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Dancing Through Time: Past, Present and Future

By Michael Crabb

Theatrical dance has existed since ancient times, but its historical development has varied in different societies. This is partly because it requires a certain amount of economic prosperity and urban settlement for formal theatrical presentations to flourish.

In the past, while theatrical dancing had its place, people also entertained themselves by dancing socially. Many of these social or folk dances, along with various ritual dances, survived for centuries and many have also become theatrical forms.

Ballet incorporates folk-derived influences, but its present-day decorum and style reflects its courtly origins in Renaissance Italy. Dancing was part of the lavish spectacles princes staged to symbolize their power and wealth. An Italian princess-bride, Catherine de Médici, carried this fashion to the French court.

As the steps became more physically challenging, dance schools were established to train performers and a new dance profession was launched. King Louis XIV of France founded one of the first schools, L'Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. Ballet slowly asserted itself as an art, independent from the royal courts. Its movements became codified so they could be taught and preserved.

In the 19th century, female dancers, such as Marie Taglioni, shortened their skirts, rose on their toes en pointe and took centre stage. Most ballets, by choreographers such as Jules Perrot, told stories - usually fantastical ones - and the prettiness of ballet provided an escape from the harsher realities of everyday life.

The socially tumultuous 20th century saw major changes in dance. The modernist movement rejected rigid Victorian era values and emphasized freedom, individuality and progress. This new perspective triggered a revolt against the perceived strictures of classical ballet by choreographers. "Modern dance", pioneered by dancers including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham, sought a more pure and visceral way of moving, even seeking inspiration in ancient forms.

Ballet choreographers, such as George Balanchine, explored new ways of using traditional movement, adapting the art form to the spirit of the times. Choreographers also blended ballet and modern dance movement.

In the 1960s, a post-modern revolution began that challenged the most fundamental notions of theatrical dance. Choreographer Yvonne Rainer wrote a manifesto that rejected artifice in dance. Beauty, athletic technique and decoration were out. Conceptual dance was in.

The opening of western eyes to the inherent value of cultures around the world has resulted in a more global appreciation of different forms of artistic expression, including dance. Many forms, once considered ritual, folk or street dance, now regularly appear on the concert stage, in works by artists such as Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe and Rennie Harris.

Western European dance has undergone its own evolution. Many choreographers, including Pina Bausch and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, place more emphasis on personal theatrical expression, use stylized forms of everyday movement and draw on various artistic disciplines such as film, to create works with strong emotional resonance.

Today's audiences enjoy an extraordinary variety of dance, traditional and innovative, with movement drawn and blended from many different cultures. Choreographers from diverse cultural backgrounds, exposed to an ever-expanding range of movement ideas, continue to experiment and develop theatrical dance.

For artists and audiences alike, the future of dance promises to be a dynamic and exciting adventure.