by Dance Editor Michele Kadison
Dance has been an essential part of our existence since the development of the earliest civilizations. Archeology traces the art form back to prehistoric times, where then as now it was an avenue for social interaction, communication, expression, ritual, and entertainment. Whether used to portray myths, to heighten a religious experience, or to tell a simple story, dance has intrigued us, engaged us, and enlightened us; and will continue to do so as long as we have imagination, heart, and soul.
Dance in America began with the celebrations of the Native Americans. Transplanted people from other nations brought their own expression, merging new physical language with the developing diaspora. Square Dance, Swing, Lindy Hop, Tap, Rock n Roll, Hip Hop … these are all dance forms that originate in the United States, inspired by various roots at the base of their evolution. We saw dance in early television and film with the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rodgers and then later, Patrick Swayze, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, and Michael Jackson. It is the rare few who have visited New York City without seeing the Radio City Rockettes, who also represent a part of our inherent dance culture!
With the development of Modern Dance in the early 20 Century, artists such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, and Martha Graham broke the European classical ballet paradigm by opting for a more visceral way of expression, rather than the ethereal effect found in conventional ballet. The tales told became more human and collaborations with homegrown composers added to the necessary evolution. Choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, and Alvin Ailey appeared, and later Mark Morris and companies like Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, Urban Bush Women, and Pilobolus continued the path to physical discovery through dance.
Through the hard work of diligent presenters, dance can be found in every city throughout the United States. Local companies and inspired individual dancers often provide sophisticated and ingenious fare, and touring companies provide communities with the opportunity to experience work from around the world. Dance can be seen in a wide variety of venues today such as large and small theaters, concert halls, school auditoriums, university stages, town squares, and museums. With discount opportunities such as TKTS and now even Groupon, we have greater opportunity to experience the beauty and inspiration of dance in both formal and informal settings.
The many dance festivals that occur throughout the United States are an exceptional way to see a variety of companies along with new choreographic work. The American Dance Festival is ideal for seeing the presentation of new work by some of the best companies in the world, such as the African American Dance Ensemble, Hubbard Street, Mark Dendy, Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and Dayton Ballet.
Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass., founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn is considered a National Historic Landmark and was presented with the National Medal of Arts in 2011 by president Obama. This summer dance festival in the Berkshires is a mecca for dance, hosting more than 30 dance companies with 200 free performances each year.
The Fall For Dance Festival at the New York City Center brings a huge sampler of dance ten days a year, including hip-hop, ballet, tango, tap, and more. Some of the companies participating in this festival have included American Ballet Theatre, Jason Samuels Smith & Friends, Merce Cunningham Dance Co, Emanuel Gat Dance, Shu-Yi & Dancers Co, and the Paul Taylor Dance Co.
DanceAfrica at the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents a yearly celebration of dance and culture from Africa and its diaspora, with companies displaying their voice through movement, music, and other artistic expression.
Even with today’s recession, audiences continue to flock to dance performances throughout the United States. Cuts in government and private funding of the arts in general has made dance companies and individual choreographers and dancers more creative in finding ways to present work. With less money, the option is often to tour at home, rather than abroad, creating more opportunity for North Americans to see local work. Some companies like MOMIX are creating shows rather than presenting a conventional repertory menu, and many artists are choosing to share a program with others, which creates an exciting and varied evening of dance for audiences.
No matter what the financial climate, Dance will be with us until the end of time just as it launched us at the beginning. Dance unites us by exchanging cultural values and perspectives, through sharing a common language, and by giving us insight into our very nature.
We encourage you to refer back to our pages frequently to discover where and when the best companies, large and small, are appearing in your area. Whether you stay at home or travel around the country, you will always be able to find a dance performance to ignite your imagination!
Top Dance Companies
If you want to experience the best of the best, here are the “top ten” dance companies that we recommend you see:
American Ballet Theater
Jose Limon Dance Company
Mark Morris Dance Group
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Martha Graham Dance Company
Miami City Ballet
New York City Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Here are a few excellent books on dance that we recommend as references:
Ballet and Modern Dance by Susan Au is still the best introductory book in the field.
Speaking of Dance: 12 Contemporary Choreographers on their Craft by Joyce Morgenroth is both informative and entertaining, especially if you want to learn more about Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, and others.
Martha Graham–An American Original in Performance contains more than 90 minutes with the originator of Modern Dance.
Bill T. Jones—Dancing to the Promised Land is a powerful documentary on the work of this prolific choreographer.
Balanchine is an excellent DVD providing an overview of the master choreographer’s work.
There are abundant resources for learning about dance: its history and evolution as well as taking a look at your favorite dance companies. Here are a few YouTube listings that make for a great beginning:
The History of Modern Dance – this video describes the concepts behind the pioneers of modern dance.
Ballet Russes – a short history of the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, a company that originated in Europe and eventually became the American Ballet Theater.
Martha Graham – a brief history of modern dance and the emergence of Ms. Graham with her stark, realistic corporal language.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Judith Jamison’s “Hymn,” just a taste of this great company’s work.
Tap Dance – an ebullient visual clip on the history of tap from vaudeville through early film.
Savion Glover – one of contemporary tap dance’s absolute greats!