Arts dance programme in 1973 and who introduced release technique and contact improvisation to Britain. In the mid-1970s, Chesworth took over Rambert’s directorship, with Bruce as associate director and primary choreographer. At LCDT, while Cohan’s work sustained the repertory, several dancers emerged as choreographers; two of these, Siobhan Davies and Robert North, were appointed associate choreographers in 1974.
   In the late 1970s, festivals sprang up to showcase the range of dance, particularly ‘new dance’, being practised in the UK. The Dartington and ADMA festivals provided workshops as well as performances. Dance Umbrella, established by the Arts Council in 1978 (and still running), presented professional companies from the UK and abroad. By 1980, Cohan began talking of easing out of LCDT, resulting in a triumvirate directorship of himself, the company administrator, and first North and then Davies as the resident choreographer. North’s tenure was short, as he was appointed director of Ballet Rambert in 1981; here his work joined that of Bruce and Alston as mainstays of the repertory.
   Alston, meanwhile, was also making dances for Second Stride, formed in 1982 by Davies and Ian Spink (who eventually became the sole director). Spink’s increasingly theatre-based, collaborative pieces were partially influenced by the German dance theatre of Pina Bausch, indicative of the European influences that began to be felt in British dance in the 1980s. Other new voices emerged in this decade. Michael Clark, dubbed the ‘bad boy’ of British dance, went for shock value, employing cross-dressing, outrageous costumes, fascist imagery and a live punk band. Janet Smith, with her witty, fluid pieces, chose accessibility. As director of Extemporary Dance Theatre, Emilyn Claid brought ‘new dance’ practices to mainstream audiences. Laurie Booth combined improvisation, release and contact work. Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre explored relationships and sexuality in powerful pieces that drew on the performers’ experiences. Yolande Snaith examined women’s issues in increasingly surreal narratives. Postmodernist strategies were prevalent in the work of Lea Anderson, who formed the all-women group the Cholmondeleys in 1984 and later the all-male troupe the Featherstonehaughs.
   The breadth and variety of dance in the 1990s defies generalization. Old labels no longer seem exact; new labels have not come to prominence (and debates rage over the term ‘postmodern’). Named movement techniques have evolved, moulded to individuals’ needs; new, unnamed ways of moving have emerged. Dance’s boundaries with theatre and ‘performance’ have blurred. Because of the nature of public funding, few companies operate full-time and most choreographers work on a project basis, pulling together the money and the dancers to make a piece and tour it for a few months.
   Several choreographers from the 1970s are still thriving. In 1986, Alston took over at Rambert, changing its name to Rambert Dance Company and bringing in a marked Cunningham flavour. But by the early 1990s, the board, questioning the audience appeal of his formalist work, replaced him with Bruce, who reintroduced accessible choreography. Alston was then invited to establish a new resident company at The Place, in the wake of LCDT’s demise (in 1994). Davies, meanwhile, was associate choreographer of Alston’s Rambert while leading her own company, through which she has explored the expressiveness of release technique. Their contemporary, Rosemary Butcher, has continued her minimalist work independently, holding a retrospective of twenty years’ output in 1996.
   Most choreographers from the 1980s are still going strong, joined by newcomers too numerous to mention. Shobana Jeyasingh fuses a classical Indian dance technique and modern British choreographic principles. Matthew Bourne’s Adventures in Motion Pictures has made a speciality of reworking of the ballet classics in modern dance. Jonathan Burrows, Matthew Hawkins and Russell Maliphant have left behind their ballet training to explore new movement vocabularies. CandoCo explores the choreographic possibilities of using both dancers in wheelchairs and more traditional dancing bodies. Nigel Charnock and Javier de Frutos are interested in gay themes and icons. Fergus Early’s Green Candle Dance Company is representative of the community and educational dance arena. The list of small-scale companies and independent choreographers is extensive, and growing.
   See also: ballet; RADA
   Further reading
    Clarke, M. and Crisp, C. (1989) London Contemporary Dance Theatre: The First 21 Years, London: Dance Books.
    Jordan, S. (1992) Striding Out: Aspects of Contemporary and New Dance in Britain, London: Dance Books.
    Mackrell, J. (1992) Out of Line: The Story of British New Dance, London: Dance Books.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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