Experimental Dance in the USA

By Chloe Keusder
Intern at CDS

As the time seemed fit, I decided to dedicate my blogging experience here at Chisenhale Dance Space to the history of experimental dance from my side of the pond, the US. As Chisenhale’s 30th Birthday draws closer, my curiosity for the origins of this movement grows stronger. At first, I didn’t know where to begin. I guess to begin I’ll start by explaining what exactly experimental dance is. I think the better question is what isn’t it? This dance type takes on no specific form or style. It is interactive in the sense that it asks the audience to take a step back from their busy every day lives and engage in something out of the ordinary. Each choreographer tells a different story, which every observer absorbs in a different manner. To me, that’s the beauty of it all. You are in complete control of your experience. Now, I’m sure your wondering where and how this all came about. Well, I’ll tell you.

As I sat staring at my computer screen, the idea of what came before this style caught my attention. Researching pre-experimental dance soon became my next step. Within my studies, I discovered that Post Modern dance seemed to be a stepping-stone towards our currently celebrated art form. The 1960s and 70s were, as we all know, two decades of rebellious behavior. Post Modern dance was a huge part of this disobedient lifestyle. Postmodernists were the forefathers of questioning the norm. Although this movement was short-lived, it gave way to new genres of dance, experimental art being one of them. This marked the dancer’s abandonment of the constructed alignments of modern and ballet.

As I researched, I continued to find more about the general history of the time, rather than specific pioneers. I then made it my goal to discover who exactly turned our perfect aligned artistic world upside down, and on purpose. One group, which caught my eye, was the Judson Dance Theatre. In the early 1960s, a few dancers took the leap from modern tradition to dance experimentation at the Old Judson Church in New York. It is said that this group is now known as the founders of the post modern dance movement, which is what allowed dance to exist with no boundaries. Thanks to them, artists today have the opportunity to think as far outside of the box as they do so choose. Something I feel we as artists commonly take for granted. Without the postmodernists who bravely stepped up, no form of experimental movement would even exist. This goes to show how big an effect one person can have on history.

Throughout the weeks, I’ll be reliving the decades of experimental dance (through the internet, of course). My next post will focus on the monumental moments in the 1980s and 90s, and my final one will tell you all about experimental movement today. By the end of my six weeks, hopefully there will be a better understanding of where exactly this all began. So step back, and take a look at some history. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn how to make some.

As time progressed and America continued to grow, so did experimental dance. The 1980s and 90s were two very recognizable decades, extremely different from one another, which allowed dancers/artists to really stretch their horizons. A good example of this is experimental dancer Trisha Brown. As her career did begin in the late 60s, early 70s, 1980 was a very important year for her. The dance form she created was called pure-dance. Basically, it is entire movement pieces that take place in unconventional spaces and in silence. But, in the 80s, her movement changed. She began to add in a sense of theatricality, which ultimately meant music. When asked why she switched from the sound of movement to the sound of music, she replied “I got fed up with listening to all the goddamn coughing.” From the 80s through the 90s she experimented with music and movement and became internationally acclaimed. It is said that she made New York a haven for pure dance, devoting her life’s work to the style.
Although its cliché and stemmed out of ballroom dance, I feel I can’t go through the late 80s, early 90s without talking about Voguing. This movement of course became popular with Madonna’s “Vogue” and Macolm McLaren’s 1989 “Deep in Vogue”. But, what mainstream America is unaware of is where the real experimentation took place though is the streets. Specifically, areas like Harlem and the Lower East Side in New York. Back in Colorado in my Dance and Culture class, I was shown a video called Paris is Burning. It was all about the GLTB community, which laid below the perfect dance world of New York. Men dressed as women and vice versa would come together and battle is secret locations. If that isn’t considered experimental, I don’t know what is.
Postmodern Dance really took off in the 80s, as I’m sure we all know. One company that caught my eye particularly though during this time was New Dance USA. It was organized by Nigel Redden, and it’s home is in the Twin Cities (it’s still around today). Here’s a fun fact. The Judson Dance Theatre, which I referenced in my last blog post, emerged with the help of New Dance USA. So, I think it’s safe to say that this company has made a pretty big impact on experimental movement. It was the first to pose the question “what is dance?” to the American public. This is one of those questions that forces you to take a step back and really think. Coming into the 80s was the move from individualism to mass media. This forced choreographers to also change their movement to please a considerably large audience. This to me, was one of the most major changes during the 80s. Despite the fact that this time was difficult economically, artists began to put meaning back into a dance form that some said was losing it’s flare. We can thank them for that. This Minneapolis based organization has been home to some of the most influential artists and dance groups since the 60s. The only reason it was able to survive is because it upheld the mentality of embracing change. If you don’t grow, the world won’t wait for you, it will simply just grow around you, and New Dance USA understood that.
As I sit here in the Chisenhale office with my first of many coffee’s for the day, I’m getting excited to see how experimental movement is affecting our world as I type. Human creativity is what keeps our world at least semi-balanced. We’re pretty awesome, aren’t we? Check in next time to see just how amazing we are these days, and lets not forget to remember our roots as artists, they are what keeps us going after all.