American choreographers Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp have been considered outstanding figures in the world of modern dance. Their innovations in choreography have laid the foundation to the unique styles they managed to create. This paper seeks to explore how Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp have contributed to the development of a dance style, and compare the distinguishing features of their choreography. To achieve this goal, the paper has been divided into four meaningful parts. The first one is the introduction, where the topic of the research is introduced. The second one explores the contribution of Alvin Ailey and peculiarities of his dancing style. The third part examines Twyla Tharp’s contribution and significance in comparison to Alvin Ailey’s choreography. The fourth one concludes the paper with the summary of what has been revealed about the subject.
To begin with, Alvin Ailey is believed to have been the most important choreographer of African American origin in the world of contemporary dance (DeFrantz, xiii). His major contribution is said to be in the domain of advancing the presence of African American culture in concert dance. Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian observer, comments that it was his dance company that “gave black choreography identity and emotional presence” (Roy, “Step-by-step guide to dance: Alvin Ailey”). Besides, Alvin Ailey was a prominent arts activist, whose internationally renowned company Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater got known as “Cultural Ambassador to the World” (since 2008 officially – by U.S.Congress act) (Fales-Hill 108).
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Alvin Ailey’s contribution to the modern dance, rooted in his cultural background, was setting ballet to the blues music (Fales-Hill 108), as well as mixing the high art of ballet “with jazz, popular, ritual and social dances”, which “all fused into a limber and athletic presentational style” (Roy, “Step-by-step guide to dance: Alvin Ailey”). Indeed, his peculiar dancing style was based on eclecticism, which remains the basis of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater work today (Whalen, “Alvin Ailey American Dance Thater”).
Philosophically, eclecticism is defined as the practice of choosing out some methods from different schools with the intention to further combine them. This term came from the Greek language, where it means “to pick out” (eklegein). In relation to dance, eclecticism may mean fusing different styles and borrowing techniques from various approaches and schools. That was the foundation of Alvin Ailey’s approach, which can be characterized by embedding those combinations of dance techniques which were the most appropriate for that theatrical scene (DeFrantz 114).Even today the works prepared by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are described as “musically eclectic, technically intimidating and joyously inclusive” (Whalen, “Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater”).
Within his eclectic approach to the construction of dance, Alvin Ailey paid attention to certain techniques. In particular, Alvin Ailey is known to have been fond of working with what is known as a lower body in ballet. His unique method was in applying “articulate footwork, long extensions” (Roy, “Step-by-step guide to dance: Alvin Ailey”). Besides, his construction of the upper body was characterized by a more mobile approach, typical for the modern dance.
Alvin Ailey’s style is known to absorb the direct influences of Lester Horton, the founder of the theatrical studio in Hollywood. Before Alvin Ailey had been introduced to Horton’s school in 1949, he was briefly engaged in mastering tap dance and “primitive dance” by the supervision of Thelma Robinson, a Dunham dancer. It was in Horton’s studio that Alvin Ailey got committed to the modern dance. At that time, the modern dance was in formation, so the techniques used in Horton’s school were idiosyncratic and experimental. This influenced the further vision of dance adopted by Alvin Ailey. DeFrantz in his book “Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture”, observes that Horton’s work emphasized “the overall sensory effect dance could have on its audience.” (DeFrantz 28).
It was owing to Horton’s influence that Alvin Ailey became attached to theatrical dance “as the formalized display of movement narrative tempered by lighting, costuming and emotional presence of the dancer” (De Frantz 28). As a matter of fact, Alvin Ailey’s interest in engaging viewers emotionally as well as physically became his distinctive feature as a choreographer. This was reached through referring to Gospel stories and appealing to spirituality. Besides, it was from Horton that Alvin Ailey started to combine ballet dance, jazz, and techniques found in African dance, just as Horton had actively used non-Western dance forms (DeFrantz 28). His masterpiece that absorbed all these features was “Revelations”, the distinguished piece of modern art representing an image of a human soul (Roy, “Step-by-step guide to dance: Alvin Ailey”).
The use of combinations of several techniques or eclecticism in his dance style was accompanied by Alvin Ailey’s commitment to maintaining the sense of race relations propriety (DeFrantz 114). Alvin Ailey’s construction of race went beyond what was common in his time when segregation was quite strong in “everything from housing to dance classes” (Fales-Hill 107). In this, Ailey had been influenced by Horton, a gay white man, who urged his dancers to reconstruct the concepts of both sexuality and race. Introducing the African American art to the world of modern dance was revolutionary, and it was immensely successful. Fales-Hill observes that the “Cry” solo and “Revelations”, which became legendary, are full of nightmarish memories of Alvin Ailey’s poor childhood in segregated Texas, his experience of street life, and spirituality of the Baptist Church (Fales-Hill 108).
Like Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp worked in the postwar period and contributed to the third period of modern dance development. Similarly to Alvin Ailey, she started to enjoy popularity around 1960s. Similarly to Alvin Ailey, Tharp was an innovator in the world of modern dance. Just as Ailey, she based her work on a combination of dance techniques used in ballet, social dance, and modern dance. Yet, the style was different. Twyla Tharp’s achievement was in creating a rapid style which appeared to be off-balance, but was backed by well-developed techniques. Her choreography created an impression of improvisation on stage. Similarly to Ailey’s work, her choreography was bold for that time in that she merged ballet with modern dance. And similarly to Ailey, Tharp was immensely successful. Amanda Ruggeri, the author of “Twyla Tharp: Dancer and Choreographer Strives for Innovation”, observes that Tharp’s “boldness launched her into the national spotlight” where she remains ever since (Ruggeri, “Twyla Tharp: Dancer and Choreographer Strives for Innovation”).
Despite the fact that Tharp, as well as Ailey, fused modern dance with ballet, the approaches were different. Specifically, Ailey’s choreography is characterized as a series of short solos which are danced in counterpoint against the two-person ensemble, which serves a background (DeFrantz 6). Besides, his distinctive feature is spiritual contact with audience. Tharp’s approach encompasses combining ballet with such natural movements as running, skipping, or just walking. Her work is often characterized as humorous as well as edgy. Besides, she has worked with the avant-garde style though that was not as often as with the pop music, a clicking metronome, classical music, and silence. To conventional dance steps, Tharp added “irreverent squiggles, shrugged shoulders, little hops, and jumps (“Twyla Tharp Biography”). Her famous technique is the crossover technique, which is characterized by the use of ballet’s clean lines, its distinctively quick footwork, and its specific upright body along with the physicality of the technique of modern dance. This is basically group work, with place for improvisation. Tharp, unlike Ailey, has not been committed to filling her pieces with some racial specifics or some spirituality, but her choreography applied to Broadway musical shows, comedy films, etc. She was fully accepted by the mainstream dance (“Modern Dance”).
To conclude, both choreographers made a significant contribution to the modern dance development. They both fused the technique of modern dance with the high art of ballet. They both started working in the postwar period. Yet, certain differences are evident in the style and meaning of their work. While Ailey represented his African-American heritage through the compositions he set on stage, and mixed lots of styles popular in African-American culture (e.g. blues, jazz, etc), Tharp did not include the racial or the background component in her artistic vision of dance. She experimented with avant-garde, but went on to develop the conventional dance vocabulary and elaborate improvisation. She created the style which was both rapid and off balance and combined ballet with the techniques of modern dance and social dance. Besides, she has prolifically worked within the film industry. Overall, these choreographers have been rightfully regarded as innovators in the field of the modern dance.
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