Modern dance used in musicals has its roots in the beginnings of theatre itself. The use of dance is often to help tell a story, to heighten emotion or to achieve aesthetic value. Musical theatre dance is as varied as the individuals performing it, but has been appreciated by audiences for centuries.
The ancient Grecian satyr play was a comedic performance enhanced by music, dance and sometimes masks, while in ancient India, the Natya Shastra was an important text that taught performers how the use of words and gestures (bhavas) evoked specific emotions (rasas) in the audience.
Medieval and Renaissance Theatre
In Medieval Japan, Noh was a leading artistic performance style blending the use of readings, music, costumes and dance to portray simple beauty. One important element was the jo-ha-kyu dance, which was a courtly dance incorporated into the rest of the play.
Medieval European theatre was often limited to Passion Plays about Jesus Christ or morality plays, but the Renaissance era saw a reemergence of stylized performances of masques, which were spectacle events combining music, dance and speeches.
Ballad Opera in the Pre-America Colonies
Ballad operas were a form of British performance displaying political commentary through the use of music and dance. The first musical theatre performance that was held in the American Colonies was the ballad opera "Flora" in 1735.
Minstrel shows featured individuals "blacking" their faces and doing parodies of African Americans. While these pieces are controversial, they are also considered a foundation for modern American musical dance. Actors would perform various forms of hardshoe dancing, creating dance steps still seen in musicals today.
Another key performance was "The Black Crook," coming about as the result of Broadway theatre manager Thomas Wheatly employing a Parisian ballet troupe whose intended performance space caught fire. He added the dancers to an already-existing melodrama and the result greatly pleased audiences.
Twentieth Century American Musical Dance
The Ziegfeld Follies, produced from 1907 to 1931, were tributes to the American girl, and the dance directors of the Follies required a good deal of discipline from their actors/dancers. These directors included Julian Mitchell, Ned Wayburn and Albertina Rasch. The Follies can be credited with redefining theatrical dance with the beginnings of ordering dancers by height, requiring precise movements and using dance notations.
"Show Boat" (1927) is considered to be the first successful integration of plot line, characterization, music, spectacle and dance. In 1936, choreographer George Balanchine used extended ballet pieces to help develop the plot line in "On Your Toes." This tradition of musical theatre dance continued through shows such as "Oklahoma!" and "Guys and Dolls."
Musical Dance Continues
Musicals intended to display dance sequences were created in the later 1900s in shows like "Cabaret," "A Chorus Line" and "Cats." Some of the more well-known choreographers of the later 20th century include Bob Fosse, who encouraged sensuality in movement; Jerome Robbins, who believed that dance could tell a story; and Gary Chapman, whose choreography extended beyond dance into regular stage movements.