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!