Friday, April 25, 2014

Dance History

For research supporting my project, I looked into the history of dance and how it began and processed. This was really interesting for me as I have done dance for a long time, I found out lots of interesting facts. Here is what I discovered:

Dance history is difficult to access because dance does not often leave behind clearly identifiable physical artifacts that last over millennia, such as stone tools, hunting implements or cave paintings. It is not possible to say when dance became part of human culture. It has certainly been an important part of ceremony, rituals, celebrations and entertainment since before the birth of the earliest human civilizations. Archaeology delivers traces of dance from prehistoric times such as the 9000 year old Bhimbetka rock shelters paintings in India, and Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures from 3300 BC.

The origins of the dances of Sri Lanka are dated back to the aboriginal tribes. The classical dances of Sri Lanka (Kandyan dances) feature a highly developed system of tala (rhythm), provided by cymbals called thalampataa. According to the legend, the origins of the dance lies in an exorcism ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which was originally performed by Indian shamans who came to the island. The Indian shamans came to the island upon the request of a king who was suffering from a mysterious illness. The king was said to be suffering from a recurring dream in which a leopard was directing its tongue towards the king, believed to be as a black magic of "Kuweni" the first wife of the king "Vijaya". After the performance of the Kohomba Kankariya the illness vanished, and many natives adopted the dance. It was originally performed by dancers who were identified as a separate caste under the Kandyan Fudel system. They were aligned to the Temple of the Tooth and had a significant role to play in the Dalada Perahera (procession) held each year by the temple. The dance waned in popularity as the support for the dancers from the Kandyan kings ended during the British period. It has now been revived and adapted for the stage, and is Sri Lanka's primary cultural export.

It is unlikely that any human society (at any rate until the invention of puritanism) has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Like cave painting, the first purpose of dance is probably ritual - appeasing a nature spirit or accompanying a rite of passage. But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication. Pleasure can never have been far away.

Rhythm, indispensable in dancing, is also a basic element of music. It is natural to beat out the rhythm of the dance with sticks. It is natural to accompany the movement of the dance with rhythmic chanting. Dance and music begin as partners in the service of ritual. This has continued through the centuries and is the explanation of dance and music. Rhythm is part of dance and music.
In most ancient civilizations, dancing before the god is an important element in temple ritual. In Egypt the priests and priestesses, accompanied by harps and pipes, perform stately movements, which mime significant events in the story of a god, or imitate cosmic patterns such as the rhythm of night and day. At Egyptian funerals, women dance to express the grief of the mourners.
Sacred occasions in Greek shrines, such as the games at Olympia from the 8th century BC, are inaugurated with dancing by the temple virgins. The choros is originally just a dance, performed in a circle in honour of a god. In the 6th century it becomes the centrepiece of Greek theatre.

An early manuscript describing dance is the Natya Shastra on which is based the modern interpretation of classical Indian dance. In India the formalized hand movements of the priestesses in Hindu temples are described in documents from as early as the 1st century AD. Each precise gesture is of subtle significance. A form of classical dance based upon them - known as Bharata Nhatyam - is still performed by highly skilled practitioners today. 

Natyashastra is the most detail and elaborate of all treatises on dramatic criticism and acting ever written in any language and is regarded as the oldest surviving text on stagecraft in the world. Written by the great dramatist of ancient India, Bharata, Natyashastra is reckoned as the poetics of Indian drama. Bharata muni in his Natyashastra demonstrates every aspect of Indian drama whilst covering areas like covers music, stage-design, make up, dance and virtually every aspect of stagecraft. With its kaleidoscopic approach, with its wider scope Natyashastra has offered a remarkable dimension to growth and development of Indian classical music, dance, drama and art. Hence it is certainly not an overstatement to say that Natyashastra indeed laid the cornerstone of the fine arts in India. The commentaries on the Natyashastra are known, dating from the sixth or seventh centuries.

Ballet in France: 16th - 17th century

A favourite entertainment in Renaissance France and Italy involves ladies and gentlemen of the court being wheeled into the banqueting hall on scenic floats from which they descend to perform a dance. Such festivities are much encouraged by Catherine de Médicis after she marries into the French royal family.

In 1581 a significant step forward is taken by Catherine's director of court festivals, Baltazar de Beaujoyeulx. For a wedding celebration he produces the Ballet Comique de la Reine, combining dance (which he describes as being just "geometric patterns of people dancing together") with the narrative interest of a comedy. It is the first dramatic ballet.

This French and Italian love of dance continues in the next century. At the court of Savoy, in Turin, there is a strong tradition of lavish amateur ballets for any festive occasion in the mid-17th century.

In France Louis XIII, son of Marie de Médicis, loves to show off his talents in this line - although, reports a contemporary, he "never performed anything but ridiculous characters". The king's typical roles include a wandering musician, a Dutch captain, a grotesque warrior, a farmer and a woman. His son Louis XIV enjoys similar pleasures, but his roles have a little more classical gravitas - a Bacchante, a Titan, a Muse and (presumably a favourite) Apollo dressed as the sun.

The dancers in court ballets are the courtiers themselves, and a large part of the pleasure comes from watching one's friends prance about in spectacular costumes. The English diarist John Evelyn sees Louis XIV dancing in Paris in 1651; he marvels not so much at the dancing as at so many Sumptuously attired aristocrats.

But Louis XIV himself is genuinely interested in dancing, and in 1661 he decides that his colleagues are not up to scratch. He brings together the best Parisian dancing masters to form the Académie Royale de Danse, where his friends' skills may be honed. It is so successful that he follows it in 1669 with a similar Académie Royale de Musique. These two institutions are merged to form the Paris Opéra (still in existence today). From 1672 professional dancers are trained. The institution settles down into what is recognizably a ballet company. The first director, Pierre Beauchamp, choreographs many ballet sequences with music by Lully and others, and he devises his own system for recording the steps. He is often credited with inventing the five classic positions for the feet, but more probably he is merely the first to record them. A spectacular ballet by Lully and Beauchamp is Le Triomphe de l'Amour, first performed in 1681 with Beauchamp dancing Mars accompanied by ladies and gentlemen of the court. Four months later the same ballet is performed again, in a public theatre, with a significant innovation - professional female dancers.

The female ensemble is led by Mlle de Lafontaine, the world's first prima ballerina. She stars in many other ballets over the next twelve years (earning the title reine de la danse, "queen of the dance") before retiring into a convent.

Lafontaine and her colleagues are constrained by the heavy dresses which convention forces them to wear on stage, but the men suffer less restriction (when dancing heroic roles their usual costume is akin to a Roman soldier's short tunic, coming half way down the thigh). Virtuoso male dancing rapidly becomes one of the great attractions of ballet. The first to demonstrate it is Jean Balon, who is with the Paris Opéra from 1691 to 1710. Famous for his lightness and agility, his name is possibly commemorated in the term "ballon" - still used today for the moment when a dancer can seem to pause in mid-air during a jump.
History of contemporary dance

Around 1980s, the world "contemporary dance" referred to the movement of new dancers who did not want to follow strict classical ballet and lyrical dance forms, but instead wanted to explore the area of revolutionary unconventional movements that were gathered from all dance styles of the world. Contemporary dances therefore do not use fixed moves and instead try to develop totally new forms and dynamics, such as quick oppositional moves, shifting alignments, expressions of raw emotions, systematic breathing, dancing moves preformed in non-standing positions (for example lying on the floor), and in general trying to find the absolute limits of our human form and physique.
The origins of this popular dance movement can be traced to several influential dance masters such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. They all wanted to show to the world that contemporary dancers should embrace freedom, ignore old dance conventions and explore the limits of the human body and visual expression of feelings. Also, one of the precursors to the contemporary dance can be found in the millennia's old techniques of Zen Buddhism and Indian Health Yoga, which incorporates various dancing philosophies that closely follow the principles of contemporary dance.

Dancer who introduced and greatly popularized the contemporary dance to the worldwide audience was Martha Graham (1894 - 1991). During her seven decade long career, her modern dance and choreographies gathered the fame that is today compared to the life works of legendary art geniuses such as Picasso, Stravinski and Frank Lloyd Wright. Lester Horton was a very influential contemporary dance visionary, who trained many famous modern dancers and managed to incorporate the styles of Native American dance and modern jazz into his dance techniques.

Merce Cunningham refined the work that his colleague Martha Graham formed, and expanded with this his own improvements, choreographies and avant-garde dance techniques. During his long career he was regarded as one of the greatest creative forces in American dance, education dozens of worldwide famous dancers and thousands professional dancers who preserved his style until today. Merce Cunningham, initially a student of Martha Graham, accompanied his dance in April 1944, with music that was composed and performed by John Cage, who said that Cunningham's dance "no longer relies on linear elements nor does it rely on a movement towards and away from climax. As in abstract painting, it is assumed that an element (a movement, a sound, a change of light) is in and of itself expressive; what it communicates is in large part determined by the observer themselves." Cunningham continued to showcase his work until 1953, when he formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Cunningham is considered the first choreographer to "develop an independent attitude towards modern dance" and defy the ideas that were established by it.Cunningham made over one hundred and fifty works for his dance company and his pieces have been incorporated into ballet and modern dance companies internationally. He is an inspiration to those who enjoy contemporary dance or those who want to follow in his footsteps.

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