Conceiving modern dance

The programmatic designs for modern dance in the German-speaking world show a radical turn away from ballet, which was perceived as elitist, aristocratic, and disciplinary. In the terms of the era, it treated humans as a “mannequin for leg acrobatics.” A vision of physicality based on the “law of gravity” gained influence. Gravity became the key concept in both theory and practice: see, for example, books such as Der moderne Tanz (Hans Brandenburg, 1921), Tanz in dieser Zeit (Paul Stephan Grünfeld, 1926), Der Tanz der Zukunft (Fritz Böhme, 1926), and, with a greater focus on practical application, Rudolf von Laban’s Die Welt des Tänzers (1920). Momentum became the connecting element linking gravity to space.

Also published in the 1920s, French texts such as La Danse d’aujourd’hui (André Levinson, 1929) likewise addressed the weight of the body as the determining factor for many of forms of dance. They moreover conceived modern dance on the basis of a mechanistic and sometimes anatomical view of the body that manifested itself in various avant-garde productions of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, futurist ballets, and the “exotic” dances of vaudeville shows and music halls. This facet of modern dance prompted sometimes highly polemical debates.

Both models—the “authentically natural” and the mechanical body—concurred in the concept of rhythmical and flowing movement. One writer described it as a “fluid energy” capable of “pervading all limbs.” This idea variously inspired anthropological studies of movement as well as theories that equated the body to a machine.