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The Definition of Avant Garde Essay

In Twentieth Century Theatre from the time of the Renaissance on, theatre seemed to be striving for total realism, or at least for the illusion of reality. As it reached that goal in the late 19th century, a multifaceted, antirealistic reaction erupted.

Many movements, generally lumped together as the avant-garde, attempted to suggest alternatives to the realistic drama and production. Paralleling modern art movements, various theoreticians turned to symbol, abstraction, and ritual in an attempt to revitalize the theatre. Although realism continues to be dominant in contemporary theatre, its earlier functions are now better served by television and film.

The originator of many antirealist ideas was the German opera composer Richard Wagner. He believed that the job of the playwright/composer was to create myths. In so doing, Wagner felt, the creator of drama was portraying an ideal world in which the audience shared a communal experience, perhaps as the ancients had done. He sought to depict the “soul state,” or inner being, of characters rather than their superficial, realistic aspects. Furthermore, Wagner was unhappy with the lack of unity among the individual arts that constituted the drama. He proposed the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total art work,” in which all dramatic elements are unified, preferably under the control of a single artistic creator.

The avant-garde choreographers can be characterized by, in general having a less formal attitude towards dance than the previous generation. While their predecessors were obsessed with conveying angst and emotion, these dancers seemed to have more fun. Their frivolity could be attributed to the fact that as dancers, they were no longer on a crusade to legitimise their art.

The avant-garde choreographers felt free to experiment. They questioned the frontal aspect of creating a dance that was inherent in ballet and early Modern dance; why couldn’t dance be in a round, why must the audience be directly in front? Their explorations of ways in which theatrical space affected the dance led to some avant-garde choreographers presenting their works in small community theatres and in other unconventional locations.

The avant-garde choreographers began to ponder the traditions of music, makeup and costumes. Costumes began to take on a unisex look, as choreographers felt it less relevant differentiating men and women. They also questioned the necessity of music in dance and makeup in theatre.

Technology was once again affecting dance, and many avant-garde choreographers embraced it. It came in the form of computer synthesized music, film and modern materials. For example, in Merce Cunningham’s piece, “Rainforest,” helium filled balloons made by Jasper Johns share the stage with the dancers.

Merce Cunningham was one of the first choreographers to challenge the conventions of the founding generation of modern dance. He had studied with the Graham Company for a number of years and eventually formed his own dance group in the 40’s.

American Composer John Cage had a profound influence on avant-garde music and dance. He studied with the American composers Henry Cowell and Adolph Weiss and the Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1942 he settled in New York City. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Cage often used silence as a musical element, with sounds as entities hanging in time, and he sought to achieve randomness in his music. In Music of Changes (1951), for piano, tone combinations occur in a sequence determined by casting lots. In 4’33” (1952), the performers sit silently at instruments; the unconnected sounds of the environment are the music. Like Theatre Piece (1960), in which musicians, dancers, and mimes perform randomly selected tasks, 4’33” dissolves the borders separating music, sound, and non-musical phenomena. In Cage’s pieces for prepared piano, such as Amores (1943), foreign objects modify the sounds of the piano strings. Interestingly Cage wrote dance works for Merce Cunningham.

Following Cage’s lead, in the late 1950s and ’60s composer Gunther Schuller, together with the pianist John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet, to fuse jazz and classical music into a “third stream” by bringing together musicians from both worlds in a repertoire that drew heavily on the techniques of both kinds of music.

Also active during these years was the composer, bassist, and bandleader Charlie Mingus, who imbued his chord-progression-based improvisations with a wild, raw excitement. Most controversial was the work of the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whose improvisations, at times almost atonal, did away with chord progressions altogether, while retaining the steady rhythmic swing so characteristic of jazz. Although Coleman’s wailing sound and rough technique shocked many critics, others recognized the wit, sincerity, and rare sense of form that characterized his solos. He inspired a whole school of avant-garde jazz that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s and included the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the clarinettist Jimmy Giuffre, the pianist Cecil Taylor, and even Coltrane, who ventured into avant-garde improvisation before his death in 1967.

From my research and these findings I had a good idea of the avant garde movement, and was able to put this knowledge into practice when it came to devising a twenty-minute performance with a group of my fellow students. We watched a video and to assist us we looked at the theory by Richard Schechner – ‘Five Avant Gardes or none”, Schechner talks about the process of life going from being out of balance to balanced, to achieve this a change must be made i.e.- not just from A to B but the actual journey between A and B. Schechner states that the form of Avant Garde is made up of the five following types, that in Avant Garde performance today there is elements from all five – Historical, Current, Forward looking, Tradition seeking and Intercultural. From this I learned that actually Schechners theory was that in actual fact this was the make up of Avant Garde, that performance in the genre of avant garde could not happen without thinking back to the early examples and adopting trends. As there currently is not a particular style so performers need to use elements from the past, create new ideas using modern technology mixed with traditional aspects, along with ideas from other cultures.

Schechner’s Five Avant Garde’s

Historical avant-garde

Naturalism – Realism








Current avant-garde

Always changing

Excellent quality, refined by 2nd and 3rd generations of artists

Forward-looking avant-garde

Heir to Historical avant-garde

Multimedia, video hook-up, interactive telecommunications, mega sound, laser light shows, cybernetics, hyper or virtual time/space

Tradition-seeking avant-garde

Grotowski’ theatre

Intercultural avant-garde

From the video, and using Schechners theory, we brain stormed together as a group, we liked the ideas of Historical avant garde using symbolism, expressionism and realism mixed together, as well as including multimedia and mega sound from Forward looking avant garde. We decided quite early in our devising process that we wanted to include all of the elements of performance – Drama, Dance, and Music.

The fundamental key to our performance was the theory Schechner had of life going from out of balance to balanced, we talked about the process of this happening and we basically came up with a phrase ‘ that in order for something to become balanced then a sacrifice must occur, one must give something up’ we came up with the word purification, and devised simply that to go from being out of balance to balanced purification must happen. From this we thought of birth – from the womb to life, because we decided that for a foetus to never live out side of the womb this would warrant the danger of becoming out of balance, the fact that a foetus gives up the safety of the womb for the dangers and the unknown of the world warrants a sacrifice and that birth itself is the purification leading to the balance of life.

So our theory behind our performance was that as a foetus we start life of as balanced, however if we do not make the transition from womb to world then there is obviously a danger of becoming out of balance i.e. – the foetus may die, so before that danger becomes apparent we are born, a sacrifice is made, a risk is taken a purification takes place – birth, and we remain balanced.

In our performance we used the music of Massive Attack, ‘Teardrop’ which is about a foetus in the womb, we chose a poem about sacrifice, change and love, and we took the form of a foetus making the journey from womb to world. Visually our performance was simple; we combined movement and drama, with the poem being read over the music. Although simple because we had five different people displaying their personal interpretation of the journey, we allowed the audience to choose what they looked at or focussed on, also we wanted the performance to reach peoples senses so that even if a member of the audience closed their eyes, we felt we had created such an apt atmosphere that they could still recognise what was happening. We wanted to create a calm, slowly paced experience, enabling the audience to take in all aspects of the piece, in hindsight I feel that the repetitive nature of our piece added to the atmosphere and nature of the piece where as at first I personally thought it could possibly be a hindrance, I feel that we achieved what we set out to do and put together a simple yet complex performance of our findings.


The Twentieth Century Performance Reader, Edited by Michael Huxley and Noel Witts, Second edition – Published by Routledge, 2002.

The Definition Of Avant Garde, By Margaret Rubik, Published By – Macmillan Press LTD, 1998.


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