Modern Dance Traditions

Today the term "modern dance" is commonly used as an umbrella covering a broad range of movement traditions and techniques, some as established and codified as those of ballet. But in the early 20th century, practitioners of "modern" dance were specifically reacting against ballet’s rigid aesthetic rules. At that time classical ballet emphasized lightness and elevation, its sylphs and princesses posing on pointe to reach for the sky. Pioneers of modern dance like Isadora Duncan danced barefoot, embodying expressive freedom through simple skips and leaps. Later, Martha Graham’s severe, angular style was a stark rebuke of ballet’s romantic ideal of feminine beauty.

Graham’s contemporary, Doris Humphrey, was another pioneering modernist. Born and raised in Oak Park, she studied under Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn before rejecting their exotic aesthetic for her own powerful expressive vision. Her dances were based on the principle of fall and recovery, in which drama is created by the tension between gravity and the body in motion. Humphrey was inspired by nature, myth, Freudian psychology, and by the German Expressionist artists of the 1920s and ’30s. Her iconic "Life of the Bee" featured dancers scuttling sideways across the stage, knees and elbows akimbo; the piece climaxes with the killing of one "queen bee" by another.

Around the same time, Katherine Dunham, was taking dance in a different direction. As a student at the University of Chicago, Dunham was fascinated by the popular dance traditions of the African American community, and turned an ethnographic eye on the origins of the Lindy Hop and the Black Bottom Dance. She won a fellowship to study black dance in the Caribbean, but later abandoned academic work for a career on Broadway, in Hollywood, and with her own Katherine Dunham Company. Her trailblazing Dunham Technique fused jazz and popular dance forms with Afro-Caribbean dance traditions to create a distinctively modern movement vocabulary built around a flexible torso and spine and articulated pelvis and limbs.

Humphrey, Dunham, and other idiosy ncratic visionaries like maverick dancer Sybil Shearer—whose home and studio in Northbrook, Illinois, is now maintained as an artists’ retreat—laid the foundation for the vital and creative modern dance scene that has thrived in Chicago since the mid-20th century. Shirley Mordine, one of the scene’s prime movers, moved to town in 1969 to found the Dance Center of Columbia College. Under her direction the Dance Center developed into a force in modern dance education, with a diverse training program and a performance series that draws world-class modern companies from around the world. Her own critically acclaimed company, Mordine and Company Dance Theater, presents dramatic, innovative modern work grounded in technically sophisticated movement emanating, like Dunham’s, from the spine and torso.

Another godmother of Chicago dance, Nana Shineflug, founded the Chicago Moving Company in 1972, and it remains one of the city’s most popular, and idiosyncratic, modern troupes. Shineflug’s choreography fuses powerful modern dance technique with movement inspired by yoga, mathematics, and Far Eastern culture and religion. CMC also hosts the annual Other Dance Festival, a three-week performance showcase for some of the city’s best and most innovative modern dance artists.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago carries on the vernacular tradition of Katherine Dunham with a high-powered, athletic hybrid of ballet, jazz, and modern. Thodos Dance Chicago performs lyrical modern work by artistic director Melissa Thodos as well as eclectic work by Broadway choreographer Ann Reinking, Chicago Dancing Festival creator Lar Lubovitch, and others. And the expressive tradition of early American modern dance lives on in the work of Oak Park-based Momenta Dance Theatre, which presents historical work by the giants of the day—Duncan, St. Denis, Humphrey, and Graham among them.

Chicago is also home to several institutions that bring touring companies to town on a regular basis. In addition to the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Harris Theater both present an impressive range of modern dance. Recent years have seen performances by high-level artists such as Mark Morris Dance Company, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the Martha Graham Dance Company, and more. And the monthlong Dance Chicago festival brings a multidisciplinary array of talent to numerous Chicago venues each year, presenting international stars side by side with Chicago artists embodying the best of the city’s modern dance past, present, and future.