Approaches to Movement Creation (excerpt)


By Sarah Hixon

There is no limit to the number of ways that an artist can create.  Be it music, sculpture, literature, or dance, the process and “raw materials” of creating will largely be reflected in the work produced.  This is especially true for modern dance, a genre that has often been accused of having no codified vocabulary or standard repertory, leading to “self-indulgent” or “haphazard” works that spring from the whims of the individual creator.  Certainly, this accusation holds little weight when one examines the highly intellectual and systematic methods which modern dancers over the past century have developed, but it does point to the enormous variety of methods and styles that modern dance has engendered.  The freedom to explore the very process of art-making which modern dance championed in the 20th century has also influenced other dance styles, most specifically ballet.  While the approaches to creating and developing movement are as numerous and idiosyncratic as the number of working artists, there have been major trends throughout the last century.  This paper will examine several of these methods to approaching movement creation and development, though it is by no means a complete list.  It is also important to remember that the categorization of artists into one specific method is impossible, and artists often explore many different approaches to creating movement throughout their careers.

Idiosyncratic Body-Centered Movement


When dance artists began to feel that ballet no longer had the power to express aspects of the world around them or the human condition, they began to develop new styles of movement to fit their needs.  These early forays into movement experimentation were focused on the physical and visceral experience of the artist’s body.  Dancers began to search for a personal movement style that would provide them with the necessary tools for expression.  This idiosyncratic body-based movement development saw its height in Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham.


Both Humphrey and Graham’s early dance and performance training had been highly influenced by the theories of François Delsarte and Émile Jaques-Dalcroze.  Delsarte, at one time an opera singer, was interested in enhancing performance through gesture and bearing.  His theories taught that every human gesture had some kind of emotional significance (Cohen 118).  Movement, he believed, was the outward manifestation of inner feelings (Anderson 168).  Dalcroze, a Swiss music educator who also studied Delsartean principles, developed a system of musical training based on the basic elements of rhythm, dynamics, and form.  The primary stage of learning, called Eurhythmics, trained the body in rhythm and dynamic exercises (Thomas).  With these principles of movement as an impetus, Humphrey and Graham began to explore movement possibilities on their own bodies.


Doris Humphrey, at one time a member of the Denishawn company, felt that it was necessary to truly discover the movement of her own body.  In speaking about her years performing with Denishawn, she said,“I felt as if I were dancing as everyone but myself.  I knew something about how the Japanese moved, how the Chinese or Spanish moved, but I didn’t know how I moved” (Mazo 117).  Humphrey eventually developed a specific technique for her company that fit the aesthetic of her stage compositions.  Based on the Delsartean principles of tension and relaxation, she recognized all movement as related to falling and recovering (Jowitt 161).  She developed exercises that refined her ideas about the basic fundamentals of movement such as weight shifting, falling, walking, running, leaping, and jumping.  Out of these explorations she developed compositional “studies” in form, rhythmic variation, oppositional versus successive movements, and literal falling and recovering (Stodelle 6).  These exercises and studies were taught to her students and company members, giving them a common lexicon of physical experience designed to support her choreographic ideas.  Humphrey was interested in these studies as explorations of “pure” movement.  She wrote that “Because [natural movements] sprang so truly and psychologically from physical life, they were emotionally stirring even without a program.  This characteristic led me to compose a number of dance studies and even dance compositions entirely without a dramatic idea” (Stodelle 6).  The thought of creating work without a narrative structure was a radical one for the dance world of the 1930s.


The underlying movement principle of Humphrey’s technique, falling and recovering, was not, however, solely discovered through pure movement exploration.  Also influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Humphrey found the interplay of polar opposites significant for the creation of dynamic work.  Fascinated by Nietzsche’s idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies at work in human psychology, Humphrey applied this idea to her philosophy of movement.  She analyzed movement to be the “arc between two deaths,” death being at one end perfectly balanced static and at the other end, wild off-balance dynamism (Stodelle 15).  Such psychological or philosophical overtones were an important aspect of Humphrey’s movement theories, which she intended to ultimately be used as a tool for expression.  Humphrey’s technique had two goals: to train dancers in a specific style of movement, and to promote the experiential understanding of her principles to lead to creative expression (Stodelle 18).


Martha Graham, like her contemporary Humphrey, also developed through her own body a style of movement largely based on Delsartean principles.  However, in her case the dichotomy between tension and relaxation was made manifest in the “contraction and release.”  Breathing, an essential human action, became the basis for Graham’s exploration.  She saw the fundamental action of the torso expanding and contracting alternately as a source of deepest expression (Mazo 195).  Also in direct defiance of the ballet d’ecole style, Graham’s technique was based on floor work.  This created an earthy and heavy quality of movement that worked in tandem with gravity’s pull on the body, rather than giving the impression of defying it as in ballet (Mazo 156-157).  Movements tended to be sharp and staccato, initiated by a clear impulse.  This controlled strength matched the angular sharp lines and shapes so prominent in her work.  In an attempt to capture the essence of modern life at that time, she said in 1929, “Life today is nervous, sharp and zigzag.  It often stops in midair.  That is what I aim for in my dances” (Mazo 160).  This view of modern life was embodied through her technique.


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