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Modern Dance and Its American Roots [1900-1930] From Free Dance to Modern Dance

Maison de la Danse de Lyon 2020 - Director : Plasson, Fabien

Choreographer(s) : Duncan, Isadora (United States) Fuller, Loïe (United States) Saint Denis, Ruth (United States) Shawn, Ted (United States) Graham, Martha (United States)

en fr


Duncan, Isadora (France)


Loïe Fuller - la danse des couleurs

Fuller, Loïe (France)


Etude Révolutionnaire

Duncan, Isadora (France)


East Indian Nautch Dance

Saint Denis, Ruth (United States)


Spear dance japonesque

Shawn, Ted (France)


Appalachian Spring

Graham, Martha (United States)

Modern Dance and Its American Roots [1900-1930] From Free Dance to Modern Dance

Maison de la Danse de Lyon 2020 - Director : Plasson, Fabien

Choreographer(s) : Duncan, Isadora (United States) Fuller, Loïe (United States) Saint Denis, Ruth (United States) Shawn, Ted (United States) Graham, Martha (United States)

Author : Céline Roux

en fr


Research in free dance started by seeking to free the body, soul and thoughts. Rediscovering a "naturel" in an industrialised society. Nature, antiquity and the Orient are the "other”, a universal that dance draws on to offer the dancer happiness and a meaning of life. Mainly carried by women, who are both choreographers and performers of their own works, free dance can trace its roots back to several different cultural influences. To the cabaret with skirt dancesor Eastern dance numbers, the gymnastics culture developed in America at the end of the 19th century and finally the ideas of the Frenchman François Delsarte which were widely known across the Atlantic, The language of gestures, according“ is the most direct expression of the soul”. Modern dance embodied the essence of this from the very beginning - to express the profound being.  


Narcissus, Isadora Duncan (1905, transmission from Elisabeth Schwartz tp François Chaignaud, 2015) 

Narcissus, created around 1905, is dedicated to the mythological character and the nature that bewitched him - the water in which his image was reflected. A Chopin waltz is chosen for this solo and the rhythm of the dance combines the musical score and the natural rhythm of breathing.   
Considered the "Mother of Modern Dance", Isadora Duncan sought a free body that draws its vital energy from the solar plexus. Nothing must hinder the movement, neither in the body nor in the stage direction. On the other hand, she was steadfast to antiquity as a model and to nature as a vital essence.
Interpretations range from Elizabeth Schwartz to François Chaignaud. We can find the characteristics of Duncanian music in these numerous homages: the movements develop according to a continuous and uninterrupted flow in a space-dynamic alternation between heaven and earth,flowing between tension and relaxation, between opening and closing the body. The spirals and the ascending and descending movements are reminiscent of the postures of classical statues. Movement circulates through the body like the lapping on waves on a beach.

Loïe Fuller, Danse des couleurs, Brygida Ochaim (1988)

Brygida Ochaim brings Loïe Fuller's research back to life. Using Claude Debussy's Sirènes and Judith Barry’s light creation, she shares with us the fruit of her study on the Electric Fairy who illuminated and captivated the beginning of the 20th century in both Europe and the United States.
What we immediately notice is that the important thing is not the shape of the body's movement but the dynamics of the movement that flows though the fabric the dancer makes undulate, vibrate, whirl with the help of two long sticks held in her hands. The dance is vibration and the dancer "throws into the space  waves of visual music" conjuring up a captivating abstraction of the senses and the universality of nature. 

The body appears or dissolves in the dark of stage. Only the fabric metamorphoses: Water, wind, fire, clouds, flowers, birds, butterflies appear according to the vibrations. The stage, whether theatre or cabaret, is a laboratory for experimenting with the fusion of movement, music, light and colour. Through this alchemy of modern technology and the search for a symbiosis with nature, Fuller broke down the barriers between popular art and cultured art. And that too is modern!
Etude révolutionnaire, Isadora Duncan (1921, transmission from Elisabeth Schwartz to Valérie Ferrando / Ballet de Lorraine, 2005) 

In the early 1920s, Isadora Duncan arrived in Moscow to start a school in search of a revolutionary dream that was more than a mere just and egalitarian life. Confronted with a reality far from the ideals of the 1917 Revolution, she created 3 dances to share her impressions.  Revolutionary Study is far removed from the lightness and joy often emanating from Duncanian dances.   
She embodied the workers in Scriabin's Etude pathétique : Those who pick up, press, push, those who do repetitive work gestures and also gestures of struggle: closed fists, pounding the ground, cries coming from the throat. The body is strong, dense, determined, defending the proletarian cause in the face of adversity.

 East Indian Nautch Dance, Ruth Saint Denis (1906, film from 1944) 

1944: Ruth Saint Denis is over 60 years old and offers to posterity this film of her famous 1906East Indian Nautch Dance. For more than 4 decades she had been taking inspiration from the philosophy and poetry of Indian dances in search of a modern and spiritual dance. Radha, , The Cobra, The Incense, Nautch Danceare some of the many solos which toured Europe in as early as 1906 and promoted his work beyond just New York.
To the sound of Indian bells and rhythms and bathed in the smell of incense, the work of repeated undulations and twirls as well as the stylization of hands and the work of the eyes in reference to the mudras are inspired by thedevadasis, the sacred dancers of the temples in South India. From 1915, with her husband Ted Shawn, she shared this mystical vision of dance in the 1st American modern dance school, the Denishawn School. Based in Los Angeles, the company toured India in 1926.

Spear Dance japonesque, Ted Shawn (1919)

Ted Shawn advocated for a male dance filled with the Delsarte’s thories and Eastern culture. In this very popular solo that he went on to dance his whole life, he strived to invent a dance that deployed the physicality of martial training and the format of Japanese dance dramas.

Equipped with a spear, this made the suggestion that a fight was happening against an invisible enemy. This fight is also one of the male dance in an America that associates dance with femininity. Supported by Louis Horst's musical arrangement, this solo is a Western adaptation of the spirit of Japanese dances.
Tonic variations, mobilisation of the whole body, intense muscle control, andintroduction of a fan dance invokes further images... With Ted Shawn, the modern dancer was born exposing virility, expression and emotions in a wide sensitive range.

Appalachian spring, Martha Graham (1944, captation from 1958, Martha Graham company)

At the end of the 1920s, a first generation of dancers left the Denishawn School determined to create from their own style, Modern Dance was born! Martha Graham would be one of its representatives. Appalachian Spring is an example of the dramatic piece  - a modern piece where the narrative that emerges develops the power of human emotions and tragedies. The work sets the drama in a Protestant community in Pennsylvania and recalls the pioneering spirit of the 19th century: a couple, a pioneer woman, a pastor and his female congregation seek to build their future of their faith. The culture of the Shakers is present both in the scenography of Isamu Noguchique and in the music of Aaron Copland.
This 1958 recording exposes the power of the dancing body, drawing its strength from the lower abdomen, from the contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor, a source of pathos and of impulses. Brimming with ideas from psychoanalysis, Grahamd drew from the body a dramatic power necessary for the expression of Emotion, with a capital E.


Holder of a doctorate in the history of art, Céline Roux is an independent researcher. Specialising in the performative practices of the French choreographic field, she is in particular the author of Danse(s) performative(s) (L’Harmattan, 2007) and Pratiques performatives / Corps critiques # 1-10 (2007-2016) (L’Harmattan, 2016). A lecturer, trainer and teacher, she works in a variety of higher education contexts as well as coaching dancers. She also collaborates in the artistic projects of contemporary dancers-choreographers, whether for artist archives, the production of critical texts and editorial projects or dramaturgic coaching. She has contributed to a number of digital projects for the sharing of choreographic culture such as Alongside her activities in/for/around choreographic art, she has practiced hatha yoga in France and in India for several years.


Excerpts selection

Céline Roux 

Text and bibliography selection

Céline Roux 


Maison de la Danse

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