Jody Sperling - Time Lapse DanceJody Sperling is a dancer, choreographer and dance scholar. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Time Lapse Dance. This is Jody's blog.
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Archive for May, 2010

What is Modern Dance? Thoughts on trip to Lagos, Part II

While I was in Lagos, someone asked me what is the difference between “modern dance” and “jazz.” Generally, the dancers I met in Nigeria (see “Trip to Lagos, Part I”) had very little exposure to modern dance and were curious, what exactly is this thing. I really thought long and hard about how best to define something which can mean so many different things to so many different people. And I still don’t have a pithy answer.

I don’t think you can grasp the differences between the genres without understanding their historical trajectories. My initial answer was that Jazz is a style of dancing. It’s African-American in origin and has a certain range of movements. It’s usually performed to certain kinds of music (jazz, pop, rock, musical theater, etc.). And, while it can take diverse forms and has evolved over the past century, it has a recognizable character.

Modern dance, I said, is a broader category (although I’m not sure I still agree with that). I tried to give a nutshell of American modern dance history. I sketched out the “family tree” of modern dance, jotting down on a piece of paper a bunch of names: Loie Fuller (my muse), Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Denishawn, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Judson, etc.. Ok, boiling it down to pop quiz points: Graham – “contraction & release”; Humphrey-Limon – “fall & recovery”; Cunningham/Cage – “chance procedure”.

But all these names and bullet points were pretty meaningless to someone without an historical context. While the term “modern dance” can be understood as applying to distinct techniques arising in 20th century, today it can refer to almost any form of movement, any technique. What it implies is an ethos of experimentation and a concert orientation (as opposed to other, more “popular” forms of presentation).

The history of modern dance is one of continual innovation and rejection of what came before. So naturally that accounts for some of the difficulty in classifying it. And yet, for all the supposed generational innovation, there is also much tradition preserved in the array of modern techniques practiced today. I think this sense of heritage is important to the form, perhaps as much so as its perpetual renewal.

Any definition is reductive, but you have to try to explain things. The myriad dance forms that exist today often have separate origins with trajectories that may overlap, converge or diverge as time and fashions pass.

Appropriately a week after visiting Lagos I found myself in Virginia on a program tribute to the three muses of early modern dance (Fuller, Duncan & St. Denis). More on that in the next post!

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Trip to Lagos, Part I

I just got back from Lagos, Nigeria where I had a residency to teach and perform at the Society of Performing Arts in Nigeria (SPAN). During my stay, I taught two master classes at the studio, worked with four SPAN dancers on flag dancing and performed a solo at the Lebanese Women’s Society gala.

SPAN was founded by Sarah Boulos who is a passionate dance fan and advocate for the arts. Right now the physical complex consists of two small dance studios occupying the former offices of a real estate developer. But Sarah has ambitious plans to expand the center into a complex including an amphitheater, studios, classrooms, dormitories, a cafeteria, gardens and a library. The students take classes in hip-hop, Latin, contemporary (African) dance, jazz and ballet (Russian style, with a former Vaganova Academy teacher). They have little or no exposure to “modern” dance. It’s a special experience to teach people who are so eager to learn what you have to offer and who have no pre-conception about what you’re going to do.

My master classes incorporated the use of fabric, derived from my Loie Fuller-style work. The concept behind the fabric work is about tuning into energetic forces. Simply by standing, you displace air. When you move, you cause rippling currents to emanate from your body. A silk scarf can make these swirling vortices visible. By seeing and becoming aware of such forces, you can begin to control the impact you have in the space, literally. The dancers took to the fabric immediately and improvised with fluid invention. Slim, a tall lanky fellow, moved in an especially captivating way with his scarf, drawing on his training in capoeira.

Above are some photos from the classes. More thoughts to follow.

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