Modern Dance in S.C.

Back in the ’80s, a task force of modern dance advocates in South Carolina applied for a grant offered by the S.C. Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts to bring a big-name New York modern dance company to our benighted, emphatically traditional state. The result was that acclaimed New York choreographer Dan Wagoner and his company visited schools around the state as well as the College of Charleston and Columbia College. Unlike the angsty psychodramas of Martha Graham and her contemporaries, Wagoner and others who followed Graham — artists like Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, and Lar Lubavich — made dance fun again with popular music, intriguing movements, and often lots of humor.

“He was a pioneer for modern dance,” says Robert Ivey, artistic director of the Robert Ivey Ballet and professor of dance at the CofC. “He was loquacious in nature and he met people on a level where they could understand what modern dance was like. He made it accessible to them.”

These days, Martha Brim is the head of the Columbia College Dance Department and the artistic director of the seven-year-old Power Company, one of the state’s only modern dance companies, a group of mostly Columbia College grads who perform at a professional level. Like Wagoner, Brim has made it her mission to bring modern dance to South Carolinians, and she recently applied for another S.C. Arts Commission and NEA “American Masterpieces” grant — this one created to revive the works of artists who are considered masters of American culture. Dan Wagoner fit the bill perfectly.

The Power Company performed Wagoner’s works in Columbia on April 13 and 14 with talented dancers who translated the choreography with aplomb and finesse, especially clear in the solo works like “Broken Hearted Rag,” danced by Kara Conder, and “Lila’s Garden Ox,” performed by Ginny Skinner Haynes. The movement is filled with razor-sharp lines in fluid patterns that contrast with abrupt sequences. The works all contain the athleticism, unpredictability, and wit inherent to postmodern dance, and the Power Company dancers invested themselves fully into Wagoner’s work, which stands as a major contribution to the development of contemporary dance.

Wagoner once said of dance that it demonstrates “the unique quality we each possess — and that is what makes dance total freedom, insight, and pleasure.”

As a result of Wagoner’s work in S.C. then and now, Ivey says, “there’s now an abundance of modern dance everywhere from Georgetown to Beaufort thanks to Wagoner and other advocates who were willing to expose local audiences to something new.” —Eliza Ingle