Mapping the Lesser-Known Territories of American Modern Dance

The emergence of American modern dance can be compared to the development of other creative forms such as jazz and the Broadway musical, as all three served as new methods of expression for a country expanding and evolving. Traditionally, the history of modern dance has been presented as a genealogy of white mavericks and rebels, like Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. However, “Border Crossings: Exile and American Modern Dance 1900-1955” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, offers a different perspective.

The exhibit begins with Matachines, a dance-drama popular in the American Southwest amongst Pueblo Indian and Hispanic people for centuries. The next section demonstrates how Black artists were responsible for shaping the aesthetic possibilities for modern dance through jazz modernism at the start of the 20th century. The curators say they wanted to explore what happens when you move prominent personalities like Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis to the fringes, allowing other voices to occupy the center.

The exhibit brings these voices to the forefront by showcasing dozens of dance artists through photographs, costumes, and artifacts, complemented by film footage. It explores the influence of Asian immigrants and events such as two world wars, the rise of fascism, racism, and economic disparities in shaping modern dance. The show also examines internal migrations in the United States caused by racism and highlights the role of Black dancers in classical ballet, giving particular attention to influential Black dance artists of the 20th century such as Katherine Dunham and Janet Collins.

The exhibit aims to correct the underrepresentation of artists of color in the historical record and emphasizes dance as a significant expression of the traumas of the 20th century. The stories of three underrepresented dancers – Yeichi Nimura, Delores Browne, and Edna Guy – are given special attention. Their stories further illustrate the significant role that dancers of color played in shaping modern dance during this period.

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