20th-Century Dance

Isadora Duncan, sepia-tone photograph postcard, late 19th century

Isadora Duncan, sepia-tone photograph postcard, late 19th century


Isadora Duncan dancing, photograph, late 19th century

Isadora Duncan dancing, photograph, late 19th century


Martha Graham as Jocasta, black and white photograph, mid 20th century

Martha Graham as Jocasta, black and white photograph, mid 20th century


Kurt Jooss, The Green Table, black and white photograph, early 20th century

Kurt Jooss, The Green Table, black and white photograph, early 20th century


Death and the Young Girl, from 'The Green Table', by Kurt Jooss, 1930s to 1950s.

Death and the Young Girl, from 'The Green Table', by Kurt Jooss, 1930s to 1950s.


Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, black and white photograph, late 20th century. Museum no. TM10374/3/22

Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, black and white photograph, late 20th century. Museum no. TM10374/3/22


Adam Cooper as the Swan in Swan Lake for Adventures in Motion Pictures, photograph by Graham Brandon, London, England, 1995. Museum no. TM.10196-6-7A

Adam Cooper as the Swan in Swan Lake for Adventures in Motion Pictures, photograph by Graham Brandon, London, England, 1995. Museum no. TM.10196-6-7A

From the early 20th century, dancers, especially in Germany and America, experimented with freer, more personal ways of moving. They rejected the rigidity of classical ballet. This style of movement is often referred to as ‘modern dance’, a term which encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques.

The first major influence on modern dance in England came from refugee German dancers in the 1930s, particularly Kurt Jooss and Rudolf Laban. Laban’s school in south London, The Laban Centre, has introduced some of the most interesting new dance talents of the last 20 years.

In the second half of the century the inspiration came from America. In 1966 an admirer of Martha Graham’s work, Robin Howard, founded a school based on her technique from which the London Contemporary Dance Theatre evolved. It was the first contemporary dance company in England. Within a year, Ballet Rambert had also transformed into a contemporary dance company and by the end of the 1960s the Royal Ballet was performing modern dance-based works alongside its classical repertoire.

Leaders of the new generation of dancers continue to experiment, taking movement inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris are just two of the major contributors.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)

Foremost among the modern dancers of the 20th century was the American Isadora Duncan, who claimed her intention was to revive the dance of classical Greece, dancing barefoot in Greek draperies on a curtained  stage, and seeking her inspiration directly from the music. Her dancing was personal, emotive and free flowing. Isadora greatly impressed the young Michael Fokine, who incorporated her free arm movements into his ballets.

She once said of one of her dances, 'I created it and can dance it any time, but I cannot explain it.' So her art died with her. She depended on personal inspiration and response to the music, and never developed a formal technique that could be taught. 'I didn't invent dance,' she said. 'It existed before me, but it was sleeping and I woke it up.'

Isadora Duncan broke more than dance traditions. She turned her back on social conventions and her life was filled with broken relationships and tragedy. She lived, at various times, with brilliant, but impoverished theatre designer Edward Gordon Craig, with the wealthy Paris Singer (who inherited the Singer sewing machine fortune), and with Soviet poet Sergei Esenin. Her children drowned when their car plunged into the Seine in Paris. She died in 1928, aged 49, when her long scarf caught in the wheel of the open car she was driving and strangled her.

Martha Graham (1894–1991)

In the 1930s Mary Wigman in Germany and Martha Graham in America devised their own personal movement language to express the psychology and emotion of characters. They found classical ballet too artificial and restrictive.

Modern dance was well established in America long before America had its own ballet companies. Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais all evolved highly individual styles which put America in the forefront of experimental and contemporary dance. The first generation of modern dance companies originally only performed their founder’s works.

Martha Graham is pictured here as Jocasta in her own ballet, Night Journey, created in 1947. In dance, Graham explored character and social or psychological  problems.

She was greatly influenced by her father, a doctor, who taught her to judge people's motives from their movements. She evolved her own technique, based on perfect control and balance of opposing forces – fall/recovery, contraction/release.

In the 1940s many of Graham's works were inspired by the universal themes found in Greek mythology. She also identified with the strong female characters who were heroines of the myths. Night Journey was based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. It did not just retell the story, but explored the harsh and violent emotions that the situation aroused in the characters.

Kurt Jooss (1901–1979)

Kurt Jooss studied music and drama before becoming a pupil of Rudolf Laban. In 1932, while he was in charge of dance at Essen Opera House in Germany, his dance group won an international choreographic competition with his anti-war dance-drama The Green Table.

The opening and closing scenes took place around the green baize covered table at which most diplomatic conferences then took place. The diplomats, masked and puppet-like, 'conferred', the mood varying between rage, misunderstanding, conciliation, provocation, menace and disagreement, ending in a declaration of war.

The second scene showed the effects of war upon individuals, from a soldier to a young mother. Through all stalked the remorseless figure of Death. After the war, the green table and the diplomats returned. The cycle started again. Jooss described the work as 'a choreographic representation of the effects of War'.

The Green Table, like most of Jooss' works, was performed against black velvet curtains, the atmosphere being produced by skilful lighting. The movements were highly stylised, and the whole work showed the influence of German expressionism.

The ballet was a stark warning. In 1934, Jewish-born Jooss and his company fled Germany and took refuge in England. The ballet is still performed and is as powerful and as relevant as ever.

Pina Bausch (1940–2009)

Pina Bausch was one of the major figures in contemporary theatre. As the name of her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, implies, her works are 'dance-theatre' (Tanz is German for dance) not pure dance. While her pieces look random and improvised, they are not.

This photograph is from her 1986 work 'Viktor'. In one sequence of haunting beauty a succession of women dressed in elegant ballgowns swung on gymnastic rings to the accompaniment of the Jerome Kern song 'The Way You Look Tonight'.

Bausch makes no specific statement. She mixes song, dance and speech. Moments of violence are followed by moments of great beauty. Her works are like life in that they seem to be made up of random images and events, following no rational sequence and often appearing to make no sense. Their power lies in the cumulative effect and in what each individual member of the audience brings from his or her own experience. 'Interpretation,' Bausch said, 'always depends on the way you watch, and there is always another way to watch it'.

Dance post 1960

Over the last 40 years the dance scene has changed out of all recognition. In 1930s Britain there were two small ballet companies and a six-week season each year from the Russian ballet. There are now dozens of dance performances throughout Britain every week, from individual performers working at the cutting edge of dance to large-scale traditional ballet companies, from dancers in West End musicals to street dancing. Dance is now part of mainstream education studied from GCSE to university degree course level.

Matthew Bourne, director of Adventures in Motion Pictures, has given Swan Lake a new twist by re-choreographing it with male swans. Lea Anderson’s companies, The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs, explore new subjects and new ways of moving. DV8 Physical Theatre breaks down the barriers between dance, theatre and personal politics. Shobana Jeyasingh fuses British South Asian dance with contemporary forms. Phoenix Dance Company spotlights British Afro-Caribbean dancers.

Visiting companies proliferate. Michael Clark, Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan, Wayne McGregor and Richochet Dance Company, Nigel Charnock, Javier de Frutos, South Asian dance, Black Dance, Jiving Lindy Hoppers, ethnic dance, tap, and jazz dance feature in many musicals… the list goes on and there are far too many performers to mention here.

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22 March – 13 July 2014. Experience the world of William Kent, the most prominent architect and designer in early Georgian Britain and explore how his versatility and artistic inventiveness set the style for his age when Britain defined itself as a new nation and developed an Italian-inspired style.

Visit the V&A exhibition William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain

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