by Constanze Klementz

1 From Dance to Ballet

2 Ballet de Cour (Court Ballet), Ballet Opera

3 Ballet en Action (ballet d’action), Classical Ballet

4 Ballets Russes, Mechanical Ballet

5 Free Dance, Rhythmical Gymnastics, Expressionist Dance

6 Neoclassical Ballet, Modern Dance


In the history of dance, a recurrent motif of choreographic innovation is its changing relationship to sound and rhythm. Beginning in the sixteenth century, dance notation was frequently designed analogously to musical notation. In the development of stage dance from the divertissements of the opera, dance was initially understood as a visual ornament for music. In both eighteenth-century romantic ballet and twentieth-century expressionist dance and modern dance, which sought to follow the rhythms inherent to the body, music served an ancillary function. Both art forms came together on equal terms in the premieres of the Ballets Russes. In the mid-twentieth century, Merce Cunningham and John Cage separated the composition processes of choreography and sound, working for the first time with coupling techniques, through which dance can influence other media forms. Since the 1980s, computer technology has increasingly made it possible to generate sound directly from movement. Since the 1990s, Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, and others have employed sound in their examination of the discursive framework conditions of the language of the body. Notated scores are increasingly used as a choreographic strategy in the creation of dance pieces.


1 From Dance to Ballet

Whether in folk dance or as a ritual and religious act, dance is generally understood as movement to music. Rhythm is considered the conjoining element. The question of which practice has older origins is controversial: whether dance transfers the rhythm of music into the visual, or whether music draws from the bodily rhythm of dance and immaterializes it.[1] Forms of dance reach back to the choric element in Greek theater and the ceremonies of Dionysian festivals. In Apollonian antiquity, music and dance were linked by rhythm, which had an ordering and stabilizing effect. Augustine mentions dance in De musica. He understands both art forms to be representations of a mathematically regulated divine world order. In the process of Christian theologization, the voice replaced the body as mediator in the liturgy. Word and image took precedence over physical-performative elements of devotional practice.[2] In the Middle Ages, the level of melody was functionally subordinated to singing and dance in the lyrical genre of dance songs. Accompaniment by singing decreased, however, which led to a higher regard for instrumental dance music.

2 Ballet de Cour (Court Ballet), Ballet Opera

In the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque period, dance began to become established as a separate art. The Ballet comique de la Reine (1581) by Baltasar de Beaujoyeulx is regarded as the first ballet. The music of early court ballets, a mixture of instrumental music, singing, recitation and dance, accompanied and illustrated visual representation. It contained onomatopoetic effect to imitate natural sounds like birds twittering and thunder.[3] The plot was subordinated to the function of the court ballet as a representation of court power. Louis XIV founded the Académie royale de danse in 1661 and the Académie royale de musique in 1669, from which the Paris Opéra developed. Jean-Baptiste Lully embodied the conception of dance and music from the same hand. He created Ballets de Cour, which were performed by the nobility and the king, and in which representation and performance overlapped, since the performers and recipients were identical. Louis XIV owed his epithet Roi Soleil to his appearance as Apollo in Lully’s Ballet royal de la nui (1653). Despite its professionalization, in the ballet opera dance was degraded to divertissemets due to a loss of symbolic function. As an element not essential to the plot, it remained a visible ornament of music, a decorative accessory to the singing and the recitation, virtually an arabesque of the opera.[4]

In 1700, Raoul-Auger Feuillet published a notation developed by Pierre Beauchamp under the title Chorégraphie, ou l’art de d’écrire la danse, thus introducing the term chorégraphie in the double sense of a written form (notation) and the writing (designing) of dances. Movement is transferred into a schema of signs, which is placed parallel to the notes of the music, so that both levels become comparable step by step and measure by measure.[5] This has been followed by countless proposals for notation up to the present, including systems by Laban ( and Benesh ( Since none of these notation systems has uniformly prevailed, the music score as a time grid for a ballet in conjunction with poses passed on in images is frequently the main point of reference for a reconstruction.[6]

3 Ballet en Action (ballet d’action), Classical Ballet

In his romantic ballets d’action (such as Alceste, 1767), Jean Georges Noverre declared ballet a self-reliant rhythmically plastic genre.[7] In his Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets, he says, It is the movements and turns of the music that must accompany the movements and turns of the dancer. Although dance, due to the imitation of its sounds, virtually echoes music, the music has to obey the needs of its dramatic plot.[8] Noverre rejected dancing to existing music.[9] Dance and music serve the aim of enabling immediate emotional empathy with the plot.[10] In the eighteenth century, the demonstration of dance virtuosity came into the foreground. In music discourse, theater music is neglected as an impure, dependent form.[11] In historical composition representations of the nineteenth century, ballet hardly plays a role any longer. So-called program music made it possible for composers to explore a narrative model independently in symphonic poems or program symphonies.[12] At the same time, a new view of music as an intellectual activity shifted it, particularly in German-speaking regions, toward philosophy, which only aggravated skepticism about its corporeal interpretation and every form of functionality.[13]

Classical ballet in the late nineteenth century is exemplified by the collaboration between Marius Petipa and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, for instance in Swan Lake (1895). For premieres such as Sleeping Beauty (1890), Petipa specified tempi and character of the music, indicating types and even the number of beats. The piece was developed in a close exchange between the choreographer and the composer.[14] What remained determinant for the connection between the visual choreographic level and the musical level were the formal technical specifications of the dance.

4 Ballets Russes, Mechanical Ballet

The success of the Ballets Russes in the 1910s and 1920s was based on the collaboration of its impresario Serge Diaghilev with composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Satie, who turned away from musical conventions, and on the contemporaneous turn of the choreographers away from academic classical dance. Various approaches to dealing with music vied with one another. Michel Fokine choreographed previously existing concertante material: Camille Saint-Saëns in The Dying Swan (1907) or Carl-Maria von Weber in Le spectre de la rose (1911). In his view, dance had to again and again seek a visual correspondence with object, time, and character of the music.[15] Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) created a scandal in terms of both dance and in music.[16] With its polytonal, polyrhythmic structure, its dissonances and repetitive motifs, the composition breaks with the academic canon; the same is true for the dance with its angular movements on flat foot. The Sacre became one of the most frequently choreographed music pieces of the twentieth century.[17] A recent scientific attempt to explain this popularity argues on the basis of the model of mirror neurons with the direct physical impact of the reaction to acoustic and visual rhythms, which is especially strong in the case of Sacre.[18] Léonide Massine developed the symphonic ballet, beginning in 1933 with Les Présages to Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, as an interpretation of symphonic works, a form of music previously considered undanceable. Serge Lifar argued against this in 1935: ballet can dispense with music entirely.[19] On the whole, the Ballets Russes created ballet as a Gesamtkunstwerk, which emerges in the collaboration between choreographers, writers, and visual artists. The independence of each sector is preserved in the production process; only thematic consultations take place. This results in heterogeneous, artistically rich pieces that leave each discipline its scope and not infrequently ultimately present the choreographer with stylistic decisions.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer called several of his stage productions ballets, for which the term Mechanical Ballet is also conventional. Referring to his cooperation with Paul Hindemith for the Triadic Ballet, Schlemmer noted that there is something doll-like about the dancers that conforms to what is music-box-like about the music or … creates a unity corresponding to the term style.[20] He claimed that a symphonic character was intended to the extent that the individual dances assumed the musical terms in their titles.[21] Visually, the Triadic Ballet is dominated by the sculptural and alienating effect of the costumes and masks, in which principles of movement, such as the pirouette of the ballerina in the stiff plate skirt, are pictorially frozen.

5 Free Dance, Rhythmical Gymnastics, Expressionist Dance

Beginning in 1892, Loïe Fuller appeared with her Danses lumineuses in the Paris Folies Bergère. Using turning movements and performed in a costume of long lengths of silk, her dance created moving images, as a predecessor of the cinema, in an interplay with electrical light and color projections.[22] For Fuller, music was only one of her visually rhythmizing elements.[23] The body is dissolved as a projection surface in multimedia-generated movement and interacts with the costume and light installation. In light of the detachment of the dance as an image from the person of the dancer in Fuller’s performances, Paul Valéry takes recourse to Mallarmé’s conception of the absolute text as embodied in absolute dance.[24] Valeska Gert, who also appeared in cabaret, considered integrating noises at a level equal to that of music in order to root her satirical and grotesque dances in an urban context. However, she never implemented this early form of sampling.[25] For Isadora Duncan, music was the main inspiration, and improvisation the strategy to rediscover the natural cadences of human movements, which she saw conveyed in the works of Frédéric Chopin or Richard Wagner.[26] Music forms the filter, through which the individual finds his or her own unique expression. Building on François Delsarte’s theories, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze developed rhythmical gymnastics, in which rhythm is considered the key to every bodily expression.[27] The notion that the visual level builds on the rhythmic structure of the body inspired the reanimation of choric movement in Ausdruckstanz.

Ausdruckstanz (also called modern dance, German dance, expressionist dance) developed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman called for the emancipation of dance from music: A b s o l u t e dance, in other words the mute dance, or that to which music and dance are subordinated as accompaniment, will always remain the purest expression of the dance form.[28] For Wigman, music weakens the immediacy of the dance expression, which should derive directly from authentic experience without detouring through an external stimulus. In Hexentanz (1926), music is used as noise, as an intensifying, dynamic means subordinated to the structure of movement.[29]

Rudolf von Laban initially composed in a tonal system with no division into measures. In class, Laban’s pupils accompanied one another, but not until they had become familiar with the rhythmic laws of their body, so as not to imitate what was only appropriate to music, but not themselves.[30] Laban’s system of dance notation, published as Kinetographie in 1928, is still one of the most widespread forms of notation today. It makes use of a line system similar to music notation, in which the measures serve the division of time, and it is read from bottom to top, rather than from left to right. The movement of the left half of the body is notated on the left and that of the right half of the body on the right. Signs are used to indicate the measure of time, positioning, direction, arm and leg gestures, distribution of weight, accentuation, phrasing, and paths through space.[31]

6 Neoclassical Ballet, Modern Dance

George Balanchine, until 1929 the last principle choreographer for the Ballets Russes, designed neoclassical ballet as a spatial plastic staging without plot in analogy to the structure of music for the first time in Serenade (1934; music: Tchaikovsky). In Concerto Barocco (1941), he perfected his understanding of dance as an optical counterpoint to the composition and again triggered controversy about the danceability of pure music.[32] Balanchine regarded music as the temporal dimension and very foundation of dance. Although he did not use either of the art forms as narrative, neither did he view them as abstract forms. Even if dance and music do not depict mimetic realities, they have their own plane of reality: a realistic part of life does not always need to have a plot.[33] Contemporaneously with Balanchine, Martha Graham founded modern dance in the United States: Dance is absolute. In that sense it is like music. It is independent of service to an idea.[34] Collaborating with visual artists was more important to Graham than collaboration with composers, although many pieces, such as Primitive Mysteries (1931; music: Louis Horst), were musical premieres.[35] Music had a dramatizing function for Graham, and retreated behind the body rhythm.[36] On the basis of Graham’s work, the critic John Martin defined the reflection of dance as a modernist art form, which in its essence is the relinquishment of music and plot. Nothing is represented in dance; it is pure movement.[37]

Alwin Nikolais, pioneer of multimedia dance theater, designed all of the elements of his sound and vision pieces himself. Nikolais systematically strengthened all non-mimetic means of design in comparison with the expressive dramatics of modern dance. He worked with manipulated tape recordings and techniques of musique concrète (Prism, 1956).[38] In the work of the Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg, influences from Kurt Jooss and Martha Graham converge with classical techniques into psychological action ballets (Fräulein Julie, 1957). Cullberg called music the possibility of an acoustic bridge from the stage into the salon, which helps to perceive the resonance of the movements in one’s own body.[39]

For Merce Cunningham, the collaboration with John Cage beginning in 1942 determined the relationship of sound and dance as a non-hierarchical encounter in space and time. On the basis of a rough organizational structure, the respective media are developed independently from one another and frequently without any harmonizing of the contents. Cunningham called their relationship a pure co-existence, a non-relationship.[40].

He took over a compositional principle from Cage in the use of random processes.[41].

all footnotes

[1] Cf. Albert Czerwinski, Geschichte der Tanzkunst bei den kultivierten Völkern von den ersten Anfängen bis auf die gegenwärtige Zeit, 3rd ed., ed. Kurt Petermann(Leipzig: Heimeran, 1984), 4–5; Karl Bücher, Arbeit und Rhythmus, 2nd ed. (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1899), 24ff; Egon Vietta, Der Tanz: Eine kleine Metaphysik (Frankfurt/Main: Societats-Verlag, 1938), 37; Samuel Behr, Die Kunst wohl zu Tantzen, ed. Kurt Petermann (1713; Munich: Zentralantiquariat der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1977), 209.

[2] Gerald Siegmund, William Forsythe: Denken in Bewegung (Berlin: Henschel, 2004), 161.

[3] Rudolf Liechtenhan, Vom Tanz zum Ballett: Geschichte und Grundbegriffe des Bühnentanzes (Stuttgart-Zürich: Belser, 1993), 41.

[4] Czerwinski, Geschichte der Tanzkunst, 106.

[5] Cf. Gloria Giordani and Michael Malkiewicz: „On the Reading of the Sarabande as a Dance/Music-Composition,“ in Die Beziehung von Musik und Choreografie im Ballett, ed. Michael Malkiewicz and Jörg Rothkam (Report from the International Symposium at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig, 23–25 March 2006; Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 2007), 87; see also A. Hutchinson and A. Guest, Choreographics: A Comparison of Dance Notation Systems from the Fifteenth Century to the Present (London: Routledge, 1989).

[6] Cf. Michael Malkiewicz: “Frames and Fringes: Zur Lektüre von Ballettquellen,” in Malkiewicz and Rothkam, Die Beziehung von Musik und Choreografie, 72.

[7] Czerwinski, Geschichte der Tanzkunst, 136.

[8] Cited in Max von Boehn, Der Tanz (Berlin: Wegweiser Verlag, 1925), 241.

[9] John Schikowski, Geschichte des Tanzes (Berlin: Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1926), 115.

[10] Christina Thurner, Beredte Körper, bewegte Seelen: Zum doppelten Diskurs der Bewegung in Tanztexten (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009), 51; Stephanie Schroedter, Vom “Affect” zur “Action”: Quellenstudien zur Poetik der Tanzkunst vom späten Ballet de Cour bis zum frühen Ballet en Action (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2004), 11.

[11] Wolfgang Marx, “The Ballet as a ‘Genre’: Initial Thoughts on the Generic Identity of a Multimedia Art Form,” in Malkiewicz and Rothkam, Die Beziehung von Musik und Choreografie, 15–16.

[12] Friedrich Geiger, “Komponieren für das Ballett? Produktionsästhetische Barrieren im 19. Jahrhundert,” in Malkiewicz and Rothkam, Die Beziehung von Musik und Choreografie, 128.

[13] On this discussion, which arose again in the early twentieth century, see Eckhard Tramsen, ed., Musik und Metaphysik (Hofheim: Wolke 2004); on the philosophical conceptualization of music as metaphysics in the eighteenth century, for instance by Arthur Schopenhauer, see Christoph Asmuth, “Musik als Metaphysik: Platonische Idee, Kunst und Musik bei Arthur Schopenhauer,” in Philosophischer Gedanke und musikalischer Klang: Zum Wechselverhältnis von Musik und Philosophie (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Fachbuch, 1999), 111–125.

[14] Cf. Malve Gradinger, “Dienst und Herrschaft: Über das Verhältnis von Tanz und Musik,” in Oper & Tanz: Zeitschrift für Opernchor und Bühnentanz 4 (2003).

[15] Liechtenhan, Vom Tanz zum Ballett, 109.

[16] Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer reconstructed Nijinsky’s choreography, including costumes and decor, in 1987 for the Joffrey Ballet; it has been performed again since then by various ballet ensembles in this version.

[17] Two of the most important interpretations are from Yvonne Rainer (2007) and Xavier Le Roy (2007).

[18] Cf. Monika Woitas, “Immanente Choreografie oder Warum man zu Strawinskys Musik tanzen muss,” in Malkiewicz and Rothkam, Die Beziehung von Musik und Choreografie, 222ff.

[19] Liechtenhan, Vom Tanz zum Ballett, 126.

[20] Oskar Schlemmer, Idealist der Form: Briefe, Tagebücher, Schriften (Leipzig: Reclam, 1990), 166.

[21] Schlemmer, Idealist der Form, 97.

[22] Cf. Gabriele Brandstetter, “La Destruction fut ma Beatrice — zwischen Modeme und Postmodeme: Der Tanz Loïe Fullers und seine Wirkung auf Theater und Literatur,” in Avantgarde und Postmoderne: Prozeßstrukturelle und funktionale Veränderungen, ed. Erika Fischer-Lichte and Klaus Schwind (Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 1991), 332–333.

[23] Brandstetter, “La Destruction fut ma Beatrice,” 333.

[24] Cf. Paul Valéry, Tanz, Zeichnung und Degas (Frankfurt/ Main: Suhrkamp, 1996), 19; Gregor Gumpert, Die Rede vom Tanz: Körperästhetik in der Literatur der Jahrhundertwende (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1994), 149–198.

[25] Susanne Foellmer, Valeska Gert: Fragmente einer Avantgardistin in Tanz und Schauspiel der 1920er Jahre (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2006), 218–219.

[26] Isadora Duncan, “Zurück zur Natur,” in Die Welt des Tanzes in Selbstzeugnissen, ed. Lydia Wolgina and Ulrich Pietzsch (Berlin: Henschel, 1977), 27.

[27] Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Der Rhythmus als Erziehungsmittel für das Leben und die Kunst (Basel: Kallmeyer, 1907), 135.

[28] Mary Wigman, “Tanz und Pantomime,” in Tanz und Reigen, ed. Ignaz Gentges (Berlin: Bühnenvolksbundverlag, 1927), 70.

[29] Fritz Boehme, Tanzkunst (Dessau: Dünnhaupt, 1926), 146.

[30] Hans Brandenburg, Der Moderne Tanz (Munich: George Muller, 1917), 40.

[31] Cf. Claude Perrottet, ed., Kinetografie: Labanotation: Einführung in die Grundbegriffe der Bewegungs- und Tanzschrift (Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel, 1995); Claudia Jeschke, Tanzschriften — ihre Geschichte und Methode: Die illustrierte Darstellung eines Phänomens von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart (Bad Reichenhall: Comes, 1983).

[32] Klaus Kieser, Katja Schneider, Reclams Ballettführer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2002), 114.

[33] George Balanchine, “Sie tanzen, vielleicht aus Freude am Tanzen,” in Wolgina, Pietzsch, Die Welt des Tanzes (1977), 227ff.

[34] Martha Graham, “Dancer’s Focus,” in Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, ed. Barbara Morgan (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1941), 9.

[35] Cf. Don McDonagh, Martha Graham, 153.

[36] Cf. Alice Helpern, Jean Erdman, and Erick Hawkins, Martha Graham (London: Routledge, 1999), 19.

[37] André Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (New York/London: Routledge, 2006), 4.

[38] Bob Gilmore, “The Music of Alwin Nikolais: A Provisional Study,” in The returns of Alwin Nikolais: Bodies, Boundaries and the Dance Canon, ed. Claudia Gitelman and Randy Martin (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press 2007), 132ff.

[39] Birgit Cullberg, “Der Raum und der Tanz,” in Wolgina and Pietzsch, Die Welt des Tanzes, 303.

[40] Sabine Huschka, Merce Cunningham und der Moderne Tanz (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann 2000), 221

[41] Huschka, Merce Cunningham, 415ff

List of books in this text

Arbeit und Rhythmus
1899, Author: Bücher, Karl Publisher: B. G. Teubner

Der Tanz: Eine kleine Metaphysik
1938, Author: Vietta, Egon Publisher: Societäts-Verlag

Die Kunst, wohl zu tantzen
1977, Author: Behr, Samuel Rudolph Publisher: Zentralantiquariat der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik

Geschichte der Tanzkunst bei den cultivirten Völkern von den ersten Anfängen bis auf die gegenwärtige Zeit
1984, Author: Czerwinski, Albert Publisher: Zentralantiquariat d. DDR

Vom Tanz zum Ballett: Geschichte und Grundbegriffe des Bühnentanzes
1993, Author: Liechtenhan, Rudolf Publisher: Belser

William Forsythe: Denken in Bewegung
2004, Author: Siegmund, Gerald and Mentzos, Dominik Publisher: Henschel

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