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...