Theses Doctoral

The Dancer from the Music: Choreomusicalities in Twentieth-Century American Modern Dance

Callahan, Daniel

Revising Yeats's rhetorical question, this dissertation asks: "How can we tell the dancer from the music?" In the early twentieth century Isadora Duncan and her barefoot protégées initiated a performance tradition that would later be recognized as American modern dance. They did this, to a great extent, by embodying European "absolute music." Soon, however, choreographers and dancers of this new art form faced modernist calls for medium-specific "absolute dance" that would express movement's autonomy and not the autonomous music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. As John Martin, one of the nation's first dance critics, wrote in 1933, "There is a long, sad story to be told about the use of music for dancing which was never intended to be danced to." Today that story is even longer; contra Martin, it is not sad. As the use of classical music was a primary component in the earliest forms of "free dance" and as it remains in some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful modern dance today, this use is in need of critical and historical attention. Tracing an alternative genealogy from Duncan's then-scandalous embodied empathy with sacralized art music, the central chapters of this study of the use of music in American modern dance focus on the lives, works, and reception of two choreographers: Ted Shawn and Merce Cunningham. Both of these men founded his own dance company and created works where choreomusicality, or the relationship between music and dance, remained especially vital. For Shawn, wishing to go even further than Duncan, this meant creating choreographies where dance followed the music as closely as possible. Indeed, in his "music visualizations" (a term that he coined with his wife and colleague Ruth St. Denis) his goal was to create dances that were perfect translations of the music itself. Such translation is ultimately impossible, and in attempting it, I argue, Shawn ended up revealing more of himself--specifically, his desire to perform a non-conventional masculinity that he normally felt was off-limits--than he did of the music. Reacting against this tradition--the standard history of modern dance goes--was Merce Cunningham, in whose mature choreographies music and dance are united only by their overall duration. Yet Cunningham, under the influence of Cage, created several dances to the music of Satie that provide an illuminating exception to this practice. I focus in particular on Idyllic Song (1944) and Second Hand (1970), both of which Cunningham choreographed to Satie's Socrate. Though created during his artistic maturity, Second Hand provides a link to the earliest self-expressive collaborations with John Cage. As a result, this choreography offers an unusual window into the Cage-Cunningham personal and professional relationship. In examining Shawn's and Cunningham's choreography, this dissertation tracks not only the changing role of Western art music in the relatively young art form of modern dance but also examines these choreographers' responses to contemporary attitudes toward the male dancer, unconventional masculinities, and the relatively new identity of the homosexual. In doing so I demonstrate how the choreomusicalities of these men reflected and refracted their masculinities and homosexualities. In addition to providing choreomusical analysis and interpretation, I revise current understandings of both specific scores and choreographies through intensive archival research (from silent films of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, which I have synchronized with their unheard music, to Cage-Cunningham manuscripts ignored or previously thought lost), observation of live and recorded rehearsals and performances, and interviews. Ultimately, "The Dancer from the Music" seeks to establish choreomusicality as an exemplary lens through which to view the meeting of music's ineffability with the realities and identities of listening and performing bodies in motion.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Henson, Karen
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 23, 2017