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When we think of the ballet we immediately set our minds to the classics. Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and The Nutcracker might be the first titles that come to mind when thinking of the dancing art form. Yet, there are some lesser known productions that fall under the category of contemporary ballet, a mixture of the classic style with modern dance.


1. Every Soul is a Circus

This modern ballet hails from the genre of comedy. Once again Martha Graham choreographs a work on our list. This time, premiering in 1939 at the St. James Theatre in New York City. Composed by Paul Nordoff the original production while Philip Stapp designed the set and Edythe Gilfond created the costumes.

With a title that is borrowed from a Vachel Lindsay poem, the theme of Every Soul is a Circus, is the assumed desire of every female to become the focal point of attention. It follows a lead woman dancer who is eventually humiliated after getting involved in a love triangle.

Reviewers and viewers were astounded at this comedic dance led by Graham. She had a reputation of performing in more dramatic pieces. Critics wrote that she was “frank and funny” and displayed a “warmth of personality.” The “poignant clowning” in Every Soul is a Circus solidified this piece as important for the troupe and it was resurrected for their season in 2012 marking the companies 85th anniversary.


2. Maple Leaf Rag

Our next ballet is a Martha Graham piece danced to ragtime tunes written by Scott Joplin, an African-American pianist from the early twentieth century. Premiering in 1990 at the New York City Center the costumers for opening night were designed by legendary clothing icon Calvin Klein.

Lacking a storyline this work opens with a dark stage with a grand piano sitting at the rear and a joggling board, which is a set of long wood planks held up by feet that belong on rocking chair.

The pianist comes on stage and begins to play, but not melodically, more like a hammering of keys. The dancers join him jumping about to the rhythm of the piano. A woman dancer leaves the group and climbs on the joggling board while a recording of Martha Graham saying, “Oh Louis, play me the Maple Leaf Rag.”

This is when the music of Scott Joplin starts and the dancing begins. While the couples dance to the ragtime beat, he stops and returns to playing that repetitive beat from when the dance opened. A ballerina swirls on stage as the energy becomes gloomy. Once she is gone the joyful music and dancing commences.

Choreography used in this work satirically mimic the moves Graham was known for and it was her one hundred and eightieth work as a choreographer. After all this time working with modern dance and ballet critics would say that Graham still had the talent and insight to amaze and amuse her audiences.


3. American Lyric

On December 26, 1937 this ballet premiered at the Guild Theatre in New York City. Martha Graham choreographed the original production with music by Alex North. It is considered a significant landmark of the musician’s career.

Proclaiming, “This dance has as its theme the basic American right – freedom of assembly” directly into the show’s programs supported this modern ballet’s anti-war and anti-Fascist theme. Yet, choreography didn’t convey the theme substantially, at least not according to some critics.

Blanche Evan did seem moved when she wrote that the “movement symbols employed in the dance are not symbols expressive of the theme.” This was quoted from her article titled Her Chosen Theme where she continued to say that when it came to the actually dance the performance left her “intellectually unsatisfied.”

Still, this modern dance help shape that eras original dance that was unique to the American style.


4. The Rite of Spring

The oldest ballet on our list so far was composed by Igor Stravinsky specifically for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1913. Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed the first production of this modern ballet and Nicholas Roerich created the costumes and the sets. Opening that same year at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29th.

Considered to be one of the most significant works of music in the twentieth century The Rite of Spring receives recognition as a stand-alone piece of music as well as a ballet. Walt Disney used the music in his 1940 release Fantasia.  

This work was the third in a series of ballets commissioned by Diaghilev. Some unique characteristics of this work include innovative uses of meter, rhythm, tonality, dissonance, and stress.

Experts claim the base of this work lies solidly in Russian folk music and the composer himself claimed that The Rite of Spring represented “pagan Russia…unified by a single idea.” It does this without a definitive plot or storyline.


5. Rainbow Round My Shoulder

Dubbed a “modern dance classic” this ballet is considered the masterpiece of American dancer Donald McKayle. This could be because the work was written with him in mind. This ballet follows seven men breaking rocks on a southern American prisoner chain gang. They move in unison with the music predominately work songs of the south.

Still, their chains and tattered rags along with their choreographed movements gives the view the impression of over worked captives with no other choice than to do the work assigned to them. Their feet are bare as they rhythmically move to the music. The expressions on the men’s faces reveal frustration and resentment, still they do what they are told because after all, they are prisoners.

The workers become enthralled with a feminine vision that appears before them. She promises to make them happy. The men surround her with their large bodies as she dances graceful and tempting. Still, she has the ability to constrict their chains even tighter.

This hallucination takes over the role of mother, wife, and girlfriend. The dancers tell a dark and tragic tale alongside music that reinforces the ballet’s themes.

This work premiered in 1959 in New York and has been produced by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Batsheva Dance Company, and Dayton Contemporary Dance as well.


6. Primitive Mysteries

Another modern ballet choreographed by Martha Graham this work was composed by Louis Horst and premiered on February 2, 1931. Opening at the Craig Theatre in New York City, the original costumes were also created by Graham. This contemporary ballet was instantly called a masterpiece by critics of the time.

This was a major push for Graham’s career. Divided into three parts, Hymn to the Virgin, Crucifixus, and Hosannah this ballet focuses on religious ceremonies conducted by Native American tribes that dominated the Southwestern region of the United States.

This work is most synonymous with Graham than any of the many on this list. Other dancers to reprise her role as the Virgin Mary are Takako Asakawa, Christine Dakin, and Terese Capucilli.


7. Revelations

This modern ballet is synonymous with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, named for the successful choreographer and civil right supporter. The first production of this ballet premiered on New Year’s Eve in 1960. The dance story highlights the faith beliefs of the African American community and their resolve from slavery and their move toward freedom.

The dances in this ballets are set to the music of old spiritual tunes and blues songs. Originally this work was planned to fill in the second part of a full length review of music featuring African Americans. The work began in 1958 but was never finished.

Starting at the premiere with ten sections and lasted longer than an hour. As they worked on it the piece several sections were eliminated and Revelations developed into the shortened version it is known to be today. Ailey recorded the music for this ballet in 1962 but he did not perform in the world premiere.


Check out our list of ballet companies from the US!

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