The freedom that Merce Cunningham advocated involved the performer becoming independent mentally, facing himself or herself, and reaching the state of mind of nō, true freedom achieved by overcoming ego.
Cunningham attempted to discipline the dancer’s body and mind in order to attain this ideal state of mind of nō at all the phases of his practical activity, by stipulating an environment where the performer must concentrate on his or her own movement—in particular on two elements, the shape of the movement and the energy that serves as its basis.
Cunningham’s concept of freedom did not stay only within the scope of negative concepts, in which freedom and liberty indicate “free from…”, but also connotes a creative and positive meaning, indicated by the Zen word jiyū (free to…).
This according to “Merce Cunningham’s concept of freedom and its philosophical background” by Sako Haruko, an essay included in Proceedings: Society of Dance History Scholars (Stoughton: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2002, pp. 125–28).
Today would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday! Below, a collaboration with the video artist Nam June Paik.
Having established herself as a leading performer of bharata nāṭyam, by 1960 Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel—professionally known as Chandralekha—felt a need to move beyond the genre’s boundaries and began to pursue ideas about fusing Indian dance traditions with modern idioms.
Chandralekha was a firm believer in the need for resuscitating older forms with contemporary energy, drawing also on martial art and therapeutic traditions. Always a controversial figure, she criticized plastic smiles, fake religiosity, and mindless repetition of mythological themes. A voracious reader, a gifted writer, and a poet, she lived a full life and influenced a whole generation of young dancers.
This according to “Rebel with a cause” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 269 [February 2007] pp. 16–19).
Today would have been Chandralekha’s 90th birthday! Below, a brief documentary about her life and work.
Early in Mary Wigman’s career, her performance works could have been classified as either dance or Expressionist theater. By positioning herself as a dance artist she was able to consolidate power over her creative output in ways that would not have been possible in a less feminized art form.
Wigman’s choices regarding all aspects of her career and creative output were predicated on the practicalities of realizing her primary concern: maintaining creative and financial independence as a female artist. These practical considerations included style, genre, and her relationships to bourgeois culture, the physical culture movement, and the image of the Neue Frau. Her navigation of circumstance in the Weimar era enabled her to successfully negotiate the available opportunities, and therefore to become enshrined as the primary progenitor of Ausdruckstanz.
This according to “Mary Wigman: Expressionist, feminist, theatre artist” by Janet Werther (Studies in musical theatre VIII/3  pp. 261–70). This issue of Studies in musical theatre, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Today is Wigman’s 130th birthday! Above, a 1933 portrait by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; below, excerpts from her iconic Hexentanz.
Charles “Cholly” Atkins was a tap dancing star before the bottom dropped out for the genre in the 1940s.
In 1953 he was hired to coach the Cadillacs on their stage presentation, and he was so successful that he was given a steady job at Motown Records in the early 1960s; he went on to coach and choreograph for their top groups, including The Supremes, The Temptations, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, almost single-handedly keeping much of American vernacular dance alive for a new generation.
This according to “‘Let the punishment fit the crime’: The vocal choreography of Cholly Atkins” by Jacqui Malone (Dance research journal XX/1 [summer 1988] pp. 11–18).
Today is Atkins’s 100th birthday! Below, rehearsing with The Temptations in 1986.
Even as she evoked a utopian vision of classicism, Isadora Duncan was creating a new image of the stage dancer as a noble-spirited woman, bold yet pliant, freely using her imagination and her body as she wished.
Duncan emphasized nature and the connectedness of body and soul, countering the effects of the Industrial Revolution and Victorian prudery; she championed simplicity and organic design in the face of the public’s taste for elaboration in both design and decorum; and she made herself into an emblem of freedom from conventions, particularly those of dance and femininity.
This according to “Images of Isadora: The search for motion” by Deborah Jowitt (Dance research journal XVII–XVIII [fall–spring 1985–86] pp. 21–29. Below, a reconstruction of one of Duncan’s dances.
Related article: St. Denis and Radha
In 2008 Science magazine and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science hosted the first ever Dance Your PhD Contest in Vienna.
Calls for submission to subsequent annual Dance Your PhD contests followed suit, attracting hundreds of entries.
For these contests, practitioners transform their bodies into animating media and conduct body experiments to test their hypotheses. This body-work offers a medium through which they can communicate the nuanced details of their findings among students and colleagues. The Dance Your PhD contests expand and extend what it is possible for scientific researchers to see, say, imagine, and feel.
This according to “Dance Your PhD: Embodied animations, body experiments, and the affective entanglements of life science research” by Natasha Myers (Body & society XVIII/1  pp. 151–189). Above and below, the winning dance from 2017.
BONUS: John Bohannon, who started the contest, presents a TED talk about it here.
Presenting a hyperbolization of categories of otherness through mapping markers of race, Orientalism, and sexuality onto the white middle-class female body, Ruth St. Denis’s Radha functions as a site of the condensation and displacement of desire.
In this work, St. Denis achieved a combination of Delsartism’s transcendent spirituality with the Oriental orgasmic in the spectacle of a goddess delirious with her own sexuality who chooses to renounce the powerful pleasure of her body for a chaste union with the transcendent.
This according to “Dancing out the difference: Cultural imperialism and Ruth St. Denis’s Radha of 1906” by Jane C. Desmond (Signs: Journal of women in culture and society XVII/1 [fall-winter 1991] pp. 28–49; reprinted in Moving history/dancing cultures: A dance history reader [Middletown: Wesleyan University press, 2001] pp. 256–270.
Above, St. Denis performing Radha in 1908; below, a documentary contextualizes the work in her career and influences.
Related post: Ted Shawn and Native American dance
Dark elegies marked the culmination of Antony Tudor’s exploration into an approach to ballet choreography in which the psychology of the characters is more important than external circumstances and events.
Although the classic idiom was the basis for his experimentation, his quest for new movement—often based on one-on-one work that illuminated the propensities of specific dancers—resulted in virtually no use of classical vocabulary. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder functions as a partner to the choreography, not as a guide.
This according to “Dark elegies (1938): Antony Tudor” by Rachel S. Richardson, an essay included in Choreography: Principles and practice (Guildford: National Resource Centre for Dance, 1987, pp. 206–217).
An excerpt from the work is below; other excerpts are here. We would be grateful if anyone can share a link to a complete version!
Related article: Graham and Freud
When Fanny Elssler (1810–84) left the Paris Opéra to tour the U.S. between 1840 and 1842, adoring critics there were faced—apparently for the first time—with the dilemma of writing approvingly about a woman making herself an object of desire.
Recurring descriptions of her being a divinity or an enchantress evince the process of assuaging guilt over this desire, and assumptions that male dancers were homosexuals enabled the suspension of jealousy over her dancing partners.
This according to “The personification of desire: Fanny Elssler and American audiences” by Maureen Needham Costonis (Dance chronicle XII/1  pp. 47–67).
Above, an image used for her U.S. tour of Elssler performing her signature La cachucha; below, a recreation performed by Carla Fracci.
Related article: The postmodern ballerina
Ted Shawn was the first choreographer to introduce carefully researched interpretations of Native American dance to audiences in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Beginning in the 1910s, when prominent dance critics were utterly dismissive of Native American dance, Shawn formed a high opinion of it—a view that was confirmed when he witnessed a complete Hopi ceremony in 1924.
This according to “The American Indian imagery of Ted Shawn” by Jane Sherman (Dance chronicle XII/3  pp. 366–382). Below, archival footage of some of Shawn’s work.
Related post: St. Denis and Radha