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Book review - Dance, Modernity and Culture

Julia Postle

Dance, Modernity and Culture: explorations in the sociology of dance
Helen Thomas
Routledge, London and New York, 199

Sociological approaches to the study of dance are few and far between, and Thomas makes a most significant contribution to the development of this relatively uncharted terrain. The book focuses principally on American modern dance of the early twentieth century; plotting the connections between a metamorphosing cultural context and the beginnings of what is now the institution of modern dance. Thomas proposes that through investigating such connections, and through closer analysis of artistic practice—Martha Graham is the primary consideration of Thomas’ case study—new understandings of modern dance may be provided through sociology. The relationship between dance and its context is further refined by a differentiation between extrinsic and intrinsic properties and perspectives; that is, examining dance from an external sociological viewpoint as well as investigating the cultural symbolism of a movement language.

From a comprehensive theoretical framework which acknowledges the influence of cultural studies, feminist studies, anthropology, philosophical theories of dance, poststructuralism and postmodernism upon sociology, Thomas canvasses the historical significance of early theatrical dance in America. Of particular interest in the second chapter is her account of the controlling forces of Puritanism and Protestantism upon the freedom of performers in the theatre and initial cultural encounters with ballet.

By providing an overview of conspicuous figures in the pioneering of modern dance in America—including Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn—as well as more detailed analysis of Iconoclasts from Denishawn—Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey—Thomas traces a history of the modern dance movement which is embedded within the elaborate socio-cultural history of twentieth century America. Thomas’ final examination of Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944) is the culmination of the study, demonstrating how the symbolism of movement may represent a more expansive, reflexive cultural voice for its context.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 29

© Julia Postle; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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