Journal 7: Postmodern Practicality

NYU Steinhardt

photo: Douglas Dunn, from NYU Steinhardt

In the continued discussion of Postmodern choreographers and shifting trends in twentieth century American modern dance, the mater of “practicality” arose as a central point. We see practicality inherent in use of rehearsal/performance space, costumes, movement aesthetics, and choreographic process. Let’s look at these areas and how practical concerns take precedence, inform, or create the actual product.

Rehearsal and Performance Space

Kenneth King was content to rehearse in a city park. Douglas Dunn rehearsed in his one-room loft (he had no furniture and pushed his bed to a corner). The lack of funding and money made renting actual dance spaces for rehearsal a challenge, so choreographers made due with the space they had. Alternatively, they may not have felt a specific dance space was appropriate or necessary and preferred to do their work within a pedestrian environment in keeping with the “life as art”/blurring of lines between life and art mentality. Therefore, anywhere and everywhere could be considered a rehearsal or performance space. Trisha Brown championed this in her pieces like “Roof Piece,” which premiered in 1971 on the rooftop of 53 Wooster Street at 381 Lafayette, in New York. It was a practical concern (need for dancing space) met in a practical way (dance wherever we can) that led to an artistic statement (dance can occur as regular life).


In the majority of video footage of postmodern dancers at work, they are wearing some sort of footwear. Predominantly, pedestrian footwear like tennis shoes, or in some cases, jazz shoes (which, as far as dance shoes go, are the closest thing to a pedestrian shoe as they have a small heel platform and thicker sole).

The need for footwear like this is perhaps twofold. Firstly, it was practical in that it allowed rehearsal and performances to take place almost anywhere (as discussed above). Dancing on wooden floors in a studio, in an apartment loft, in a park, or on a public marble structure was all possible because of the safe, pedestrian footwear.

Perhaps the footwear added a sense of natural weight, something these choreographers were very interested in incorporating into their movement. The shock absorption of the shoe would allow the dancers to safely put weight onto one leg. The actual physical weight of the shoe perhaps added to this feeling as well.

Secondly, there was the matter of the pedestrian being integrated into the dancing; the blurring of the line between art and life. Perhaps by wearing pedestrian footwear, it suggested that one could walk into the dance after having  been, say, at the grocery store, thus eradicating the separation between dancer and person created by specific dance footwear.

This idea was also evident in the clothing. Most pieces did seem to have decided costume chocies: everyone in green sweaters with white pants; everyone in red shirts with blue pants. However these “costumes” were primarily pedestrian clothes. Neglecting to adhere to formal dance attire was another factor that contributed to the dancer/person; person/dancer entity.

Movement Aesthetic/Choreographic Process

When Dunn described his memories of studying with Cunningham, what stuck with him the most was Cunninham’s way of answering aesthetic questions in practical ways. In the video excerpt of Dunn choreographic with a dancer, he was trying to work out a partnering movement. “Stop me,” he told the dancer. They tried several different forms of an embrace, none of which seemed to authentically stop Dunn’s momentum of movement; he was moving, and needed his partner to literally come and stop his whirlwind of movement. However, onstage this could be achieved by Dunn anticipating when his partner was going to come embrace him and he could consciously slow down his momentum in time to create the illusion of the embrace being the cause of his stillness. This approach would have been antithetical to his preference for practical movement. He wanted his partner to literally stop him in motion with a real embrace, and the two tried over and over again until a strategy to create this action was reached. In this way, the desire for “practical answers” was used to create an aesthetic that was perhaps more pedestrian but also more authentic in a very literal way.

<Opinion> I think this also brings about an important point about postmodern dance. It was literal. It was in the moment; nothing more or less. It was the partner stopping the man in motion by grabbing him. It wasn’t the creation of a figurative situation meant in any way to be representative. There is a certain beauty to be found in this; however, for those with a flair for the dramatic and for “theatre” as we may know it (having an inherent sense of fantasy and figurativeness/symbolism) it may be lack-luster.

In general, the emphasis on process differentiates postmodern choreographers from their predecessors most of all. This process was largely driven by the making of practical decisions. They had the luxury of space and time to work with very intricate, complicated processes for creating movement. Retrograde, inversion, going between two different phrases, and other techniques became popular task-oriented, practical ways to generate material. This was a very cerebral, intelligent way to create, but on the same token, this is not necessarily readable or relatable to a general audience. Practical concerns took precedence over aesthetics of a final product. The product was the process for these choreographers.



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