Contemporary Dance as Modernist Art

Keywords: modernism, art, dance, Clement Greenberg, George Balanchine, Vaclav Nijinsky, August Bournonville; Martha Graham, Trisha Brown


Dance has a very broad spectrum of styles and uses. In this paper, I consider dance as a kind of art performance, which uses the body as its distinctive medium. My focus is on which dance genres best realize the ambition of treating the body as its central medium.

My central claim is that contemporary dance radically breaks away from the other forms of dance and makes ordinary movements visible. In this respect, I also argue, only contemporary dance is fully modernist, in something like Clement Greenberg’s sense: it makes explicit the medium-specific essence of dance as an artform, doing what only dance can do—revealing the body in movement. To be sure, other forms of dance, from classical to modern, also use the body in their performances; however, I argue that only contemporary dance draws self-consciously on the embodied nature of the dancer in a modernist sense. If the artistic medium of dance – the body in movement—has inherent aesthetic qualities, then the job of dance aesthetics is to provide a framework for clarifying the medium-specific elements and limits of dance.

My overall argument has two steps. I first clarify the notion of modernism. Second, I argue that for dance to be a modernist art, it must consider the moving body as an art in itself. To support this idea, I offer a reading of the history of dance, which shows that its developments and revolutions successively refine the appreciation of bodily movement alone as the focus of its practice. As I will show, this development culminates with contemporary dance.


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