Dance is one of the most beautiful, expressive forms of art known to mankind. It expresses joy, love, sorrow, anger, and the list truly goes on for all the possible emotions that it can convey. Dance not only can express how one feels, but it can tell a story or even be used to praise a higher power. Dance has intricately played an important role to every culture over the course of time. Two forms of dance that have not only stood against the test of time but have influenced the development of other various styles of dance is none other than Classical Ballet and Modern Dance. Classical Ballet is the epitome of class and sophistication, it is known for its meticulous techniques such as high extensions, Pointe work and the turn out of the legs, and also its graceful leaps and bounds and precise movements. Modern dance is ironically enough everything Classical Ballet is not, and it was purposely designed that way. Modern dance rejects the strict constraints of Classical Ballet, and boasted of free flowing movements, structure-less choreography, and just pure liberty to move to one’s emotions without all the decadence of elaborate costumes or scenery.
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Classical ballet and Modern dance are both unique in their core beliefs and structure, while they share the same vigor for the art of dance, they have quite a few differences that I would like to take the time in this essay to explore . By the mid 19th century, the art of French ballet also known as Romantic ballet had lost its appeal to many. Ballet was regarded as a casual, frivolous entertainment due to the fact that it had lost its creative edge and the ties to “immoral” behavior from the female dancers. The end of the Romantic era was the new beginning for what we now know today as Classical ballet. In 1847 the Russian Ballet recruited French national Marius Petipa to be their choreographer in Saint Petersburg. Petipa is one of the most influential figures in the history of ballet; many credit him for not only the revival of ballet but as a masterful architect of what Classical Ballet is. Petipa was a proficient story teller in his works, his productions were often lengthy and maudlin but the audiences loved it. He introduced the theory of more theatrical acting and pantomiming, which gave the performances a more entrancing quality by making the audience feel like they were truly experiencing the story themselves.
Petipa’s style was extremely rigorous and formulated, which was a drastic change from the conventional style of romantic ballet. He preferred structure, and clean lines in his performances and he demanded no less from his dancers; the requirements to be one Petipa’s dancers was that they must be highly skilled, graceful, must demonstrate great balance and strength. With Petipa’s vision and masterful direction Classical ballet became a treasure. Some his productions that are still performed today are The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote to name a few. Modern Dance came to light at the turn of the 20th century, many dancers began to rebel against strict confinements of Classical ballet. They regarded the art of ballet as pretentious and decadent, believing that ballet had lost the true essence of the spirit of dance and only catered and appealed to the bourgeois crowd. With the world’s upheaval in World War I, it left many pondering for a new outlet for what they were feeling; modern dance pioneers such as Ruth St. Denis, and Isadora Duncan explored with the idea that there should be a new dance form where one could express their ideas and emotions without the confines of formulaic structure, also being free to integrate other influences of music, art and theatre from other cultures.
Others like Martha Graham, Jose Limon continued the further development of this particular form of dance. This rebellion was the birth of Modern dance, an American art form. Movement is one the areas that Classical ballet and Modern dance most significantly differ in. Classical ballet is all about structure and formality, dancers must showcase their abilities and physical strength by dancing en Pointe, performing pirouettes, and doing gravity defying leaps through the air all while maintain a graceful and upright demeanor. Petipa’s production of Swan Lake is a beautiful example of the structure movements that dancers must perform; in the clip titled Odile entrance & Black Swan pas de deux, you see “The Black Swan” perfect posture and balance, dancing on en Pointe all the while managing to gracefully seduce the prince through her seductive movements and entrancing expressions.
In contrast Modern dance focus is on the dancer expressing their inner most emotions and feelings through free flowing movements. The modern dancer uses their whole body more naturally and fluidly to convey what their current emotional state is, unlike classical ballet where the ballerina at all times keeps an upright posture, and performs with structured, angular lines. Martha Graham’s “Frontier” is a great example of the free movements of Modern dance; In this performance Martha Graham uses her whole body to move to the rhythmic sounds of the drums and music, you can clearly see that there is no confined structure in this performance, she is completely moving organically to how she is feeling and what she is trying to convey through her movements.
Classical ballet took a step forward and revived prominent roles for men; whom previously the Romantic era had solely focused on the art of the beauty of femininity and gracefulness of the “ideal” woman. Classical ballets told stories where the male dancer can play the role of a prince saving the princess in distress, or a man trying to earn the love of the heroine of the story also give them a chance to display their skills as dancer especially when performing difficult leaps. A perfect example of a typical Classical ballet would be Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (choreographed by Petipa); in the Waltz of the Flowers the male dancers show their strength and talent by pulling off gravity defying leaps. In contrast where in Modern dance, there is no gender specific role for the dancer, the whole concept behind modern dance is that is open to anyone who would like to express their self through movement; also another difference between modern dance and ballet is that modern dance doesn’t always have to involve a large group of dancers, many times a modern dance can be just one individual dancer or maybe a small group, but it is not required to be large group.
Again Martha Graham’s “Frontier” is a great example how modern dance does not require more than one person to convey the message or story of the performance. Classical ballet is known for its spectacular costumes and scenery, also along with its use of classical music. The female dancers can wear the short stiff “pancake-style” tutu, or wear flowly tutus along with their ballet shoes, and the male dancers wear a Lycra type leotard. Petipa was known for bringing the element of design to classical ballet, in his production of “The Nutcracker” truly encompasses all the attributes of classical ballet; in the clip of the “Waltz of the Flowers” shows the beautiful elaborate baroque style scenery in the background, with the musical accompaniment by Tchaikovsky, the female ballerinas are wearing the short pink tutus with roses embroidered on the skirts, and the male dancers wearing tights and gold vest and white powdered wigs; the overall effect of the costumes, scenery, music and dancers is breathtaking.
Modern dance on the flip side, does not have a set costume, scenery or music that the dancer relies on rather they use those as options for whatever they want to express in their performance; take for example Martha Graham’s “Lamentation” the somber piano accompaniment along with her purple constraining costume on a completely dark black stage conveys much grief and sorrow, especially through her movements and facial expressions gives a very powerful impression of what one possibly feels when experiences maybe a tragedy or heartbreaking event in life. The differences between Classical ballet and Modern dance are quite apparent; classical ballet is structured, dances en Pointe, has set costumes, conveys a floating quality and follows choreography that is over 100 years old; while Modern dance focuses on expression over technique, it is more grounded, does not have set costumes and is performed barefoot rather than in ballet slippers. With so many glaring differences, one must wonder if these two dances have any similarities; I believe that they do.
Both dance forms have strong techniques, whether its ballet’s rigorous training of perfecting their leap and bounds or mastering the en Pointe , or modern dance’s contraction and release technique that Martha Graham gifted to the Modern dancer’s world, both dance forms excel in their performance of their techniques. Another similarity between Classical ballet and Modern dance, is the fact the both evolved from a previous dance form that they “rebelled” against. Classical ballet was born out of Romantic ballet, and sought to do the opposite of everything Romantic ballet stood for, from technique, story line for the productions, costumes, and even the use of male/female dancers and the importance of their roles; while Modern dance as well was born out of Classical ballet and also rebelled and tried to the opposite of all of what Classical ballet stands for.
Lastly modern dance and classical ballet both heavily rely on the emotion of the dancer to truly convey the message or story of the performance in each dance forms way, in ballet through the pantomiming the dancers do during the performance, or modern dance through the movement, facial expression or performance as a whole. In conclusion greatest similarity between Classical ballet and Modern dance, is the significance that each dance form plays in enriching the human culture while remaining drastically different. Classical ballet brings an old European art form passed down over a century, of grace, elegance and refinement. Modern dance brings a sense of freedom and expression, a testament to the beginning of the American dance culture, which still continues to evolve and influence and form new dances to this day, which makes both dance form extremely significant.
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