They stand, feet flexed and arms raised.
Notes emanate from the piano in the corner and, as if woken from a trance, 15 dancers spring into motion in near unison. As they moved though crouches and dips and extensions of arms and legs, their instructor floats around the room, watching. She pauses to adjust hips and straighten backs, asking one to “release” and “stabilize”.
Then the music and the movements stop. The instructor brings the dancers’ attention forward as she explains the importance of “catching the moment,” and compares a challenging move to hugging a puppy. He face is animated and lit with infectious enthusiasm. The dancers drink in each word that echoes through the sunlit studio before the count begins and they break into motion once more.
At the turn of the twentieth century, an alternative style of dance emerged, and challenged the rigid structure and limitations of classical ballet. Born from a rejection of the strict confines of ballet, modern dance allows dancers and choreographers to express themselves, fully embracing creativity and freedom of motion.
Watching the distinct styles of ballet and modern dance performed in tandem provides a striking comparison. Ballet dancers point their feet, modern dancers flex theirs. Ballet dancers wear their hair tightly pulled back, modern dance has no such requirement. The prototypical ballet dancer is tall and thin, while modern dancers come in all shapes and sizes. The versatility of modern dance is for some its greatest charm, though technique is still integral.
Technique is where the dance instructor’s role comes in. Helen Jones is a small, slight woman with grey hair. Born in Wales, she began dancing when she was four years old and has never stopped. She is a U of T alumni, with a degree in psychology and a diploma from OISE, and is a member of York University’s dance faculty and senior faculty at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre.
Though her time is primarily consumed by teaching, she still performs occasionally. Jones’ colourful career as a dancer has taken her from Brussels to Broadway. She summarizes her experience as a dancer is simple terms, saying that in her experience, her “job as a dancer was to do the hard and thoughtful work to bring a concept to life for the audience.” Jones’ students unanimously cite her when asked about their dance inspirations, not only because of her illustrious career, but also her continued involvement in the industry. “She’s still doing so much now,” says student Sarah Johnsen.
Mastering the art of modern dance is, for many, a lifelong pursuit — and to her students, Jones has achieved this goal.
“[When] it’s Helen, it’s this goddess doing it and when you do it, you just look stupid,” says student Paige Sayles.
When discussing innovators in the genre, names like José Limón and Lester Horton have an irrefutable place at the forefront of the conversation. Among Jones’ students, however, one name stands out — Martha Graham. According to Johnsen, Graham “made the impossible, possible,” while other students describing her as the Picasso of modern dance. Graham’s dance company is the oldest in America and she was the first dancer to perform at the White House.
Jones too cited Graham as one of her core inspirations, perhaps since she spent part of her career dancing for Graham’s company. The fundamental movement of Graham’s modern style is the contraction, inspired by feelings when laughing and crying. The contraction has the power to represent euphoria, sadness, and the spectrum of emotions in between.
Kerrie Hartmann, a self-proclaimed ballet purist, admits that she hated modern at first, but has since come around. “I really am loving modern and starting to realize the value of it, and I think all classically trained dancers should take modern as a way to break that mold of always being in first position with your arms held,” she says.
Modern dance also breaks away from the slippers and more ornate costumes usually worn during ballet. Most modern costumes are fairly plain, either form fitting attire or long skirts for women, with dancers usually barefoot.
“I think Martha Graham just wanted people to focus on the dancing instead of being distracted by costumes or colours,” proposes Marquisha Sparkes, who is relatively new to dance. Her classmate, Sayles, explains that “[Modern] is very vulnerable movement, so you have to show off the body instead of being covered by, say, a tutu.” Capturing emotion is the crux of dance. “Movement cannot be devoid of meaning because we as humans are hard-wired to the very nuanced vocabulary of body language. Some gestures of course are very blatant, but we train for a vast and often subtle range,” explains Jones.
Some movements come with intended emotions — when they do, the dancer simply harnesses that emotion in their movement. For moments without an ascribed feeling, dancers must look into themselves for the emotional meaning behind their movements.
“If we aren’t told what the meaning is, then we embody our own story and we take out a character because we’re all performers, so we just envision one,” explains Sayles.
Makayla Ruffle-McDonald, another student, believes that feeling enhances her performance. “If I don’t know the intention of a movement and I do it, it’s kind of one dimensional, but once I learn about what the feeling is supposed to be, I feel like I can add so much more to it.”
Practicing the art of conveying emotion is as integral as the physical technique. The discussion over, Jones calls her students back to their positions. Some work barefoot, others opt for socks with the heels exposed. Jones counts them in and the pianist brings music to the studio.
The students begin to move through contractions and spirals, culminating in a high release. They speed across the room seemingly effortlessly, transitioning into “sparklers” — a jump with arms and legs extended. They land in union with a resounding thump — Jones calls out for them to embody the light footedness of matadors, and the subsequent landings are far softer.
“The whole technique [of modern] is based on using your core, and that’s something that a dancer isn’t used to. You have to literally fall over, but hold yourself. Sometimes, you have to relax all your muscles and contract them at the same time… It’s like [trying] to shift your bones to make yourself go the opposite way,” says Christopher Gallina, a hip-hop convert to modern. All the dancers I spoke to agreed that, in many ways, modern is a contradiction, but a wonderful one at that.
Like all storytelling, modern dance opens itself to interpretation from the audience, and every storyteller will tell the tale slightly differently. Every dancer is unique, so every movement will have a distinct quality that adds a particular accent to the story. As the dancers break out of unison the impact of the diversity of motion becomes clear: each has their own nuanced style, bringing an emotion to the movement that transcends the physical performance.