Modern Dance Just Celebrated Its 100th Birthday, and Millennials Don't Care

Unlike previous generations, millennials haven't been as involved in the development of modern dance. Perhaps this is why one of the youngest art forms is dying of old age.  Consider this brief education an invitation to the party.

Let’s get one thing straight. Interpretive dance does not exist. Just as it’s redundant to say, “interpretive art” or “interpretive music,” the term “interpretive dance” is not recognized by dance artists. Millennials who didn’t witness the development of modern dance firsthand have been fed this image of “interpretive” dancers prancing through daisy fields or writhing to dubstep in neon bracelets. This freedom of movement is recognized as dance, just as music can be qualified as sound. However, modern dance is separate from clubbing and frolicking. At 100 years old, one of the newest art forms is losing relevance as young people are becoming responsible for tickets sales. A misunderstanding about the development of dance as art may be at the root of its struggle to appeal to the next generation.

May 29 marked the birth of modern dance with the opening of The Rite of Spring, a ballet with the wild, animal stomping of dancers in bare feet, set to the dissonant score of Igor Stravinsky. The patrons reacted in the fashion of a Victorian punks with, “hoots and jeers, arguments and even fistfights between traditionalists and modernists in the audience. It became difficult to hear the music.” If millennials had been there, they would have blogged like crazy! Sadly instead, this monumental event in performance art was buried in dance history books.

Although modern dance was born at the beginning of the 20th century, the 1960s were a really big period for post-modern art and dance was really coming of age. Choreographers, many of whom would be described today as performance artists, were dancing in galleries, warehouses, and even on the sides of buildings. But, the Baby Boomers, who were really digging the scene, got so busy raising their little millennials, they has to lean on the digital world and let postmodernism die. Later, the next great generation learned about composer, John Cage, artists, Rob Rauschenburg, and of course, Andy Warhol in their prerequisite classes, but their collaborations with modern dance choreographers, Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais weren’t on the test.  

The good news is, one doesn’t need an art degree or even a 101 course to benefit from art. Modern dance is 100 years young, but communicating through dance predates history, and the medium is something we know and relate to very well, the human body. However, so many young, educated millennials are turning away saying, “modern dance is not for me.”

Now that the post-modern audience has retired, there is a lot of pressure on the next generation of dance audiences to “get it.” For this, I blame the hit series, So You Think You Can Dance. As a modern dancer and choreographer, seeing dance on national TV thrilled me.  But, just like the crime dramas on these networks, this show worked to desensitize viewers. It has made viewers lazy. This show turned dance into a Norman Rockwell painting. However, unlike the work of Rockwell, dance can’t be preserved on a lunchbox or in a museum. It’s a living, breathing organism with needs unavailable in supply stores. Modern dance is as fragile as its old age indicates, and is relying on the next generation to make it feel young again.

In September, one such breath of fresh air, Miguel Gutierrez, posted:

When people don’t understand something, there’s often a jump right away to dislike, or to “this thing failed to sell itself to me.” I think, “No, you maybe didn’t give yourself permission to not understand it.” There’s something about that permission, to detach and kind of blend into the occupation, that is really critical, really important. People always have experiences and feelings that they think they’re not supposed to have, or that they’re not allowed to articulate as their experience of the work.

What Gutierrez wants the audience to do is drop all preconceptions. Modern dance is inviting you to her 100th birthday party in theaters all over the world. Please don’t stand her up just because of the rumors about what she did in the ballet or at the clubs last night. I think you two will find you have a lot in common.

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Angie Hartley

an expat artist and teacher living in South Korea

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