Liberalism and Modern Dance

This piece has had various titles, and iterations. At one point it was called, ‘Goooooooo classical!’. At another point, ‘A Refutation of Liberalism in Modern Dance.’

I find some attitudes in the Modern Dance community congruous with many of the least attractive attributes of political Liberalism. Liberalism, politically speaking, is a strain of social theory that emphasizes equality. The causes of death for political liberalism are interesting in critiquing modern dance, which is possibly perishing with some of the same symptoms.

I grew up in Massachusetts at a time when politicians were re-claiming Liberal ideology. Political Liberalism was a stance of hope, inclusiveness and generosity. Liberalism brought us school lunches and affirmative action. And then it was de-flowered – the Randian freemarket go and get it beating the crap out of the Liberal come and get it.

Modern Dance began, like Liberalism, with an individualistic and inclusive streak – from Duncan to Graham, Nikolais to Rainer, Modern Dance was an expression of the embrace of individual experience and personal vocabulary over pre-determined positions and rote facility.

Some argue that Modern Dance is the somatic equivalent of jazz music. When Modern Dance began it was an organic and personal response to times, places, and personal experiences. And perhaps it is like Jazz: the practitioners of today are hard put to find the blood memory that ran through the creators of the form.

I am not trying to lionize even more antique forms – for instance ballet – but simply am trying to offer Modern Dance a little humility. Ballet came before Modern Dance, and will still exist after Modern Dance has disappeared. The majority of professional Modern dancers are heavily trained in ballet. And yet ballet seems to be talked about like a grandfather who has hairy ears and a penchant for pinching cheeks. There seems to be a perception that Modern is today, and ballet the past.

Modern dancers, like Liberals, need to recognize that all solutions rely heavily on craft, and that whether jazz music or dance, one will be taken more seriously in creating new work if one is capable of mastering the craft used by earlier practitioners. In political Liberalism the dismissal of free-market economic principles can be compared to the modern dancers dismissal of ballet.

When artists believe that they can take the craft out of dance, they reduce it to something like pop poetry. If your name begins with e.e., or ends with Ferlinghetti, that is surely a reasonable thing to do. But if you do not happen to be a genius, perhaps having the will to dance within the forms crafted by others would serve you better in reaching an audience (which last time I checked was the reason for performing.) Certainly pronouncing that one is a dance artist will help you in the bars, but in contributing to your community, its deeply ineffective.

All dance is not good dance. All dance is not of value, even if its practitioner says it is. All dance is not of value for the practitioner even if they say it is. In the end, it does not matter if you practice Modern, Ballet, Jazz, Horton, or Rumba. There is no guaranteed way toward good social solutions. But there is a guaranteed means toward bad ones. Reasonable practice of prior forms can assist in the creation of what sculptor Frederic Hart called art that has a role “in the public pursuit of civilization.”