Modern Dance Might Crack Your Heart Open


The last year I was training to be an opera singer (when I was just making the transition to *real* professional, whatever that means, and realized “oh god, this is NOT for me”), I spent part of a summer in Salzburg, Austria. When I first arrived home from my time there, I had incredibly mixed feelings about the trip. On the one hand, it had turned out to be the end of my opera career. On the other hand, it’s where I had my heart broken open by modern dance.

First the story about the opera training. I was always that person with a big natural voice (as in, loud enough to sing over an orchestra), technical ability, drive, and musicality… but absolutely zero self-confidence in what I was doing and how I believed I should be doing it. When you have what people call a “promising” voice, everyone has an opinion about it. And the opinions are so difficult to field when you can’t actually tell if what you’re doing is right, when your whole self-worth is wrapped up in whether people think your singing is good, and when you so desperately want to be successful.

By the time I got to Salzburg on a training scholarship that summer, I was having a technical problem in my singing, completely psychological in nature (brought on by trying to please all these people with oppositional opinions on how I should be singing), which had built itself up over the course of several crippling months. Enter a ruthlessly cruel and embittered teacher in Salzburg, who I most certainly will not name, who made realize, after only two sessions with her, that I was, in fact, an autonomous adult, and didn’t have to constantly feel demoralized.

As you can imagine, it was a difficult time for me, not because she was particularly awful or because I felt like a failure, but because I felt conflicted. As is often the case with the “promising” artist, at the same time someone was cutting me down, another person was always dangling the career I wanted in front of me – being nurturing and reassuring and extremely encouraging. My coach in Salzburg (thats a person who plays the piano for a singer and coaches them on how to pronounce everything correctly, how to be more musical in the phrases, and how to convey the characters and text most effectively) was adamant that I should stay in Europe and start auditioning in Germany with a certain slice of my repertoire which is classic fodder for German opera houses. I had extra coaching sessions, ripping through all the Mozart heroines I dreamt of singing on big stages just because my coach wanted to hear them. It felt great. But then I’d go to a studio class with my teacher and be told I should quit. 

To deal with the absolutely infuriatingly waffly feelings I was having, I did what anyone would do on my day off: I went to a museum (oh you had to have seen that coming from me). Specifically, I went to the Museum der Moderne – a stunning modern art museum that is literally perched high above Salzburg on a cliff overlooking the city. If ever there was a place to get perspective, that’d be it.

To get to the museum, I recall having to do a very long trek of stairs and walkways along the side of the hill/cliff that borders one side of the city. It was hot. VERY hot. I remember having an enormous book-bag full of scores from practicing at the university in the morning. I believe I chugged my “singer-sized” water bottle on the perilous journey upward. Then, mercifully, there it was: the giant, flat, concrete rectangle which promised both spiritual refreshment and air conditioning. 

I don’t remember everything I saw there that day, but I do remember one exhibition: a wonderful presentation of videos of choreography by one of the fathers of modern dance, Merce Cunningham. Cunningham’s dances were unlike anything that came before them, and they made for wonderful video installations alongside audio recordings and physical art objects created by his partner and collaborator, composer and artist John Cage, whom I adore.

Going in, I knew nothing about Cunningham aside from what I had learned during undergrad musicology studies about Cage.  Honestly, I’d never given any thought to modern dance other than the number in White Christmas where Danny Kaye sings bitingly about “Choreography” (the song is meant to be a send-up of modern dance, which had just emerged into popular culture at the time of the film). To me, modern dance all seemed a bit much. Wild, ungainly movements. Angular poses. Too much self-seriousness. And was there even any technique involved? At that point, I thought it was all pretty eyeroll-worthy.

But here’s the thing about art: you never know when something is going to pierce you through the heart and crack you wide open. Sometimes, mysterious forces bring us together with a work of art at the exact right time, like a prescription from the heavens. It can be downright spooky, and it can be amazing.

So here I was, watching videos of Cunningham’s choreography on little televisions in the installation, holding my giant bag, sweating like I had just climbed Kilimanjaro, and I couldn’t look away. I was so moved. I intellectually couldn’t tell why I was so enthralled, and I certainly couldn’t have articulated any of my feelings in that moment, but I was absolutely enraptured. It’s like I knew something was going on inside me, so I dared not move from that spot until it was over. I can still transport myself back to exactly where I was standing in that moment. I can see everything in the exhibition around me. I remember the temperature and smell of the room – kind of wet and mineral, like you could tell the whole building was concrete on stone. And I just stared and stared at these people in colourful whole body unitards moving in seemingly unrelated patterns over and over again and I knew I was done singing. 

I tried several times to write this section, explaining exactly how I felt as I watched. But as all lovers of any modern art form will attest, it’s incredibly difficult to put some viewing experiences into words. I had a profound moment of self-knowledge, and I also felt like I had been hit with a sledgehammer of confusion, relief, exhaustion, and surrender. All from people hopping around in coloured unitards on a tiny TV screen. 

That is what modern dance is “about.” It’s about opening yourself to the possibility of having a profound, and sometimes profoundly confusing, experience. It’s about being moved. It’s about being challenged. And it’s about that moment of unexpectedly connecting with something abstract in such a deep and powerful way that you start silently weeping in an empty gallery and wildly looking around you because you want to yell “HAS EVERYONE SEEN THIS?! HAVE YOU REALLY SEEN IT?!”

 Modern art of all kinds – from theatre, to visual art, to music, to dance – is about expression through different means. So you never know when one particular artistic expression is going to break your heart and mind right open in the most glorious way. So forget the cliches, forget the jokes, forget the bad send-ups and dive into the best of the best of modern dance. You might be totally shocked one day when it breaks your heart open, too.


Modern dance emerged at the turn of the 20th century as a revolt against classical ballet. It was intended to allow freer, more organic expression through the human body, which could better articulate and convey the complex emotions of the time. As world trudged through the first world war, the stock market crash, the great depression, and the second world war, a lot of really gritty, emotion-filled art was developed – including through the new medium of modern dance.

When people see modern dance for the first time (a term which, you should keep in mind, is enormous in scope), they often laugh, especially if they aren’t in a reverent or open headspace. The movements, especially from works of the 1940s through, say, 1960s, are often quirky or exaggerated, and either highly emotionally charged or completely devoid of visible emotion. But like modern visual art, modern theatre, and modern classical music, modern dance is meant to be two things: fodder for thought, and an opportunity to feel. Let’s have a look at a few of the most important modern dance choreographers (including the aforementioned Merce Cunningham) and talk about how to take in their work (from me, a non-dancer, non-choreographer):


Martha Graham (1894-1991), despite having enjoyed her heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s, is having a HUGE moment right now. Why? Primarily because her choreography so intensely centres around femininity, women’s agency and free will, and the many expectations placed upon women in society. I think of Martha Graham as the Beyonce of the 1940s: she was a badass bitch who didn’t want your opinion and was busy telling the world how strong women are, even when they didn’t want to hear it. The other reason for Graham’s continued strength is that hers is the oldest continuing dance company in the United States (The Martha Graham Dance Company, who continue to perform her works), and she developed an entire style of training and technique that continues to be taught in her name (“Graham technique”). 

The technical side of Martha Graham’s works is that they’re all about contraction and release (which is also the basis of Graham technique). The Martha Graham School has a wonderful Instagram account where you can watch company class on different aspects of Graham technique where this is very apparent (to see how difficult it is, YOU try to very, VERY slowly go from kneeling, to laying flat on your back over your bent shins and feet, to lifting yourself back up with only your ab strength). Lots of Graham’s pieces are stories, many of which are set to famous pieces of classical music. Here is an excerpt from one of her biggest and most beloved works, her Rite of Spring (to the orchestral work of the same title by 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky). Watch how the movements tell a story, but also capture the feeling of each moment of music:


My man Merce! Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) is who you should think of when you think of people making fun of modern dance. There are full body single colour unitards! There’s androgyny! There are people lifting each other up and setting each other back down! There’s hopping! There are random angular toe taps and pointing arms! He called many of his works “events”, and they would happen in random public spaces! Basically, everything you expect out of modern dance.

But what is it all “about”? Well, as Jack Anderson summarizes in his wonderful book Ballet and Modern Dance, Cunningham had three particularly controversial theories about choreography. First, he created many of his works using chance (like, rolling a die to determine which movement of a predetermined set will go next – a very 20th-century arts thing to do). Second, Cunningham treated the stage as an “open field”, meaning all parts of the stage are equally important to one another (as opposed to classical ballet, which usually has a focal point, which is often in the middle at the front where the star is). Finally, and most controversially, Cunningham didn’t think about the components of a dance production (like music, costume, and lighting) as inextricably intertwined with the choreography; instead, he thought of everything as separate, but coexisting at once. Thus, the steps he created for the dancers don’t “go” with the beats of the music; instead, the music happens, and the choreography happens, and they happen to happen at the same time.

All of this can drive people used to classical ballet stories, sets, and choreography really crazy. But the result is mesmerizing works of art created almost out of nothingness. The feeling is a strange organicness, grown out of peculiarity, resulting in something completely original every time. Take a look at this short video, which is an example of a classic Cunningham dance “event”:


If Cunningham and Graham weren’t your thing, you might find your modern dance soulmate in Alvin Ailey (1931-1989). Ailey’s mission was to honour Black culture through dance – a mission continually fulfilled today by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Ailey’s training school. Ailey’s style merges Graham’s storytelling through the body and intense athletic requirements with elements of jazz, Black social dance of the 1950s and ‘60s, and African dance elements. Ailey sought to engage his audience, which is probably why his company is still so incredibly popular – both Ailey’s choreography, and the many works he commissioned from other choreographers, connect with the audience in a way that is easily understood, but not soon forgotten. 

Ailey was also a master of the quotation, and here’s one of his greats: “I believe that dance came from the people, and that it should be delivered back to the people.” In that vein, here’s “Wade in the Water” from Ailey’s masterwork, Revelations. Not the best quality (as can be the case with archival dance videos on YouTube), but oh such marvellous content:


You might already know Pina Bausch (1940-2009) from the Oscar-nominated film Pina, which is a beautiful collection of Bausch’s works performed in “real-life” settings, including places Bausch spent a great deal of time. During filming, Bausch died rather unexpectedly, making the work an even more poignant capsule of her choreography.

Bausch’s style is a type of something called Tanztheater, which means “dance theatre.” The choreography is actually a mixture of dance and acting, which makes it very thrilling for the viewer (particularly, today’s modern dance neophyte who may be more familiar with the highly emotive So You Think You Can Dance than with classical ballet). But Bausch’s works are not pop: they’re high art. Many of her most famous works also include stages covered in natural material, like sand or water, to change the effect of the dancers’ interactions with the ground. When I think Pina, I think splashing and kicking up sand, which is probably a good reference point for you as well. To get a feel, check out this clip from her Vollmond, which means “full moon”:


Twyla Tharp (b. 1941) might be the most approachable of these modern dance choreographers (okay, she definitely is). Tharp is known for creating “crossover ballet” – a mixture of classical ballet and modern dance. Her works are often set to popular music (like one of her biggest hits, Deuce Coupe, to the music of the Beach Boys), and she’s also known for her extensive work as a Broadway choreographer (her Billy Joel show Movin’ Out is one of my personal all-time favourite musicals).

Many of her works are ecstatic, giving dancers ample opportunity to dance with joy and excitement. Which you need sometimes! For a taste, here are some selections from Tharp’s The Golden Section, performed by… who else!… the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, with music by David Byrne:


I hope that gives you an idea of what modern dance is all about, who the biggest names are, and where you might get started as a newbie fan. And hey, who knows, maybe you, too, can openly weep about your changing life trajectory one day!