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Summary: the Evolution of Modern Physical Theatre and Contemporary Dance in the 20th Century

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This paper will focus on the development of dance and theatre in the 20th century in particular contemporary dance and modern physical theatre. The report will begin by providing a brief historical background to the subject and the main protagonists credited with its creation and evolution, case studies will compare and contrast how two prominent companies from each genre work in the modern era.

The history of the performing arts dates back to the ritualistic dance around the fire. The writings of Homer describe “chorea”, a circle dance, meanwhile satyr, comedies and tragedies written by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Euripides amongst others were performed in Greek amphitheatres. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre cites that the origins of ballet can be traced back to the 15th century Italian Renaissance and was popularised in the 16th century at the court of King Louis XIV. It is at this time that the very physical Commedia dell’Arte emerged in Venetian theatres.

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Robert Leach (1989) traces the career of the Russian revolutionary theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold who in 1902 was working on experimental avant-garde theatre and describes him as one of the earliest practitioners of symbolism. His theories on Biomechanics are still prevalent in modern physical theatre today. At this time one of Meyerhold’s contemporaries, Isadora Duncan was revolutionising the world of dance. Isadora Duncan did not like the ballet, she felt that the dancers were too confined by rules, she wanted to be free of these restrictions, so created her own style which posthumously was credited as being the origin of the modern dance.

From her own book published in 19… “My life” Isadora states “I am an enemy of ‘ballet’, which I consider a false and absurd genre, which has nothing to do with art.” (My life,.. ..)

As cited by The Isadora Duncan foundation, her work is described by The St. Louis Sunday Gazette, Munich, December 26,1902: “She creates, she poses, she dances. But not like anyone else. Oh, no! She would be a revelation to the star ballet dancer; she is no high kicker, or toe acrobat. She employs no illusions, no cunningly arranged mirrors, no beautifully multi-coloured lime-lights. Never was there anything less sensational than her work; it is severe in its simplicit. Another prominent figure in the origins of physical theatre was Antonin Artaud, in the 1930’s he created his Theatre of Cruelty. In his performances he shocked the audience showing violent and controversial scenes and images, cruelty, death and blood. He favoured a minimal use of text, he created images with gestures and movement instead, dance was employed as a means of expression. In the article for Scenic Arts, Fuensanta Munoz published the following Artaud quotation: “The theatre should not be limited to the word. I look beyond the word for the reason of the word, and beyond the gesticulation, a myth.”

In the 1950’s Practitioner Jacques Lecoq who was later famous for his mime and clowning techniques, developed the idea of the Neutral mask technique for student and actor training; students trained to use their body movements and physicality whils wearing a mask so the emotion was expressed completely with the body rather than the face. Although Lecoq is acknowledged for developing the neutral mask technique he credits Jacques Copeau as its creator “Copeau became a reference point in my work, alongside Dullin who belonged to the same theatrical family.” Although Isadora Duncan’s dance style can be considered to be revolutionary her attempts to establish her work through training schools were not hugely successful during her life time, it was Martha Graham who would popularise this style of dancing throughout the twentieth century and later her student Merce Cunningham developed the expressive dance movement known today as Contemporary Dance.

With regard to revolutionists in what is known now as physical theatre and contemporary dance the work of Rudolf Laban should not be underestimated. Laban’s movement theory developed between 1920-1950s created a system for analysing human movements, this structure has become a key stone for practitioners and artists across both genres: acting and dancing.  

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