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Arts and Letters, Performing Arts

opera Porgy, movie staple, Latin American dances, Boston Pops Orchestra, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

As in other cultural spheres, the performing arts in the United States in the 20th century increasingly blended traditional and popular art forms. The classical performing arts—music, opera, dance, and theater—were not a widespread feature of American culture in the first half of the 20th century. These arts were generally imported from or strongly influenced by Europe and were mainly appreciated by the wealthy and well educated. Traditional art usually referred to classical forms in ballet and opera, orchestral or chamber music, and serious drama. The distinctions between traditional music and popular music were firmly drawn in most areas.

During the 20th century, the American performing arts began to incorporate wider groups of people. The African American community produced great musicians who became widely known around the country. Jazz and blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday spread their sounds to black and white audiences. In the 1930s and 1940s, the swing music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller adapted jazz to make a unique American music that was popular around the country. The American performing arts also blended Latin American influences beginning in the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1940, Latin American dances, such as the tango from Argentina and the rumba from Cuba, were introduced into the United States. In the 1940s a fusion of Latin and jazz elements was stimulated first by the Afro-Cuban mambo and later on by the Brazilian bossa nova.

Throughout the 20th century, dynamic classical institutions in the United States attracted international talent. Noted Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine established the short-lived American Ballet Company in the 1930s; later he founded the company that in the 1940s would become the New York City Ballet. The American Ballet Theatre, also established during the 1940s, brought in non-American dancers as well. By the 1970s this company had attracted Soviet defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, an internationally acclaimed dancer who served as the company’s artistic director during the 1980s.

In classical music, influential Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, who composed symphonies using innovative musical styles, moved to the United States in 1939. German-born pianist, composer, and conductor Andre Previn, who started out as a jazz pianist in the 1940s, went on to conduct a number of distinguished American symphony orchestras. Another Soviet, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., in 1977.

Some of the most innovative artists in the first half of the 20th century successfully incorporated new forms into classical traditions. Composers George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, and dancer Isadora Duncan were notable examples. Gershwin combined jazz and spiritual music with classical in popular works such as Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Copland developed a unique style that was influenced by jazz and American folk music. Early in the century, Duncan redefined dance along more expressive and free-form lines.

Some artists in music and dance, such as composer John Cage and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, were even more experimental. During the 1930s Cage worked with electronically produced sounds and sounds made with everyday objects such as pots and pans. He even invented a new kind of piano. During the late 1930s, avant-garde choreographer Cunningham began to collaborate with Cage on a number of projects.

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most popular, American innovation was the Broadway musical, which also became a movie staple. Beginning in the 1920s, the Broadway musical combined music, dance, and dramatic performance in ways that surpassed the older vaudeville shows and musical revues but without being as complex as European grand opera. By the 1960s, this American musical tradition was well established and had produced extraordinary works by important musicians and lyricists such as George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein II. These productions required an immense effort to coordinate music, drama, and dance. Because of this, the musical became the incubator of an American modern dance tradition that produced some of America's greatest choreographers, among them Jerome Robbins, Gene Kelly, and Bob Fosse.

In the 1940s and 1950s the American musical tradition was so dynamic that it attracted outstanding classically trained musicians such as Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein composed the music for West Side Story, an updated version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York that became an instant classic in 1957. The following year, Bernstein became the first American-born conductor to lead a major American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. He was an international sensation who traveled the world as an ambassador of the American style of conducting. He brought the art of classical music to the public, especially through his "Young People's Concerts," television shows that were seen around the world. Bernstein used the many facets of the musical tradition as a force for change in the music world and as a way of bringing attention to American innovation.

In many ways, Bernstein embodied a transformation of American music that began in the 1960s. The changes that took place during the 1960s and 1970s resulted from a significant increase in funding for the arts and their increased availability to larger audiences. New York City, the American center for art performances, experienced an artistic explosion in the 1960s and 1970s. Experimental off-Broadway theaters opened, new ballet companies were established that often emphasized modern forms or blended modern with classical (Martha Graham was an especially important influence), and an experimental music scene developed that included composers such as Philip Glass and performance groups such as the Guarneri String Quartet. Dramatic innovation also continued to expand with the works of playwrights such as Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, and David Mamet.

As the variety of performances expanded, so did the serious crossover between traditional and popular music forms. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, an expanded repertoire of traditional arts was being conveyed to new audiences. Popular music and jazz could be heard in formal settings such as Carnegie Hall, which had once been restricted to classical music, while the Brooklyn Academy of Music became a venue for experimental music, exotic and ethnic dance presentations, and traditional productions of grand opera. Innovative producer Joseph Papp had been staging Shakespeare in Central Park since the 1950s. Boston conductor Arthur Fiedler was playing a mixed repertoire of classical and popular favorites to large audiences, often outdoors, with the Boston Pops Orchestra. By the mid-1970s the United States had several world-class symphony orchestras, including those in Chicago; New York; Cleveland, Ohio; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Even grand opera was affected. Once a specialized taste that often required extensive knowledge, opera in the United States increased in popularity as the roster of respected institutions grew to include companies in Seattle, Washington; Houston, Texas; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. American composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass began composing modern operas in a new minimalist style during the 1970s and 1980s.

The crossover in tastes also influenced the Broadway musical, probably America's most durable music form. Starting in the 1960s, rock music became an ingredient in musical productions such as Hair (1967). By the 1990s, it had become an even stronger presence in musicals such as Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk (1996), which used African American music and dance traditions, and Rent (1996) a modern, rock version of the classic opera La Boheme. This updating of the musical opened the theater to new ethnic audiences who had not previously attended Broadway shows, as well as to young audiences who had been raised on rock music.

Performances of all kinds have become more available across the country. This is due to both the sheer increase in the number of performance groups as well as to advances in transportation. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the number of major American symphonies doubled, the number of resident theaters increased fourfold, and the number of dance companies increased tenfold. At the same time, planes made it easier for artists to travel. Artists and companies regularly tour, and they expand the audiences for individual artists such as performance artist Laurie Anderson and opera singer Jessye Norman, for musical groups such as the Juilliard Quartet, and for dance troupes such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Full-scale theater productions and musicals first presented on Broadway now reach cities across the country. The United States, once a provincial outpost with a limited European tradition in performance, has become a flourishing center for the performing arts.

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